Jefferson and Sally Hemings -
Annette Gordon-Reed

    Professor Annette Gordon-Reed of New York Law School spoke about her research and her book  Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy .

    Annette began by recounting how she began to study Thomas Jefferson.  In the third grade she read a child's biography of Jefferson and was fascinated by him..  She was fascinated by his love of reading, science and the world;  she identified with him on an intellectual level.   There was also a slave boy in the book that was modeled after Jupiter, an enslaved American on Jefferson's plantation. The slave was pictured as the opposite of Jefferson, stupid and lazy.  She was one of very few African Americans in the school, and she feared her classmates would read this and identify themselves with Jefferson and her with this stereotype.

    This was the first experience that heightened her interest  in slavery and Jefferson.

     She read her parents' copy of  Winthrop Jordan's White over Black - Chapter on Jefferson inspired her. It was the first time she heard of Sally Hemings.

     At  the age of fourteen Annette read Fawn Brodie’s Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History and saw the documents  of Madison Hemings that linked Hemings to Jefferson.    

    Over the year she continued to read about Jefferson and slavery and examine how the authors treated the topic.  Tom and Sally are of some interest to her, but the issue of how history is researched and written is the most important aspect of her study.

    The reality is that people mixed throughout the ages.  Blacks and whites seemed to want to avoid the conversation.   The Civil Rights movement led to an opening of historiography of slavery.

    For the most part the historians of Jefferson were liberal southerners who may have been ashamed of Jefferson's relationship with Hemings, and they downplayed it.   The notion that Jefferson would have been involved with a slave seemed to be an unacceptable premise for many historians.  She found this offensive in that the idea ignored the humanity of enslaved women. The other problem she saw was the insistence that there was no evidence.  This required a dismissal of the testimony of Madison Hemings, which disregarded the black man and made him invisible.

    What is there about this topic that fascinates us?   The Hemings story makes it impossible to look away from the Jefferson and slavery connection.

    In her writings, Annette  wanted to ask the questions and trace the threads through the arguments as to whether or not Jefferson and Sally Hemings had an affair.   She went into the project with a predisposition that the story might be true, but she also had a willingness to accept the fact that it wasn't if the evidence indicated that.

    Over and over as she looked at the evidence that Jefferson did not have a relationship with Sally, she found flaws and inconsistencies that scholars should have looked at more closely, but there continued an unwillingness to accept the story of Jefferson and Hemings. On the other hand, when the stories supported the relationship, such as in the Madison Hemings account, these  would be picked apart  and discounted.