The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family

by Annette Gordon-Reed

Paperback, 2009




W. W. Norton & Company (2009), Edition: Reprint, 816 pages


Historian and legal scholar Gordon-Reed presents this epic work that tells the story of the Hemingses, an American slave family, and their close blood ties to Thomas Jefferson.


½ (171 ratings; 3.9)

Media reviews

...this is an excellent book. Worth buying if you have any interest in the families of Virginia even free families of color from Virginia because so many of Sally’s children apparently passed into the white community and disappeared, like some of my own family members. The abuse from the press
Show More
that poor Sally was subjected to at the time by Jefferson’s enemies is terrible to read about, but the empathy and the sympathy the author uses in reconstructing Thomas Jefferson’s life, and his inevitable dilemma around this relationship, really moved me. ...
Show Less
2 more
The Hemingses of Monticello is a brilliant book. It marks the author as one of the most astute, insightful, and forthright historians of this generation. Not least of Annette Gordon-Reed's achievements is her ability to bring fresh perspectives to the life of a man whose personality and character
Show More
have been scrutinized, explained, and justified by a host of historians and biographers.... While praising her grasp of the sources, her legal acuity, her erudition, and the stylishness of her narrative, it remains to be said that her great achievement lies in telling this story. Because it is one of the stories that really matter.
Show Less
Engrossing and suggestive, it is also repetitive (we are frequently reminded that the law does not necessarily reflect social reality) and filled with unnecessary pronouncements about human nature (e.g., “Youth in females has attracted men in all eras across all cultures”). Readers will find it
Show More
absorbing, but many will wish it had been a shorter, more focused book.
Show Less

User reviews

LibraryThing member BookBully
Fascinating reading thanks to an incredible amount of research. For the most part this book is interesting reading, so don't let the size intimidate you. Granted, at times Gordon-Reed is repetitive plus she tends to expend a good many pages to issues which detract from the main story.

Show More
however, this is an exhaustive and interesting story not only of Sally Hemings and her relationship with Thomas Jefferson but of the Hemings family as a whole and as individuals. Gordon-Reed focuses on their lives within slavery and their struggles to free themselves and/or their children.

The book is riveting in its description of life in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Gordon -Reed not only focuses on the marginalization of African Americans but that of women not matter what their race. It's easy to see why the book was short-listed for a National Book Award.

I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys American history and particularly to readers who loved "Boone," by Robert Morgan and any of David McCullough's books.
Show Less
LibraryThing member C.Vick
Although I've enjoyed a great deal of the information provided, I've had a hard time finishing the Hemingses of Monticello.

The fact that the story is so incredibly detailed really works both for it and against it. While I've really enjoyed the descriptions of the social climate in particular, I
Show More
think that at the point I've made it to (a little over halfway), Gordon-Reed has gotten so far away from the overall narrative, I'm finding myself completely unmotivated to return to the story.

On the other hand, her research into the Jefferson/Hemings family is excellent and full of rich detail. She's also written the story with remarkable even-handedness. Jefferson is a complicated character, and to either lionize him or villainize him would be unfair.

Sadly, sometimes the information is a little general. Lots of, "She may have, like others at the time," done such and such a thing. Understandable, though.

I'll keep plugging away at it and if I can actually finish it, I'll review my review! However, I think it is always worth mentioning when a book is difficult to finish.
Show Less
LibraryThing member MarthaHuntley
It's hard to argue with a Pulitzer Prize winning book, and I won't. I enjoyed this book and had long been interested in its subject. I learned a good bit about Jefferson, Monticello, the Colonial and Revolutionary periods and slavery during that time. But I didn't learn much about Sarah Hemings or
Show More
the other Hemingses. Apparently, the primary sources simply aren't there. As a result, the book seems to be about one-third or more speculation. It makes you think, and makes you speculate, too, and the author is knowledgable and articulate and her viewpoint is interesting. But often, it's her "educated guess,", made from what she knows and what she thinks -- I don't think I've ever read a history/biography quite so speculative.
Show Less
LibraryThing member cbl_tn
Although stories about Thomas Jefferson's children by his slave, Sally Hemings, have been in circulation for over 200 years, new attention has been given to Sally and her children in the last decade following the publication of the results of a DNA analysis of descendants of Jefferson's father's
Show More
brother, Jefferson's Carr nephews, and Sally Hemings' son, Eston. Annette Gordon-Reed reconstructs the lives, not just of Sally and her children, but also of Sally's mother, Sally's siblings and half-siblings, and other slave families who were integral to life at Monticello.

Sally's mother, Elizabeth Hemings, was the daughter of an apparently full-blooded African slave and an English sea captain named Hemings. Captain Hemings tried to buy his daughter, but her owner refused to sell her to her father. Elizabeth was part of the marriage settlement of Martha Eppes and John Wayles, parents of Martha Wayles Jefferson. After Wayles was widowed for the third time, he did not remarry, but had several children by Elizabeth Hemings. The youngest, Sally, was born the same year that Wayles died. When John Wayles' estate was divided, Elizabeth and her children were included in Martha Wayles Jefferson's portion of the estate, the beginning of their decades long association with Thomas Jefferson and Monticello.

Gordon-Reed presents evidence that Jefferson treated Elizabeth Hemings and her children and grandchildren differently than he treated his slaves who were not related to her. A succession of Hemings males served as Jefferson's personal attendants. The Hemings women had fewer duties than other slave women, and were spared the rigors of field work. The few slaves that Jefferson freed during his life or upon his death were all descended from Elizabeth Hemings.

Inevitably, Gordon-Reed's book is as much about Thomas Jefferson as about the Hemings family. The inescapable reality of slavery is that much of what is known about Elizabeth Hemings and her children comes from Jefferson's records and correspondence. The Jefferson that the Hemings knew was a man who desired to be liked by those around him and who hated confrontation and interpersonal conflict. He seems to have kept promises he made. No matter how agreeably Jefferson tried to conduct himself, he was still the master and controlled the lives and destinies of the slaves.

The main flaw in the book is perhaps its repetitiveness. Since there are many people who are not convinced that Thomas Jefferson was the father of Sally Hemings' children, or who just refuse to believe it, maybe Gordon-Reed thought the repetition was necessary. However, the readability of the author's prose makes it a quick read for a book of its size, so potential readers shouldn't be discouraged by its length.
Show Less
LibraryThing member ElizabethChapman
There aren't many books that open a whole new world of understanding on well-known people and historical periods. "The Hemingses of Monticello" did that for me. It's an uttering fascinating account of Thomas Jefferson, his slave / mistress / lover Sally Hemings, and the time in which they lived. I
Show More
understand the frustration of many reviewers with Gordon-Reed's speculations about the motivations of both Jefferson and Hemings, but to my mind she backs up her interpretations with compelling (if sometimes indirect), examples and data.

I felt more anger and sympathy for Jefferson than before, as well as more admiration and mystification over Sally. Gordon-Reed's tremendous scholarship and research made the 18th century seem as familiar and explicable as the present day. As odd as it sounds, I missed Tom, Sally, and all the Hemingses when I finished the book.
Show Less
LibraryThing member jeanie1
Exhaustive study of the Hemings, slaves of Monticello, President Jefferson's home.
LibraryThing member Citizenjoyce
Thomas Jefferson really enjoyed owning slaves. The Hemmings family, who would have been in in laws if such a thing were lawfully possible, seemed to fill much of his requirement for personal contact, business management, sexual contact and child rearing. He had such an active mind and was always
Show More
planning, and his in law slaves were reliable company for his discussions. He thought he treated them very well. He allowed many of the males to pursue their own interests and money making opportunities and to keep all the money they earned. Their only obligation to him was to be available for his use whenever he wanted them. Sally, after leaving Paris, was kept at Monticello, bore and raised his children and kept him personally comfortable. For that she, and her female relatives essentially had no noisome assigned tasks, in fact overseers were not allowed to assign them work. They were just to keep house the way any other woman would have been expected to do. Sounded fine to him. Of course, they weren't free, but he seemed to think that a minor detail. He did free his children informally - allowed them to run away and pass as white and even gave his daughter $50 (I think) to start her new life. After his death Sally and youngest child were kind of informally freed. Many of his in laws got to stay in their family groups, but he was terrible with money, died in debt, and some were sold away from their families to get needed cash. Thomas Jefferson - "All Men Are Created Equal" - but it was just so nice to be able to own some.
Show Less
LibraryThing member mks27
This book is extremely well researched and offers a glimpse into the lives of this unique family in American history who were slaves, but connected to their white owners by blood and in many cases close relationship. The author presents a convincing arguement in terms of the relationship between
Show More
Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, but reveals the extraordinary lives of many of Sally's relatives. This book is not just an answer to the question of who is the father of Sally Hemings' answers the question: who were the members of this slave family and how did they live in and survive this condition.
Show Less
LibraryThing member Joanne53
A well researched and fascinating book about the entangled families of Thomas Jefferson and Elizabrth Hemings.
LibraryThing member WelchBG
This won a Pulitzer???
LibraryThing member Janientrelac
One of the fascinations and possibilities of this book detailing the long and complicated family relationships between two parts of a biological family, is the fact that it can be researched due to Jefferson's fame. The papers exist and can be used by scholars. How many other family have similar
Show More
history and no archive of documents.
Show Less
LibraryThing member kaulsu
What can I say? It took me 4 months to struggle through it. It did get better in the last quarter, but even then it was EXTREMELY repetitious. Gordon-Reed definitely did some ground-breaking scholarship in the research she did for this book. But it is SO repetitious. Yes, it listened to the
Show More version of the text. Perhaps the print version had charts and grafts to help the reader. Certainly it must have been indexed. Ah. Maybe that is it, she wanted the index to be incredibly long, so she repeated details to pad that. Really, the fact that Sally Hemings was a 16-yr. old enslaved adolescent when Jefferson first began their relationship at first was so WRONG. But after Gordon-Reed repeatedly said she was raped, the term lost all meaning.

It is a book worth reading. My advice would be to check the print edition out of your local library. Then you can skim through what you have already read and go back and check out what you think you may have missed.
Show Less
LibraryThing member mbmackay
This is a fascinating book about the Hemings family of slaves of Thomas Jefferson. The fact that Jefferson, author of the preamble to the American Declaration of Independence (We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with
Show More
certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness) could be a slave owner, is just one element in this story. Although some historians deny it, Jefferson quite clearly fathered 7 children by Sally Hemings, in a long term relationship that commenced after he became a widower. Sally (you couldn't make this stuff up!) was the half sister of Jefferson's wife. The book tells the story of the extended Hemings family, and their relationship to Jefferson.
The other fascinating part of the book is the introduction it provides to the academic study of slavery in America. This is clearly a difficult subject, and especially so for the descendants of slaves. The result is that we learn as much about the author as we do about the subjects of the history. In this book, all actions by blacks are valiant, all actions by whites are spurious and self interested - for example, any generous actions by Jefferson are inevitably qualified as a "benevolent" action - no praise to be permitted. But I found it distracting to see the analysis of the actions of individuals 200 years ago framed in the terms of current views of slavery. While slavery was always abhorrent, it would have been difficult in that era for individuals, black or white, to have taken the informed and objective stance that seems so obvious to us today. You have to consider the actions of people with reference to the mores of their time.
But, while Gordon-Reed saves all the pejorative slights and references for the slave owners, it is clear that she is concerned that she isn't rigorous enough, and there is an odd 4-chapter diversion in the middle of the book where she, effectively, sets out to defend herself against challenges she expects. At this stage of the reading of the book, I had been finding Gordon-Reed lacking balance in her presentation, but from her "defence" chapters, it seems that other researchers must be so extreme as to make Gordon-Reed seem a paragon of neutrality. As an example, there is apparently a view, firmly held by some, that ALL mixed race children of slaves were the result of rape. This conclusion is based on the facts that rape of a female slave was not a crime, and that all female slaves would want to maintain solidarity with their fellow slaves and would never voluntarily have sex with a white person. What tosh.
In the end this is a book that is well worth reading. It paints a detailed picture of a life that is hard for most of us alive today to imagine, let alone comprehend. While I have some quibbles (as mentioned above) I am glad to have been challenged by the book, and I am better informed for having read it.
Read August 2013
Show Less
LibraryThing member froxgirl
Such an important and yet strange Pulitzer prize winning book, as the voice of the main protagonist, Sally Hemmings, is absent. Very little has been told about her, but it seems that the author has included everything ever printed or said. The reader misses her terribly.

However, this is a most
Show More
rewarding challenge of a history book. It's very long. There are many duplicate names and generations. But the writing is so beautiful, with both separation from and involvement with, due to the lack of information and the passing of time. It is a ground-breaking masterpiece.

What I learned and/or appreciated:

- "the lowliest indentured servant was encouraged to identify with their white masters while distancing themselves from the blacks with whom they worked" - not really news to anyone, but what a way to express it!

- "Americans have lived with the universe...where the humanity, family integrity, and honor of slave owners counted for more than...those of slaves."

- " In England you "were" what your father "was". In the rules of slavery, Virginians adopted the Roman rule partus sequitur ventrem, which says you are what your MOTHER was." So as to make children of enslaved women the property of their father-masters.

-"Mulattoes" comes from the Spanish word for "mule" - meaning the offspring of a horse and a donkey." Although, unlike mules, who are sterile, the so named mulattoes could reproduce, to the benefit of the slave owners.

- "Slave traders were generally looked down on in Virginian society" - pretty ironic, huh?

- "Planter indebtedness to British merchants grew to such enormous heights that some scholars suggest that it was the chief catalyst for the Virginia colony breaking away from the British Empire." - hmmm - so much for liberty or death.

- "As late as the 1950s, some newspapers in southern states refused to apply the honorific "Mrs" to legally married black women." - so when racists tell people to "just get over" slavery, cite this one!

- "Robert and James Hemmings were the sons of the man who gave Jefferson his fortune, and the half brothers to his wife. In a world with any degree of morality, these young men...would have had a share of that fortune." - so much for being born on second base with a silver spoon.

All in all, Jefferson is given his full due, both as a brilliant thinker and as a cruel enslaver. As more and more of these revealing narratives come out, the founding fathers look like villains rather than heroes, just as it should be. BLACK LIVES MATTER.

Show Less
LibraryThing member lissabeth21
The history and scholarship of this was very well done. I appreciated the conjecture into the possible emotions of these people and the historical justifications given. My only hang up was wishing the epilogue had been longer. I'm now anxious to seek out information about 20th century connections
Show More
and how the truths of this tale were uncovered and brought to light.
Show Less
LibraryThing member krazy4katz
A fascinating book about the inconsistencies of Thomas Jefferson's views on slavery, as well as his relationship with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, after his wife died. The book is well written, but, as others have noted, it is extremely repetitive. The author takes each event in the life of
Show More
Sally or one of her brothers and dissects it. She uses other sources extensively, but also tries to get the reader to imagine what it would be like to be in that person's place and make a particular decision. For example, Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings and one of her brothers spent a couple years in Paris. They could have been free if they had stayed when Jefferson left, but they came back with him. Why? In Sally's case it was because the future children she would have with Jefferson would be freed when they became adults. Is that sufficient reason? Why didn't she free herself? It gets complicated. She is a woman, so if her brother didn't stay with her in Paris, she would be alone and in danger. It was just before the French Revolution, so there was a lot of unrest everywhere. The author goes through each life change in great detail. So, it is a loooong book. There are discussions of Jefferson's changing ideas on slavery, how he treated black slaves versus those who had a white ancestor, his plantation slaves versus his house slaves etc. There are discussions of his finances and how it affected slaves, many of whom lost family members when he had to sell his "human property" to pay the bills.

I had to take breaks, but I am very glad I read it!
Show Less
LibraryThing member rivkat
Well, I don’t like Jefferson any better after this book, a painstaking reconstruction of what’s known about the Hemings family at Monticello, starting with Sally Hemings’ mother and continuing through several generations of Hemingses. The book could have been profitably shortened—because so
Show More
little documentary evidence remains (some having been deliberately destroyed by Jefferson’s family, and some apparently having been carefully not created in the first place), a lot of times Gordon-Reed ends up speculating about, e.g., what a young woman far from home and far from older family members might have felt, courted by a man who enjoyed charming people and having his life be conflict-free. Gordon-Reed says that Sally and her brother, who could have stayed in France as free blacks, returned with Jefferson after a promise from Jefferson that he’d free Sally’s children and her brother, but she doesn’t make clear whether this promise is known from a family tradition or just inferred from subsequent events. I was also really interested in the fact that several of Sally’s children left Monticello and “passed” by adopting a white identity (which actually would have been legally theirs before Virginia’s anti-black laws became even more vicious and adopted the one-drop rule) that required them to break off contact with the remaining Hemingses—the focus on Monticello makes it hard to ask “what happened then?”
Show Less
LibraryThing member addunn3
Interesting read. Gives an in-(very!!) depth view of slavery, and the special relationship of that institution among Jefferson's family and neighbors. Very repetitive, but maybe that was necessary to hammer into the reader how odd this human-to-human mix was.


National Book Award (Finalist — Nonfiction — 2008)
Pulitzer Prize (Winner — History — 2009)
Audie Award (Finalist — History — 2009)
National Book Critics Circle Award (Finalist — Biography — 2008)


Original language


Original publication date


Physical description

816 p.; 6.1 inches


0393337766 / 9780393337761
Page: 1.3163 seconds