An Extraordinary Family and the Burdens of Slavery: A Review Essay

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The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. By Annette Gordon-Reed. (New York and London: W. W. Norton and Company, 2008. Pp. 798. $35.00, ISBN 978-0-393-06477-3.)

ON SEPTEMBER 6, 1782, MANTRA WAYLES JEFFERSON DIED surrounded by relatives at her Monticello plantation home. Just short of thirty-four years old, she had always been relatively frail, though the physical toll of at least seven pregnancies in a dozen years would have challenged even a heartier woman's constitution. Decades later, Jefferson's daughter Martha Jefferson Randolph recalled that her mother was tended by her husband, Thomas Jefferson, and by her sisters and sisters-in-law as she fought a losing battle with the illness she contracted alter delivering her last child in May. This was a poignant memory, to be sure, but also a partial one that erased the presence of the enslaved women who nursed, cleaned, and otherwise cared for the many physical needs of young Martha's mother during the final months before she passed away.

Perhaps it seems too much to expect Jefferson's daughter to have offered a more inclusive and thorough rendering of such a difficult period in her life. It was a family story, after all; and even though by the time she told it slaveholders were increasingly using a familial metaphor to describe relationships with their slaves, ultimately it remained a metaphor, used to sentimentalize slavery and disguise its ugly realities. Except, in this instance, it was no metaphor. The enslaved at Monticello also told stories about the death of Martha Wayles Jefferson. In their accounts, a half-dozen black women and girls stood by, too, as she lay dying. They included Elizabeth Hemings, who had always been an important presence in Jefferson's life, and four of Hemings's daughters, among them two of the six children she had borne by John Wayles, Martha's father. In framing the scene surrounding Martha Jefferson's death, then, her daughter simultaneously made invisible her own kin and concealed the entangling of three families by that point already more than thirty years in the making. Indeed, by the time she told the story, she concealed far more.

No one who studies Thomas Jefferson can be unfamiliar with the Hemings family. The most trusted members of Jefferson's enslaved workforce for more than fifty years and constituting the vast majority of his household staff, dozens of Hemingses stretching across four generations lived at Monticello and acted as chefs, butlers, valets, chambermaids, seamstresses, nursemaids, drivers, blacksmiths, gardeners, and carpenters and in countless other capacities. Sally Hemings, the youngest child of Elizabeth Hemings and John Wayles, has been the best-known member of the family for over two centuries, perhaps no more so than in the past decade. But even had Sally Hemings never assumed the pivotal role she did in his life, understanding Thomas Jefferson would be impossible without knowing about the Hemingses. He could not have functioned as he did without them, and he would never have wanted to.

To the extent that historians have investigated the Hemings family, however, they take its measure largely in these terms, that is, for the sake of fathoming Jefferson. There are exceptions, most notably the work of Lucia C. Stanton. (1) But on the whole, scholars use the Hemingses instrumentally--to see how they facilitated Jefferson's remarkable life, for example, or how his interactions with them reflected or shaped his views on slavery and other matters. The bulk of the scholarship that has followed the 1998 publication of DNA test results genetically linking the Hemings and Jefferson families demonstrates the point. As suggested by titles like Jon Kukla's Mr. Jefferson's Women or Andrew Burstein's Jefferson's Secrets: Death and Desire at Monticello, for most historians the central issue raised by Jefferson's relationship with Sally Hemings is its implication for reevaluating how we grapple with Jefferson himself. …