Monticello has changed in the decades since the spouse and I first went there decades ago. The house and grounds may be much the same, but now the guides and the furnished information directly acknowledge the importance of slavery at Monticello. In that regard, it is much like Mount Vernon, which now also features the importance of slavery to George Washington’s life, as I discussed in a previous post. The Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which operates Monticello, now also accepts that a relationship between Jefferson and the enslaved Sally Hemings existed and that Jefferson in all likelihood was the father of her children.
Seeing the exhibits about slavery and the Hemings family made me think of Annette Gordon-Reed and how she reformed historical views of Jefferson and Hemings. Stories that Jefferson fathered children with his slave circulated during his lifetime, but mainstream historians had discounted the claims as scurrilous propaganda from political opponents. In 1974 Fawn Brodie published Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History, which concluded that there was a long-term relationship between Jefferson and Hemings. I read some reviews of that book by historians who lambasted the book as incompetent history. I read the book and found it provocative and titillating, but it was a psychobiography, a genre that to me is often psychobabble. I tried to keep an open mind while reading Brodie’s speculations, but I did not really take her book, while a good read, very seriously, and Brodie’s work did little to shift mainstream historian’s viewpoints.
Then came Annette Gordon-Reed. She was a colleague of mine. I was on the committee that recommended hiring her, and I soon learned that I looked forward to sharing a lunch table with her because of the fascinating and wide-ranging conversations she contributed to. She could discuss arcane legal topics, politics, and sports. I learned about east Texas where she grew up. Perhaps she delighted me inordinately because she was a reader of Page Six, the overtly gossipy section of the New York Post. I am seldom averse to a little celebrity scandal. But I don’t remember any luncheon discussions about her writing projects, and I did not ask. This is often a touchy issue between senior and junior colleagues at a law school, and I was surprised when she asked me to read a manuscript she had written.
I had not known that she was writing a book. I had not known that she was working on anything connected to Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, but this was a draft of her groundbreaking Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. It was clear to me that the book was going to be attacked, but, I thought, not so much because the book supported the proposition that Jefferson had fathered children with Sally Hemings. That may have been controversial, but Jefferson scholars had dismissed that possibility and certainly would again. Instead, the really controversial part was going to be Annette’s examination of the traditional Jeffersonian scholars’ methodology. Those historians had simply accepted statements by white descendants of Jefferson who uniformly said that Jefferson had not fathered Sally Hemings’s children. The historians followed the descendants in concluding, “No way. Nix. Uh-uh. Not a chance.” Annette then noted that the historians had disregarded the statements by Hemings’s descendants who claimed Jefferson paternity. The words of whites were accepted and those of blacks ignored. In essence, the historians were saying, “You know how those blacks like flashy clothes and fancy cars even though they can’t really afford them. They also want a flashy, fancy father even though it is not true.”
(Concluded on June 22.)