The Hemingses of Monticello

By Annette Gordon-Reed,

Book cover of The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family

Book description

This epic work-named a best book of the year by the Washington Post, Time, the Los Angeles Times, Amazon, the San Francisco Chronicle, and a notable book by the New York Times-tells the story of the Hemingses, whose close blood ties to our third president had been systematically expunged from…

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Why read it?

6 authors picked The Hemingses of Monticello as one of their favorite books. Why do they recommend it?

Annette Gordon-Reed’s book introduces readers to the enslaved family of a Founding Father, Thomas Jefferson.

What I love about this book is that it upends the traditional picture of Jefferson while neither vilifying nor excusing him. It’s a full picture of a complicated man and the fascinating people who were part of his life. After all, the historian’s task is not to make heroes or villains but to show the full complexity of human beings.

At the center of the story is Sally Hemings, the half-sister of Jefferson’s wife and the mother of some of Jefferson’s children. The book also…

With this book, Annette Gordon-Reed changed how historians understood the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his enslaved servant, Sally Hemings.

In conclusively persuasive terms, Gordon-Reed proves not only that the third president was the father of Hemings' children, but also that Hemings was the half-sister of Jefferson's own deceased wife. She also deftly shows us how to understand these truths–to grasp the supremely unbalanced power dynamic between Jefferson and Hemings, while at the same time appreciating Hemings' agency in navigating between the limited options available to her as an enslaved woman.

This book is an earth-shattering work of history conveyed…

Annette Gordon-Reed’s work has reshaped historians’ understanding of Thomas Jefferson and his relationship with Sally Hemings.

This expansive and prize-winning biography goes beyond that pair to offer a sweeping study of the Hemings family over the course of a century. Enslaved people left few written records, but Gordon-Reed teases out the family’s story with care and creativity. While Thomas Jefferson never publicly recognized the Hemingses as his family, this book shows that he cannot be fully understood without them. 

Gordon-Reed’s 1997 book, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, was a paradigm-shifting landmark that examined the different ways that historians had used the existing evidence for a relationship between Jefferson and Sally Hemings, a woman he enslaved. The next year DNA testing confirmed a genetic link between Jefferson and one of Hemings’s children. In The Hemingses of Monticello, Annette Gordon-Reed provides the most complete study we have of the many complicated relationships between the Hemings and Jefferson families.

It is a beautifully written, deeply-researched account that demonstrates, among other things, the degree to which slavery imprecated…

Gordon-Reed is a masterful historian and nowhere is that more evident than in this exceptional, prizewinning book that explores the complexities of freedom and slavery during the early Republic. She traces the stories of several generations of this family, including the stories of Sally Hemings and her brother James, who together lived with Jefferson in Paris during the 1780s, a place where they might have obtained their freedom, albeit likely at the cost of never returning to the rest of their family in Virginia. But some of the most fascinating and surprising elements of the book touch on many other…

By deftly exploring the nuances and silences in historical documents, Jefferson, Annette Gordon-Reed recovers the intertwined lives of an enslaved family with their masters in the Wayles, Jefferson, and Randolph clans. Attending to the parents, siblings, and children of Sally Hemings, Gordon-Reed offers a master class in how to find the traumas and triumphs of people whose slavery enabled others to enjoy fame, fortune, and power. Thomas Jefferson appears on a more human scale as dependent on a clan of enslaved people for material and emotional comfort.

From Alan's list on the early United States.

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