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Jefferson’s Concubine

Monticello in its present incarnation is an American showplace, the visible projection of its creator, Thomas Jefferson, architect, naturalist, diplomat, and president of the United States. Apart from Abraham Lincoln, who himself quoted Jefferson in the Gettysburg Address, no American ever wrote or said anything as eloquent as the preamble to the Declaration of Independence. Like Monticello, which was erected, redesigned on an ever grander scale, and rebuilt by fits and starts, the Jeffersonian ideal had no easy birth. It came into a world that midwived it with difficulty and was ill disposed to bless its growth or trust in its possibilities.

The Hemingses of Monticello is a brilliant book. It marks the author as one of the most astute, insightful, and forthright historians of this generation. Not least of Annette Gordon-Reed’s achievements is her ability to bring fresh perspectives to the life of a man whose personality and character have been scrutinized, explained, and justified by a host of historians and biographers. They have struggled to illuminate, and sometimes to gloss over, the dark places in his life. Like many upright public figures who know they are pure and their enemies vile, he was capable of deviousness and treachery. He instigated the savage attacks by the anti-Federalist National Gazette editor Philip Freneau on John Adams, once his fast friend, and was flummoxed rather than ashamed at being caught out paying Freneau to be his mouthpiece. Such actions gave rise in Jefferson biographies to characterizations like “enigma” and “sphinx.”

Jefferson’s private life, particularly the life he built at Monticello with the enslaved children and grandchildren of Elizabeth Hemings (1735–1807), was the focus of obsessive, often scurrilous, speculation. Jefferson observed a strict silence on this subject, an embargo that extended to his private papers, which were, moreover, culled by his white descendants to protect his secrets and to preserve his honor.

The target of these rumors and innuendos was Sally Hemings, lampooned by Jefferson’s enemies as “Black Sal.” The beautiful daughter of Elizabeth Hemings, she was sixteen when she became pregnant with Jefferson’s child while a member of his Paris household. She came back to Monticello in 1789 and lived with him until his death in 1826 in a monogamous spousal relationship. While the relationship was private, it can hardly be called furtive or clandestine. It could be called a closely held secret only in the special sense of the word prevailing within Virginia planter society. This was a realm of easy grace, punctilious courtesy, and grand display, where a couple of dozen “first” families, conscious of their mutual dependency and explicit about their dynastic ambitions, built a way of life whose business practices, legal developments, and political culture combined to maintain chattel slavery.

Being enslaved meant, with few exceptions, not only the lifetime of a particular slave but also the life spans of every child born into that bondage. The tortuous pathways by which American slavery arrived at that point by 1776 are in themselves a large branch of American history. Gordon-Reed sums up that history by observing that the first white Virginians harbored no “aspiration loftier than that of making a killing” in the advance of their fortunes. In the desperate conditions of seventeenth-century Virginia, making a pile depended on controlling a biddable labor force. And the further workings of that economic structure produced a caste system among Virginians based exclusively on race, “a form of chattel slavery unknown in their home country.”

What is important to the Hemings family’s story is the harsh and nearly inescapable nature of the “peculiar institution” in the time of Thomas Jefferson. Racial identification was its sine qua non, and specifically race as legislated by slave masters, whose primary goal was “the maximum protection of property rights—with little or no intervention by the state or other third parties.” The law of slavery meant that every facet of the Hemingses’ lives that might come to public notice was controlled by a legal system that was “a racket designed for the protection of whites.” “How,” Gordon-Reed asks, “does one begin to get at what was ‘real’ or ‘true’ in such a context?”

It was not slaves only who were caught in the web of this law. Every Virginian who lived in slavery or lived off of slavery had to soft-foot his or her way through a thicket of social fictions. The fictions were many, but the most romantic and far-fetched were the purity of white Southern womanhood and the inviolable sanctity of marriage and the family.

Consider how Sally Hemings came to be at Monticello in the first place. Her mother Elizabeth, the matriarch of a numerous and talented slave family, was the daughter of an English sea captain named Hemings, who had a liaison with an African slave belonging to Francis Eppes, a planter of good family. Elizabeth, born probably in 1735, was kept as a slave despite her father’s efforts to buy her, and eventually became the property of Eppes’s daughter Martha. John Wayles, who made his pile by brokering slave trades, was not as respectable as Eppes but good enough to marry Martha, in 1746. As often happened, Wayles managed to outlive her and two more wives. He then took Elizabeth Hemings to his bed, fathering six children with her, of whom the youngest was Sally. As also often happened, on Wayles’s death in 1773 a substantial part of his estate was his wealth in slaves, his children included, who duly passed to his widowed daughter, Martha Wayles Skelton. In 1772 she married a rising young member of the Virginia elite, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was already comfortably provided with money and lands, but marrying Martha, whose property became his to manage, significantly increased his wealth.

No one believes that dynastic succession was of huge importance to Jefferson. He married for love. But that marriage enmeshed him in a tangle of family relations that were difficult in his lifetime and have been controversial since. Of Martha Jefferson we can say little, for she “remains something of a cipher,” known chiefly by the encomia lavished on her by her husband and their descendants. Something we do know is that Martha Jefferson treated as family “her father’s slave mistress and the children they had together.” She seems to have acted out of love and loyalty, for there was ample pretext for female heads of planter households, as she became on her father’s death, to send away slaves whose presence was distressing. At least six of Elizabeth Hemings’s children were Martha’s half-siblings.

To modern eyes this was a strange household, one that exhibited a mosaic of bizarre relationships. The word is Gordon-Reed’s. After combing through more than a thousand sources to uncover the patterns of that mosaic, she concludes:

Slavery simply provided families in the South with many more ways to be bizarre than in regions where it never took hold or was abandoned early on. Fathers owning sons, brothers giving away brothers as wedding gifts, sisters selling their aunts, husbands having children with their wives and then their wives, enslaved half sisters, enslaved black children and their free little white cousins, living and playing together on the same plantation—things that by every measure violate basic notions of what modern-day people think family is supposed to be about.

All these things, including the cold business transactions, happened to the Hemingses. Even to call them a family requires an adjustment of our fundamental social assumptions. That they were, and remained, a cohesive family unit is one of Gordon-Reed’s major arguments. That cohesion, unrecognized in Virginia law, might be seen as the result of the fidelity and benevolence of Martha and Thomas Jefferson.

On the other hand, slavery was not only a social institution but an economic one. When one’s disposable wealth consisted largely of human chattels, it was these chattels who became commodities to be transferred to distant properties or sent to auction when economic necessity or “incorrigible” behavior threatened to upset the rich planter’s way of life. Jefferson was never comfortable selling slaves away from his plantations, but he did when he felt that he must, for example, to provide for his daughters, Polly and Patsy. “Between 1784 and 1794, he had either sold or given away as part of marriage settlements to his daughters and sister over one hundred people.”

In Richard Hildreth’s antislavery novel Archie Moore, the White Slave (1836), one of the yokels crowding around an auction block dismisses the aristocratic pretensions of “those first Virginia families,” because “they only live by eating their niggers.” Thomas Jefferson would have been horrified by such a coarse criticism. He was, seemingly, the opposite of the heartless and indolent slave owner held up to scorn by slavery’s opponents. Jefferson inveighed against the unfeeling, tyrannical attitudes of slaveholders in Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), his earliest and perhaps most baffling statement on perpetual servitude and race. He was known to detest brutality and harsh treatment of “the people,” as the workforce was called. Whatever went on under the overseers and drivers of the outlying “quarter farms,” at Monticello the rule was beneficence, especially toward the Hemingses.

Much has been made of the master’s distaste for scenes, of his shrinking from conflict. But Gordon-Reed, like biographers before her, points out how possessive and controlling Jefferson was. As in his white family, “Jefferson’s pattern of dealing with the enslaved people closest to him” was to work on “their emotions as a way of extracting the behavior he wanted, doing things to make them feel bound and grateful to him, rather than being directly coercive.” It was as natural as breathing for Jefferson to prefer wheedling to whipping. Sentimentality about their condition shored up his craving for personal loyalty, and he was apt to muffle indications of resentment.

Nonetheless, coercion, however wrapped up it was, underlay the slave system. In private relations, such patriarchal power is not easy to distinguish from despotism. Ivy Compton-Burnett made a literary career of dissecting those relations, particularly the domestic life of those with inherited wealth occupying country houses staffed with servants whose cohabitation with their masters produced perverse alliances. Her icy colloquies laid bare the underpinnings of authority: “You are in a beautiful place…. It must be wonderful to have power, and use it with moderation and cruelty. We can so seldom be admired and self-indulgent at the same time.”

Jefferson kept the cruelty of slavery out of sight, down the hill, but he was nothing if not self-indulgent. His self-indulgence contributed greatly to a way of life that was much admired and talked about. Even when he was castigating himself for profligate spending, he was compiling long shopping lists of articles de luxe. If he was uncomfortable selling slaves at all, he did not like to part with Hemingses in particular, for they were themselves an indulgence, people he exempted from cruder tasks in order to keep him company and to make Monticello a showcase of his version of slavery and its benevolence. He disposed of their time and labor according to the needs of himself or his white children and their husbands. The chronic debtor has many needs.

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