Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson: History, Memory, and Civic Culture

By Egerton, Douglas R. | The Journal of Southern History, August 2001 | Go to article overview

Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson: History, Memory, and Civic Culture


Egerton, Douglas R., The Journal of Southern History


Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson: History, Memory, and Civic Culture. Edited by Jan Ellen Lewis and Peter S. Onuf. Jeffersonian America. (Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, c. 1999. Pp. xii, 280. Paper, $17.95, ISBN 0-8139-1919-3; cloth, $65.00, ISBN 0-8139-1918-5.)

Every year brings the publication of several new monographs on the third president, so many, in fact, that even specialists can scarcely keep up. Some, especially the endless spate of biographies by popular writers, may be safely dismissed. But in light of the DNA findings published in the November 1998 issue of the magazine Nature, anyone who pretends to understand Thomas Jefferson's peculiar hilltop world will have to contend with the essays collected in this splendid anthology. Each of the eleven essays is instructive in its own way, but two are small gems. Three decades after publishing White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (Chapel Hill: Published for the Institute of Early American History and Culture at Williamsburg, Va., by the University of North Carolina Press, 1968), Winthrop D. Jordan revisits his pioneering chapter on Jefferson and race. Although in 1968 Jordan was open-minded enough to at least entertain the possibility of a physical relationship between Jefferson and Hemings, he devoted but five pages to the issue, less than half of 1 percent of a very large volume. "I thought arrogantly that I had broader and more important things in mind," he writes now (p. 40). Jordan did, of course, have very large issues in mind, as every new generation of graduate students quickly discover in their first semester seminars. But professors would do well to assign this essay alongside Jordan's more famous tome, not merely as an exercise in looking back or rethinking earlier positions, but also as a reminder that historians should never forget the human element of small, individual stories as they strive to recover the larger canvas of the past.

Because the anthology, as its title indicates, is primarily about Hemings and her historical portrayals, none of the authors really tries to resolve the contradictions between Jefferson's overt racism and his (apparent) romantic attachment to a woman he regarded as physiologically inferior. Jordan suggests, however, that he failed to appreciate how the once yawning cultural gulf between Jefferson and his slaves had narrowed by the time Harriet Hemings was born in 1795. Jefferson's precise racialist calculations--best witnessed in his letter to Francis Gray, which is reprinted here as Appendix C--defined Sally as African, yet her "speech and accent" probably resembled her master's far more than it did the language patterns of Jefferson's less acculturated field hands (p. 48).

In an equally thoughtful essay, Jan Lewis examines Jefferson's white family and their determination to avoid confronting a difficult truth. As late as 1806, eleven years after the birth of Sally's first child, Jefferson literally laughed off the rumors when confronted by Patsy, an evasion that allowed him to imply a denial without having to lie to his daughter. …

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