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The Hemingses of Monticello Book Review

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DateBook Review “The Hemingses of Monticello” by Anette Gordon-Reed
In this essay, we aim to provide a reflection of the impact of slavery in American society. Also, we are presented with a handful of questions we must answer regarding the book, and what the relationship between Jefferson and the Hemingses meant to the slavery in The United States
INTRODUCTION
The Impact of Slavery in American Society. We do not intend to give a broad picture of such a sensitive subject in such a small amount of pages. As to do a comprehensive study of the impact of slavery in the country would surely take us more than the pages assigned for this essay. Hence, we shall provide the briefest version possible without compromising the important details. In this essay, we shall only address the social impact of slavery, as the subject calls for it. In Jefferson’s time, slavery dominated all the political debates. To many post-revolution Americans, their own desire of freedom clashed with the ownership of slaves. For instance, George Washington was an advocate for the gradual abolition of slavery and freed many of his slaves on his death. Thomas Jefferson exhibited some moral objections toward slavery as well and advocated for the recolonization of black people to Africa. This idea gave birth the Liberia, a country founded by freed American slaves. However, despite their moral objections on slavery, the practice was built into the American constitution. Nevertheless, in the first draft composed by Jefferson, a paragraph condemning slave trade was written, although it was excised by the southern delegates.

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To Jefferson, slavery violated the rights of life and liberty of people that did not commit any fault or crime (Olson 1270). In the same way, slavery gave all the enslaved Africans a new identity, the African-American identity, and they defended it and claimed for their freedom. In the years of the American Revolution, and afterward, race became an ideology instead of an extraction, which lead to radicalization on both sides. For instance, in the north, people regarded slavery as an uncomfortable thing that must be abolished while South saw slavery as a mean of life (Fields 112). However, nobody asked the African American’s opinion on the subject. They remained oppressed by their masters, and before emancipation, they were still oppressed by their former masters, this time not with slavery but with laws that favored white citizens and considered black citizens inferior, regardless of their education or extraction. That is why we said that race became an ideology, rather than a signifier of our ancestors’ extraction. As we know, slavery, and inequity did not end overnight. In order for slavery to disappear, people had to realize that the economic benefits did not overshadow the immorality of taking a person’s freedom.
DISCUSSION
1. The lives of the vast majority of Americans who lived in the period of American slavery are lost to history; the anonymity of American places is even more pronounced. How and why did the Hemingses of Monticello escape in large part the enforced anonymity of slavery? Why have scholars begun to examine this particular place family and the other members of Monticello’s enslaved community?
The connection between the Hemings and Jefferson families began in the year of 1772 when Jefferson married Martha, who was a daughter of John Wyles, who had an affair with Elizabeth Hemings. From that affair, Sally Hemings was born, and although she was not recognized by her father, she enjoyed small privileges as an in-house slave. In 1774, Elizabeth, and her children went to Monticello and started living in the Jefferson’s estate. Since the Hemingses were a product of a couple of generations of affairs between masters and their slaves, they were of a light skin color; some of them could even pass for white. Besides, given their familiar relations with Martha Jefferson they were regarded as a different kind of slaves that served in the most intimate realms of Jefferson’s life.
2. How and when does Gordon-Reed argue that Jefferson’s relationship with Hemings begins?
As his father-in-law did, widowers in Virginia used to take slaves as their concubines. Although it was not well seen, if it was discreet, people did not do a big deal out of it. That is why, after years of being a widow, Jefferson took Sally as his concubine, and it was during Jefferson’s tenure in Paris when Sally became pregnant. After that, Jefferson and her lived in a private relationship until his death in 1826.
3. How does Sally Hemings’ trip to Paris change and define her life? Does her relationship with her brother, James, influence her decisions in Paris? Does the revolutionary rhetoric of the American conflict influence the decisions of American slaves living in Paris? Does the rhetoric of the on-going France Revolution influence African-American choices in the period Jefferson is in France? Do the Hemingses make the same or different choices? Why?
The Hemingses were paid a retinue when living with Jefferson in Paris. Using the author’s words we can say that the trip to Paris changed Sally’s life, as it served as the place where her relation with Jefferson bloomed. In the same way, her brother, who during their stay in Paris was a very active member of the city’s colored community might have influenced her views on slavery and her relationship with Jefferson. In the same way, since the laws in revolutionary France forbade slavery, it would have been easy for her to stay, and live as a free woman. After reading the book, we consider that Sally’s decision on stay with Jefferson could have come from her strong ties with her family, and her unwillingness to leave them.
4. Annette-Gordon Reed also raises the specter of the complex sexual negotiations between white men and enslaved women on pages 360-375. How can modern readers attempt to understand the relationship between Jefferson and Hemings? Does Gordon-Reed suggest that there are ways to understand their relationship beyond predetermined parameters (p361)? Was their relationship equal? Was their relationship built on sexual coercion? Can we ever determine their relationship based on historical evidence?
As stated earlier, it was a common practice for planters to take a slave concubine. However, the nature of those relationships is not clear. If the slaves were coerced or forced, it depended much on the planter’s attitude. It might hard for a modern reader to understand the complex relations between slaves, and their owners in southern plantations. For instance, fathers owning sons; brothers giving away other brothers as wedding gifts; half-brothers playing together in the same plantation. All those things defy the modern concept of family, and all those things happened to the Heminges. The fact that the Hemings family remained united as it did until the death of Jefferson was a matter of benevolence rather than any other thing. If the relationship of Sally and Thomas Jefferson was of equals, we would never know, and since the historical recounts are scarce. However, Gordon-Reed says that Jefferson had their way with slaves. He made them feel bound and grateful to him, instead of being openly coercive. In that light, that assumption tarnishes the perceived image of Sally, and Thomas as an idyllic relationship that defied the slave system, and the moral conventions.
5. What happens to the child that Sally Hemings and Jefferson produce together? Does the way in which they were granted freedom reinforce the belief that he saw them as his children? How did Jefferson free some of the Hemingses? What happened to Sally Hemings? How did his white family view these transactions?
Knowing that slavery was forbidden in France, Sally threatened Jefferson with leaving him and live as a free woman. Jefferson made her reconsider her choices and struck a bargain with her. Jefferson promised her a comfortable life with her family and freedom to their children. Jefferson kept both his promises but as the author says, it is not possible to pierce the veil and know the true nature of the relationship between both Jefferson, and Hemings. Nevertheless, the diaries, and accounts of Madison Hemings suggest a romance between Sally and Jefferson. Sadly, the evidence is rather scarce. In a personal note, we consider that it is quite hard to imagine that a forced relationship took place, as Sally bore eight children to Jefferson, which might mean that the relationship was consensual. After Thomas Jefferson’s death, his daughter Polly allowed Sally to live in Charlottesville, where she lived as a free woman until her death in 1835. Concerning the views of the white population toward Hemings relation with Jefferson, the author says that there was some negative press about their relationship, but none of them deigned them with an answer. Polly Jefferson’s relationship with Sally was quite regular and uneventful, and if she had despised her, she would not have granted her freedom as she did after her father’s death.
6. How did Jefferson ultimately view slavery? As a necessary evil? A problem being solved? A situation to feel tortured about?
Jefferson was an opponent of slavery his whole life. He considered that slavery was an immoral practice that brought out the worst of people, and that it was a depravity. To him, slavery posed a threat to the survival of the nation. In the same way, he considered that slavery was against the rules of nature, as it is unnatural for a person to own another. To Jefferson, every person had their right to personal liberty, and it had to be enforced. However, to Jefferson, the decision on abolishing slavery was a democratic one. To Jefferson, abolish slavery could only occur when all the people, slave owners or not, decided that having human property was a crime, and enacted to abolish slavery. To a man like Jefferson, the government interference concerning the emancipation of slaves was out of the question.
Works Cited
Olson, J. “Slavery in The United States.” Encyclopedia of Political Theory. SAGE Publications. Print.
Reed, Annette. The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. New York: W.W. Norton, 2008. Print.

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