Monday, September 22, 2008

Book of the week: Tom Jefferson and Sally Hemings

The most interesting history book lately published must be Annette Gordon-Reed's The Hemingses of Monticello. It's being said this book by a young black lawyer and historian is the closest study of an American slave family ever written, with the added interest that the family in question included Sally Hemings, who was Thomas Jefferson's slave and concubine (and also his sister-in-law). I've been seeing admiring reviews of it widely. Jill Lepore's in the New Yorker is here. Edmund S. Morgan, in the New York Review of Books, says
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.
Who wouldn't appreciate praise like that?

The book is about the Hemingses, not about the American president who owned them. But the reviews, good as they are, suggest Americans still have a tough time being tough minded about Thomas Jefferson. He is still one of the gods of the American pantheon, and they find it hard to consider him dispassionately.

The Brits are tougher. Even at the time, English writer Samuel Johnson asked the vital question, "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of Negroes?" And Irish writer Conor Cruise O'Brien really dissects the awkwardness Jefferson should cause us in a study from a few years ago called The Long Affair, which analyses Jefferson not so much as a hypocrite about slavery, but as one fascinated with violence, extremism, and the disgusting view that the tree of liberty needs to be constantly fertilized with human blood.

Late Update: I thought there was no longer any reasoned dissent from the evidence of Jefferson's paternity of Sally Hemings's children. Jill Lepore reviews the evidence (and Jeffersonians' slowness in accepting it) in her review. But not everyone has come around, as witness the comment attached.

Later Update (Sept. 29): I've just added a long comment from an academic who argues it was not inconsistent for Thomas Jefferson to assert that all men are created equal while he owned slaves.
I hesitated about approving the comment, not because of its arguments, but because it is unsigned. People who speak in public should stand by their words, and that's particularly true of university teachers (whose freedom of speech is particularly protected) who wish to assert their credentials. I find the anonymity of this post reduces its influence on me, and I'm posting it almost against my better judgment.
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