Excerpt from The Hemingses of Monticello by Annette Gordon-Reed, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Hemingses of Monticello

An American Family

by Annette Gordon-Reed

The Hemingses of Monticello
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2008, 800 pages
    Sep 2009, 800 pages

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What had gone before, the process that brought those two groups into their "Americanness," is largely the province of scholars of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. There are many reasons for this, but several immediately come to mind. First, American slavery at its beginnings—obscure, distant, and tragic—is probably for most people a less attractive point of focus than the story of the discovery and political founding of the American nation. If you like your history heroic—and many people seem to—the story of slavery in the early American period is simply not the place to go looking for heroes, at least not among the people most commonly written about.

Second, with the exception of periodic bouts of "founders chic," in which the men credited with drawing up the blueprint for the United States are pitted against one another—Hamilton was really better than Jefferson, Madison was better than Adams, and Franklin was better than all of them—the colonial and Revolutionary period in America has so far failed to capture the cultural imagination the way the Civil War era has. There is no Gone with the Wind for the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, no literature wallowing in the romance of defeat, no passionate attachments to divisive symbols that live on to poison contemporary race relations and threaten the American future. The Civil War is over, but the politics that fueled it and helped design its aftermath are still very much with us, playing out in various racially charged and seemingly intractable disputes about desegregation, affirmative action, even the continued use in the public sphere of a Confederate battle flag that once flew against the United States of America. The years running up to, during, and after the Civil War mark the beginning of the America we know today—a modern country, powered by the market and free labor, multiracial in its composition (if somewhat uneasily), and at its most fundamental core, united.

It is not as if no heroism or romance were to be found in the colonial period. Schoolchildren are told an uplifting story about English men and women escaping religious persecution to build their own cities upon the hill in what would become New England. Who could not identify with the urge to live one's life in peace and freedom, and not admire people willing to cross an ocean to do it? That some of the later immigrants to New England were Puritans, who almost immediately went about the business of persecuting those who did not toe their particular version of "the line," does not diminish the attractiveness of those early aspirations. It was the idea that counts. We can (and do) without embarrassment draw a direct line from the dreams of those Americans in the making to our dreams today.

Elizabeth Hemings's Virginia, however, presents a real problem. It is hard to associate the earliest Virginians who controlled society with any aspiration loftier than that of making a killing. The colony was, after all, founded by the Virginia Company. It was from the very beginning a moneymaking enterprise, a place for men seeking their fortunes with limited reference to spirituality, with no nod to sentimentality and, apparently, very few limits on how the moneymaking could proceed. In one historian's words, the people who settled the colony were all adventurers "in the fullest sense of the term," men "seeking the main chance for [themselves] in that part of the new world which . . . seemed to offer [them] the best chances." The term "adventurer" doesn't really do justice to the men who helped usher in this world, for we must instead think of what those high-stakes gambles actually entailed. Voracious land grabbing and land speculation, aided and abetted by the manipulation of public offices, made a relative handful of people wealthy.

Excerpted from The Hemingses of Monticello © Copyright 2008 by Annette Gordon-Reed. Reprinted with permission by W. W. Norton. All rights reserved.

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