Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy

Article excerpt

Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings.' An American Controversy. By ANNETTE GORDoN-REED. Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1997. xv, 288 pp. $29.95.

UNTIL recently, scholars and the public alike have been quick to dismiss rumors that Thomas Jefferson had a long-term relationship with, and fathered the children of, his slave seamstress, Sally Hemings-allegations first put into print by disgruntled journalist James Thomson Callender in 1802. It is now impossible to turn these accusations aside unthinkingly, because Annette Gordon-Reed has compiled an impressive body of evidence that could serve to support the allegations, while carefully exposing historians' efforts to suppress and ignore that evidence. Her work forces a reconsideration not only of Jefferson's life, but also of the unconscious, and at times racist, assumptions that have long tainted interpretation of the historical record in this case.

Many Jefferson supporters and scholars, from his time to ours, have vigorously refuted Callender's charges in print. Gordon-Reed asserts that the men she calls "Jefferson's defenders" arrived at dead certainty about the falsehood of the allegations only because they disregarded the sources, most of which were generated by African Americans, that could have undermined their convictions. Gordon-Reed's aim is not to settle the debate (she believes that surviving evidence will not support a definitive conclusion), but to shine light on the backstage battle to control "public impressions of the amount and the nature of the evidence" (p. xv) and to correct the short shrift given to African-American testimony. Take, for example, the 1873 autobiography of Hemings's son, Madison Hemings, in which he maintained that his parents' relationship began while Jefferson and Hemings were in France in the 1780s and that his mother returned to Monticello pregnant, after extracting a promise that her children would be freed at the age of twenty-one. Gordon-Reed castigates Jefferson's defenders for dismissing Hemings as a dupe of the former abolitionists or as a man desperate enough to lie about his parentage to gain community respect, when much of his narrative is verifiable by independent sources and has been corroborated by another Monticello slave. …