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Summary and book reviews of The Hemingses of Monticello by Annette Gordon-Reed

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
    Paperback:
    Sep 2009, 800 pages

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Book Summary

This epic work tells the story of the Hemingses, an American slave family whose close blood ties to our President Jefferson had been systematically expunged from American history until very recently.

This epic work tells the story of the Hemingses, whose close blood ties to our third president had been systematically expunged from American history until very recently. Now, historian and legal scholar Annette Gordon-Reed traces the Hemings family from its origins in Virginia in the 1700s to the family's dispersal after Jefferson's death in 1826. It brings to life not only Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson but also their children and Hemings's siblings, who shared a father with Jefferson's wife, Martha. The Hemingses of Monticello sets the family's compelling saga against the backdrop of Revolutionary America, Paris on the eve of its own revolution, 1790s Philadelphia, and plantation life at Monticello. Much anticipated, this book promises to be the most important history of an American slave family ever written.

Chapter 1: Young Elizabeth's World

Elizabeth Hemings began life when America was still a colonial possession. She lived through the Revolution in the home of one of the men who helped make it and died during the formative years of the American Republic, an unknown person in the midst of pivotal events in national and world history. Hemings lived at a time when chattel slavery existed in every American colony, but was dramatically expanding and thriving in the Virginia that was her home. She was, by law, an item of property—a nonwhite, female slave, whose life was bounded by eighteenth-century attitudes about how such persons fit into society. Those attitudes, years in the making by the time Hemings was born, fascinate because they are at once utterly familiar and totally alien.

Most Americans today admit the existence of racism and sexism, even as we often disagree about examples of them. When we encounter these practices while studying the eighteenth ...

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  • award image

    National Book Awards
    2008

  • award image

    National Book Awards
    2008

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    Pulitzer Prize for Letters, Drama and Music
    2009

  • award image

    Pulitzer Prize for Letters, Drama and Music
    2009

Reviews

Media Reviews
The New York Times - Eric Foner

I am glad to hear that Gordon-Reed is at work on a second volume tracing the further history of this remarkable family.

San Diego Union-Tribune - Peter Rowe

Early chapters slog through colonial Virginia, and the narrative halts often for musings about law and love, sexual attraction and family dynamics, freedom and slavery ... The tale gains speed whenever Thomas Jefferson and Sarah “Sally” Hemings appear, but this remains a serious history.

The San Francisco Chronicle - Sanford D. Horwitt

Much of Gordon-Reed's superbly told story takes place at Jefferson's beloved Monticello, where, she writes, "we can find the absolute best, and the absolute worst, that we have been as Americans. ... Gordon-Reed has given us an important story that is ultimately about the timeless quest for justice and human dignity.

The Washington Post - Fergus M. Bordewich

In this magisterial book, she has succeeded not only in recovering the lives of an entire enslaved family, but also in showing them as creative agents intelligently maneuvering to achieve maximum advantage for themselves within the orbit of institutionalized slavery.

The Washington Post - Fergus M. Bordewich

In this magisterial book, she has succeeded not only in recovering the lives of an entire enslaved family, but also in showing them as creative agents intelligently maneuvering to achieve maximum advantage for themselves within the orbit of institutionalized slavery.

Kirkus Reviews

Ponderous but sagacious and ultimately rewarding.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. This is a scholar's book: serious, thick, complex ....Reed's genius for reading nearly silent records makes this an extraordinary work.

Library Journal

Starred Review. This is a masterpiece brimming with decades of dedicated research and dexterous writing. It is essential for any collection on U.S. history, Colonial America, Virginia, slavery, or miscegenation.

Author Blurb Edmund S. Morgan, author of American Slavery.
Annette Gordon-Reed has broken a path into territory that has hitherto eluded historians: what happens to intimate human relations, those between lover and loved, parent and child, brother and sister, when one among them is enslaved to another. In a richly detailed narrative of events, public and private, she reconstructs the feelings of the participants: Thomas Jefferson, his slave mistress, and her blood relatives. The result is not simply a fascinating story in itself, but a new perspective on how the humanity of slaves and a slave owner could adjust and survive in circumstances designed to obliterate it. We have had other studies of master-slave relationships, but none that has penetrated to the depth of this one.

Author Blurb Joseph J. Ellis, author of American Sphinx.
Thomas Jefferson often described his slaves at Monticello as 'my family.' Annette Gordon-Reed has taken that description seriously. Surely more seriously than Jefferson ever intended! The result, the story of the Hemings family, is the most comprehensive account of one slave family ever written. It is not a pretty story, but it is poignant beyond belief. And it demonstrates conclusively that we must put aside Gone With the Wind forever and begin to study Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom."

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