Annette Gordon-Reed on the Jefferson-Hemmings Relationship

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.

Global climate strike: Scenes from the #ClimateMarch protests

The week-long global protest, which is calling for an end to the age of fossil fuels, is taking place in more than 160 countries today.


SOPA Images
/ Contributor / Getty
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Millions of people around the world are taking to the streets to demand more urgent action on climate change.
  • The protests come just days ahead of the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit.
  • Although it's unclear exactly how many people are participating, it's likely to be the largest climate protest ever.
Keep reading Show less

How do 80-year-old 'super-agers' have the brains of 20-somethings?

Most elderly individuals' brains degrade over time, but some match — or even outperform — younger individuals on cognitive tests.

Mind & Brain
  • "Super-agers" seem to escape the decline in cognitive function that affects most of the elderly population.
  • New research suggests this is because of higher functional connectivity in key brain networks.
  • It's not clear what the specific reason for this is, but research has uncovered several activities that encourage greater brain health in old age.

At some point in our 20s or 30s, something starts to change in our brains. They begin to shrink a little bit. The myelin that insulates our nerves begins to lose some of its integrity. Fewer and fewer chemical messages get sent as our brains make fewer neurotransmitters.

As we get older, these processes increase. Brain weight decreases by about 5 percent per decade after 40. The frontal lobe and hippocampus — areas related to memory encoding — begin to shrink mainly around 60 or 70. But this is just an unfortunate reality; you can't always be young, and things will begin to break down eventually. That's part of the reason why some individuals think that we should all hope for a life that ends by 75, before the worst effects of time sink in.

But this might be a touch premature. Some lucky individuals seem to resist these destructive forces working on our brains. In cognitive tests, these 80-year-old "super-agers" perform just as well as individuals in their 20s.

Just as sharp as the whippersnappers

To find out what's behind the phenomenon of super-agers, researchers conducted a study examining the brains and cognitive performances of two groups: 41 young adults between the ages of 18 and 35 and 40 older adults between the ages of 60 and 80.

First, the researchers administered a series of cognitive tests, like the California Verbal Learning Test (CVLT) and the Trail Making Test (TMT). Seventeen members of the older group scored at or above the mean scores of the younger group. That is, these 17 could be considered super-agers, performing at the same level as the younger study participants. Aside from these individuals, members of the older group tended to perform less well on the cognitive tests. Then, the researchers scanned all participants' brains in an fMRI, paying special attention to two portions of the brain: the default mode network and the salience network.

The default mode network is, as its name might suggest, a series of brain regions that are active by default — when we're not engaged in a task, they tend to show higher levels of activity. It also appears to be very related to thinking about one's self, thinking about others, as well as aspects of memory and thinking about the future.

The salience network is another network of brain regions, so named because it appears deeply linked to detecting and integrating salient emotional and sensory stimuli. (In neuroscience, saliency refers to how much an item "sticks out"). Both of these networks are also extremely important to overall cognitive function, and in super-agers, the activity in these networks was more coordinated than in their peers.

Default Mode Network

Wikimedia Commons

An image of the brain highlighting the regions associated with the default mode network.

How to ensure brain health in old age

While prior research has identified some genetic influences on how "gracefully" the brain ages, there are likely activities that can encourage brain health. "We hope to identify things we can prescribe for people that would help them be more like a superager," said Bradford Dickerson, one of the researchers in this study, in a statement. "It's not as likely to be a pill as more likely to be recommendations for lifestyle, diet, and exercise. That's one of the long-term goals of this study — to try to help people become superagers if they want to."

To date, there is some preliminary evidence of ways that you can keep your brain younger longer. For instance, more education and a cognitively demanding job predicts having higher cognitive abilities in old age. Generally speaking, the adage of "use it or lose it" appears to hold true; having a cognitively active lifestyle helps to protect your brain in old age. So, it might be tempting to fill your golden years with beer and reruns of CSI, but it's unlikely to help you keep your edge.

Aside from these intuitive ways to keep your brain healthy, regular exercise appears to boost cognitive health in old age, as Dickinson mentioned. Diet is also a protective factor, especially for diets delivering omega-3 fatty acids (which can be found in fish oil), polyphenols (found in dark chocolate!), vitamin D (egg yolks and sunlight), and the B vitamins (meat, eggs, and legumes). There's also evidence that having a healthy social life in old age can protect against cognitive decline.

For many, the physical decline associated with old age is an expected side effect of a life well-lived. But the idea that our intellect will also degrade can be a much scarier reality. Fortunately, the existence of super-agers shows that at the very least, we don't have to accept cognitive decline without a fight.


Millennials and the rise of tiny homes

Are tiny homes just a trend for wealthy minimalists or an economic necessity for the growing poor?

Photo credit: Cyrus McCrimmon / The Denver Post via Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • The tiny home movement has been popular on social media sites, often portraying an idyllic lifestyle that's cheaper and better for the environment without sacrificing aesthetics.
  • But tiny homes may become the answer to a growing population and growing inequality.
  • As the movement continues to build up steam, one has to wonder whether it's a housing crisis solution with a new coat of paint.

Tiny homes. They're the watchword of the Home & Garden network, at once an Instagrammable, envy-inducing lifestyle and an unfortunate necessity for a generation struck by a recession, historically high inequality, and loans taken out for an ostensibly necessary education that's failed to really net any benefits.

But the question is, which are they? A symbol of a smarter, more environmentally-conscious, humbler generation — or a symbol of one that's had to make do with less than its predecessors? (See: "Millennials buy the things their parents did — but they're much poorer.")

Downsizing housing and hubris

Image source: Mike Morgan / For The Washington Post via Getty Images

Will tiny homes look like this in the future -- smaller and more efficient but still beautiful?

In the U.S., things are just bigger, and houses are no exception. The median size of a single-family home in the U.S. peaked in 2015 at 2,467 square feet. Compared to other parts of the world — particularly Europe — this is a massive figure. There's a variety of reasons for this; one, for example, is that Americans began driving early and often, which transformed the design of their cities and suburbs. Developers could build outside of urban centers where the land was cheaper and more plentiful, enabling bigger houses to be bought.

In addition, the idea of having a lot of space seems to be an appealing one to the former European colonies — where Europeans have often lived in more cramped, repurposed older buildings, Australians, Canadians, and Americans had the opportunity to seize land (despite it already being occupied) and build new, sprawling settlements throughout it. The prosperity that the America saw in the 20th century didn't hurt, either; why not build big if you've got the money to spare?

But a considerable amount of this space is wasted. A UCLA study found that the majority of people spend their time in the kitchen or around the television and very rarely use the living room or porch. As a result of these extra, unused spaces, more resources are wasted on construction, and energy consumption is double what a family would need if their house only had the rooms that they actually use.

Smaller, more energy-efficient houses are appealing to a growing population of minimalists and resource-conscious individuals. In 2017 alone, the sales of tiny homes increased by 67 percent. Coming in at under 400 square feet on average, these houses are also understandably cheap — for tiny homes on wheels, the average cost is $46,300, while those with a foundation cost on average $119,000. As a result, 68 percent of tiny homeowners don't even have a mortgage.

Downsizing out of necessity

Tiny homes

Image source: George Rose/Getty Images

A community of tiny homes for homeless people known as "Nickelsville" in Seattle.

On the other hand, the group of people drawn to tiny homes isn't just homogenously composed of wealthy minimalists looking to reduce their consumption while still appearing trendy. In 70 percent of the U.S., the average worker can't afford a home, one-third of adults are a $400 bill away from financial difficulty, and a quarter have no retirement savings whatsoever.

Under these conditions, downsizing may be the only viable method to survive. Consider, for instance, how cities such as Seattle, Detroit, and Denver are constructing tiny homes as emergency shelters or transitional housing for the homeless. There are also the many retirees that had their savings wiped out by the Great Recession who now live nomadically in RVs and modified vans. This tiny-living trend also has its Instagram cheerleaders, but the reality of it is less idyllic. Journalist Jessica Bruder and author of Nomadland related an anecdote to MarketWatch illustrating the nature of nomadic tiny living:

"I talked to one couple, Barb and Chuck. He had been head of product development at McDonald's before he retired. He lost his nest egg in the 2008 crash and Barb did, too. One time, Barb and Chuck were standing at the gas station to get $175 worth of gas and the horror hit them that their account had $6 in it. The gas station gentleman said 'Give me your name and driver's license and if you write a check, I will wait to cash it.' He waited two whole weeks before he deposited it."

This might become a reality for more people in the future as well. Inequality widens when the rate at which wealth grows — say, your stocks or the price of your house — grows faster than the rate at which wages do. Research suggests that wealth is growing at a breakneck pace, keeping in line with economist Thomas Picketty's prediction of a dramatically inequal future.

Solutions for this will need to be found, and many municipalities or private individuals may find such a solution in constructing tiny homes. Homelessness is a powerful, self-perpetuating force, and having shelter is an obviously necessary step to escape poverty.

Regrettably, if tiny homes are being driven primarily by resource-conscious but fundamentally economically secure individuals, we can expect the trend to remain just that; a trend. In a few years, fewer and fewer tiny houses will be constructed and sold, and eventually there will just be a small contingent of diehard proponents of the lifestyle. If, however, the tiny home trend is being driven primarily by economic inequality, then we can expect it to stick around for a while.