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.

A map of America’s most famous – and infamous

The 'People Map of the United States' zooms in on America's obsession with celebrity

Image: The Pudding
Strange Maps
  • Replace city names with those of their most famous residents
  • And you get a peculiar map of America's obsession with celebrity
  • If you seek fame, become an actor, musician or athlete rather than a politician, entrepreneur or scientist

Chicagoland is Obamaland

Image: The Pudding

Chicagoland's celebrity constellation: dominated by Barack, but with plenty of room for the Belushis, Brandos and Capones of this world.

Seen from among the satellites, this map of the United States is populated by a remarkably diverse bunch of athletes, entertainers, entrepreneurs and other persons of repute (and disrepute).

The multitalented Dwayne Johnson, boxing legend Muhammad Ali and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs dominate the West Coast. Right down the middle, we find actors Chris Pratt and Jason Momoa, singer Elvis Presley and basketball player Shaquille O'Neal. The East Coast crew include wrestler John Cena, whistle-blower Edward Snowden, mass murderer Ted Bundy… and Dwayne Johnson, again.

The Rock pops up in both Hayward, CA and Southwest Ranches, FL, but he's not the only one to appear twice on the map. Wild West legend Wyatt Earp makes an appearance in both Deadwood, SD and Dodge City, KS.

How is that? This 'People's Map of the United States' replaces the names of cities with those of "their most Wikipedia'ed resident: people born in, lived in, or connected to a place."

‘Cincinnati, Birthplace of Charles Manson'

Image: The Pudding

Keys to the city, or lock 'em up and throw away the key? A city's most famous sons and daughters of a city aren't always the most favoured ones.

That definition allows people to appear in more than one locality. Dwayne Johnson was born in Hayward, has one of his houses in Southwest Ranches, and is famous enough to be the 'most Wikipedia'ed resident' for both localities.

Wyatt Earp was born in Monmouth, IL, but his reputation is closely associated with both Deadwood and Dodge City – although he's most famous for the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which took place in Tombstone, AZ. And yes, if you zoom in on that town in southern Arizona, there's Mr Earp again.

The data for this map was collected via the Wikipedia API (application programming interface) from the English-language Wikipedia for the period from July 2015 to May 2019.

The thousands of 'Notable People' sections in Wikipedia entries for cities and other places in the U.S. were scrubbed for the person with the most pageviews. No distinction was made between places of birth, residence or death. As the developers note, "people can 'be from' multiple places".

Pageviews are an impartial indicator of interest – it doesn't matter whether your claim to fame is horrific or honorific. As a result, this map provides a non-judgmental overview of America's obsession with celebrity.

Royals and (other) mortals

Image: The Pudding

There's also a UK version of the People Map – filled with last names like Neeson, Sheeran, Darwin and Churchill – and a few first names of monarchs.

Celebrity, it is often argued, is our age's version of the Greek pantheon, populated by dozens of major gods and thousands of minor ones, each an example of behaviours to emulate or avoid. This constellation of stars, famous and infamous, is more than a map of names. It's a window into America's soul.

But don't let that put you off. Zooming in on the map is entertaining enough: celebrities floating around in the ether are suddenly tied down to a pedestrian level, and to real geography. And it's fun to see the famous and the infamous rub shoulders, as it were.

Barack Obama owns Chicago, but the suburbs to the west of the city are dotted with a panoply of personalities, ranging from the criminal (Al Capone, Cicero) and the musical (John Prine, Maywood) to figures literary (Jonathan Franzen, Western Springs) and painterly (Ivan Albright, Warrenville), actorial (Harrison Ford, Park Ridge) and political (Eugene V. Debs, Elmhurst).

Freaks and angels

Image: Dorothy

The People Map of the U.S. was inspired by the U.S.A. Song Map, substituting song titles for place names.

It would be interesting to compare 'the most Wikipedia'ed' sons and daughters of America's cities with the ones advertised at the city limits. When you're entering Aberdeen, WA, a sign invites you to 'come as you are', in homage to its most famous son, Kurt Cobain. It's a safe bet that Indian Hill, OH will make sure you know Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon, was one of theirs. But it's highly unlikely that Cincinnati, a bit further south, will make any noise about Charles Manson, local boy done bad.

Inevitably, the map also reveals some bitterly ironic neighbours, such as Ishi, the last of the Yahi tribe, captured near Oroville, CA. He died in 1916 as "the last wild Indian in North America". The most 'pageviewed' resident of nearby Colusa, CA is Byron de la Beckwith, Jr., the white supremacist convicted for the murder of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers.

As a sampling of America's interests, this map teaches that those aiming for fame would do better to become actors, musicians or athletes rather than politicians, entrepreneurs or scientists. But also that celebrity is not limited to the big city lights of LA or New York. Even in deepest Dakota or flattest Kansas, the footlights of fame will find you. Whether that's good or bad? The pageviews don't judge...

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Average waiting time for hitchhikers in Ireland: Less than 30 minutes. In southern Spain: More than 90 minutes.

Image: Abel Suyok
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  • However, as this map shows, thumbing a ride still occupies a thriving niche – if at great geographic variance.
  • In some countries and areas, you'll be off the street in no time. In other places, it's much harder to thumb your way from A to B.
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