Annette Gordon-Reed uncovers the family history of the Hemingses of Monticello, who are known as the slaves of Thomas Jefferson – though their story encompasses more than that.
I knew a bit about Sally Hemings and her relationship with Jefferson, but the author goes beyond this notable person to expand her focus to her entire family. In many ways the Hemingses are remarkable for their blood relationship with Jefferson’s wife Martha and how that affected their treatment, but in others they were just like the thousands of people kept in bondage throughout the country.
One thing I really appreciated was how the author emphasized the autonomy of the Hemingses. She tries to reconstruct their personalities and the things that drove them to make the decisions that they did, including the several times they turned their backs on chances for freedom. She also discusses the complicated relationships that members of the family had with Jefferson in a compassionate and engaging manner.
However, I thought the focus of the book wandered sometimes. The first sections, focusing on Elizabeth Hemings and later on Sally, were straightforward, but later we move into snippets on different family members in a manner that was sometimes tough to engage in, though I understand part of it stems from a lack of sources. The reflected spotlight of Jefferson as a historical figure can only do so much when mainstream historians were for so long resistant to the narratives of people held in slavery.
Gordon-Reed also sometimes went on long-winded digressions about specific topics, such as what Abigail Adams thought of Sally Hemings, that could have been severely shortened.
Overall, this was an interesting read about a family often overlooked in history, but very deserving of the attention it is accorded here.