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Annette Gordon-Reed on the Jefferson-Hemmings Relationship
Annette Gordon-Reed is a professor of law at New York Law School and a professor of history at Rutgers. She earned a place in history with her first book, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, which had an acclaimed but stormy reception when published in 1997, and which The New Yorker described as “brilliant.” She is recognized as one of our country’s most distinguished presidential scholars.Gordon-Reed spent her early career as an associate at Cahill Gordon & Reindel, and as Counsel to the New York City Board of Corrections. She speaks or moderates at numerous conferences across the country on history and law-related topics. Gordon-Reed is a graduate of Dartmouth College and Harvard Law School, where she was a member of the Law Review. She lives in Manhattan with her husband, daughter, and son.
Question: Did Jefferson see his relationship as sinful?
Gordon-Reed: You know, sex outside of marriage is a sin that would not have been his formulation of this or sex with a person of a different race is a sin. That’s not… that wouldn’t be his formulation of this at all. People were concerned about fornication and that would be sort of sex outside of marriage because of the children that would be produced and the sort of disorder in society it would have, not like I’m going to hell. I mean, he would not think, I don’t think he believed in hell, I’m pretty certain he didn’t believe in hell. So, he wouldn’t be, not some sort of evangelical notion that this is some great sin for me that he’s going to, you know, suffer in hell forever because of. So, he was much more a rationalist, a materialist, and I mean, Andy Bernstein who has written a lot about Jefferson and his attitudes about love and marriage and so forth. But his view is that Jefferson viewed sex as a healthy thing and that it was unhealthy, I mean, it’s not like, you know, today people view, you know, celibacy almost as providing strength to people, somehow you’re pure. That’s not his idea. That was not the 18th century idea. People were supposed to have sex in that view and sex was seen as a healthy and a natural thing. So he would not have been guilty about the sex per se. He would be concerned, I mean, his primary concern I would imagine or seems to have been about getting the children out of slavery and into freedom which he does when they’re adults. But not in a sort of evangelical sort of modern notion of, you know, I’m engaging in this sinful activity. That would not have been on his radar screen.
Question: Was their relationship intimate?
Gordon-Reed: Gee, I don’t know. I don’t know what the intimate moments were like, you know, it’s hard to think of intimacy in 18th century because these people appear so formal. And even when I try to think about intimate relation with his wife, they call each other Mr. Jefferson and Mrs. Jefferson and, you know, I mean, obviously to them, well, I know that they didn’t, but certainly in their letters and in the way they… We don’t have any of Jefferson’s wife’s letters so we don’t know… We don’t have her descriptions of him. It all seems so very, very formal, but I can imagine, it’s very tough for me to… it’s impossible for me to say what they were very much like, but these are people who knew each other. I mean, very often you get the idea that Sally Hemings is living on some other plantation and the Hemingses are all separate, but it would be the familiarity of someone who had known a person from the time they were a child. Her brothers, her older brothers were his, you know, menservant, they travel with him. Robert Hemings, her oldest brother. Hemings-[IB] brother, a full brother was Jefferson’s manservant from the time he was 12. So it’s like you know anybody. You know a person through other people. They didn’t know each other just one on one. They knew each other through lots of other folks. So, there would be a familiarity there, but I think people, it’s hard for present day people to imagine because they think of Jefferson in a very formal way, you know, he’s sort of a admirable figure. But from descriptions of him, he was very easy going, easy to talk to. His daughter, his white daughter said and this held true and even enslaved people who talked about Jefferson said that he was easy going. So it wouldn’t be, there wouldn’t be any reason to think that there would be any great formality between them because other people expressed him as sort of portrayed him as an informal person.
Question: Was there romance?
Gordon-Reed: I don’t really know what people mean by romance. If attachment is the way I described it in the book, I mean, he is clearly attached to her because I don’t think that he would have spent decades with her if he were not attached to her. And I don’t know what that means other than, you know, if you’re a married couple, you stay together because you have to. In those days, I mean, you didn’t get a divorce so that’s how people stay together. He stay with her for a long period of time even when there were reasons to kind of get rid of her namely the huge scandal that almost really, really threatened his career, and, apparently, the family story, the Jefferson’s wife family story is that his daughter wanted her, wanted him to send the family away somewhere and he didn’t do that. So whatever you can [refer] by a person’s repeated actions that is to say sticking with someone over a long period of time, he was certainly attached to her. Now, she, once she comes back from France, can’t get rid of him, obviously, I mean because she is totally under his control at that point, so you don’t really know what she thinks about him. The only, the small thing that I mentioned in the book a sort of small… I don’t know if it’s a head or any kind of indication is that when she leaves Monticello she takes items that belonged to him like glasses and things and buckles and gives him to her children as mementos. And, you know, it’s a sentimental thing to do but I don’t know the source of that. I don’t have any problem by the way in saying that the two people could be attached to each other because I don’t… Apparently, attach is more significant to that as other people do. I mean, they seem to think that if I say that they had some attachment to each other that that make slavery okay or that it makes that he owned her okay, that doesn’t at all. I just think people are so strange and have such an ability to rationalize their behavior that almost anything is possible in that context.
Question: How did their relationship differ from other biracial relationships of the time?
Gordon-Reed: People want to assume and obviously because it’s Jefferson but it certainly not the kind of predatory behavior that was the most common kind of behavior with someone that sort of rampaging through the slave quarters. I mean these are children. I mean, we don’t have any other stories about him and other women once he comes back from France with Sally Hemings. They have children together whom he names for members of his family and his friends and, you know, favorite relatives and so forth. Their, you know, her children are freed, she is only informally freed. She is… They go to move into Charlottesville and live and she lives the rest of her lives with her sons in a house that they eventually buy. So, it’s, you know, it’s difficult for me, I really care about how these people are seen and I am uncomfortable putting an ideological stamp on or sort of a template imposing that on her life when that may not have been what she thought was going on here. I mean, if she wanted, she should have, didn’t want to have sex with him anymore, she should have stayed in France which she could have done with her brother. And I think, you know, if I could have my own personal little alternative history saying she and her brother would have stayed in France and try to make a life for themselves which they could have done. Other black people did that, but that’s not… She didn’t do what I, I can’t seat back and, you know, and do history and say, you know, Mr. Lincoln don’t go to the theater. I mean, all these kinds of things that you wished it could have happened a different way. It didn’t happen that way. So I have to deal with what choices that she made and I do think she did have a choice. I mean, it would be a tough choice to make but lots of other enslaved people made it. They stayed, people who were brought to France, people stayed there and they work something out and they live and they function without their masters and James and Sally Hemings could have function without Jefferson, too.
Though Jefferson was by any objective standard a racist, Annette Gordon-Reed discovered his relationship with Sally Hemmings was immensely progressive.
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