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…

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