1) Professor Annette Gordon-Reed writes about this famous historical puzzle, not as a historian, but as a serious legal scholar, devoted especially to matters of evidence. She is a professor of law, an African American, and a woman, all of which attributes have shaped her perspectives in this book, yet the product is essentially historical.
Winthrop D. Jordan 316
2) AGR does a good job of showing that neither case holds any more evidence than the other but, rather, that historians twist it to their own personal agenda (which everyone does, including AGR). I agree with the case she makes against the character defense, although both sides use it in their arguments. Overall, she portrays Jefferson as a "warm-blooded" man with the same sexual and humanistic drives as the rest of us. She presents the image of a consensual Hemings, citing the fact that Sally bore no other children in Jefferson's absence. I especially like the point she makes in saying that Jefferson's world was not at all like the world today and therefore cannot be judged by today's standards. For me, that is the most important thing to keep in mind throughout this course. It is easy for us to judge based on our own moral standards. I personally find Jefferson's sexual history of no importance to his political legacy. I do not hold him responsible for slavery. In fact, he played a large role in bringing it down. Sure, many will discredit his words of declaration because he "did not practice what he preached." However, he penned the words that spurred the Civil War (in which blacks and whites alike died to preserve a union free of slavery). His words were at the basis of the Civil Rights Movement. Therefore, Jefferson did speak out against slavery in the best way he could. Ok, so he didn't stand up during his presidency against it, but his words certainly did. And his words looked not towards the past or even the present, which he could not change because society was so deeply rooted in the system of slavery, but, rather, towards the future. He helped the country develop and grow for the better. Therefore, if people do believe that, as AGR puts it, "examples of hypocrisy in Jefferson's life significantly diminished his contributions to American society," then they are simply looking backward and discrediting the basis of America's growth rather than looking forward and continuing its progress.
Ruslana Makarenko, Lehigh University
3) Gordon-Reed's accomplishment is to shift the focus of inquiry from the Jefferson family to the Hemings family. Her chapters on Madison Hemings and Sally Hemings present each character as an individual with a life worth studying regardless of the reputed father and lover. She has found all available evidence about this remarkable family and analyzed it in a compelling way.
Robert J. Allison 307
4) I think all of us grappled with the difficulty of Jefferson as a deep-seated racist who had this kind of relationship with his slave. After Jefferson's "Notes," I think many of us were shaken up. AGR makes a good point early in this section that "The notion that a racist white man will not engage in a sexual relationship . . . with a black woman is, to put it charitably, quaint." She makes the point that Jefferson's racism was not really any different than anyone else's; we just make it extraordinary because he felt the need to write it all down. She says that there were many other slave owners who hated blacks who were very capable of having sexual relationships with their slaves. And Sally was said to be very white-looking and not to match up with Jefferson's descriptions about the nasty-looking blacks at all. I say I'd agree with her point, as I'd already come to the same conclusion myself through our studies.
Greg King, Lehigh University
5) Perhaps Gordon-Reed has a right to condemn the work of past historians, but the historical profession has the right to question her judgment. And is there really a need for more flaying of a dead horse? In short, if Jefferson did have a slave mistress and his freeing of certain slaves and not others is proof of this indiscretion, should Jefferson be consigned to a historical dustbin alongside Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan?
Robert A. Rutland 1052
6) AGR refutes the idea that Jefferson would never have had a relationship with his black slave because of his phobia of racial mixing and his thoughts on how emancipation should be done. She says that what Jefferson wrote and how he actually felt and lived are two very different things. I think some of us have touched on that throughout this course. It almost seems as if he is writing his ideal, while living in the world that he must. She also makes the point that racial mixing scared whites when it was done in an environment without slavery, without their control. When they were in control of it, however, they didn't mind it so much. One quote from AGR says, "After emancipation, whites who had used black women as wet nurses for their children, as cooks, housekeepers, and maids in the crowded living area of ordinary plantation houses, suddenly became unwilling to sit next to a black person on a park bench." Ohh, interesting thought. "We're okay with you being close to us when we control you, but we don't want to have anything to do with you when we don't." I've found that I actually agree with AGR on many of her points. I think she makes her conclusions a bit too easily, and it is clear to me that her own personal feelings are woven throughout the book. She wants to believe and to prove things a certain way. She happens to be lucky that the "evidence" tends to support her.
Greg King, Lehigh University
7) There are, she says, days she wakes up knowing that Jefferson fathered Sally Hemings's children and other days when she is less sure. It might be argued that this is the historian's fate. In the absence of a smoking gun (or in this case a DNA test), one can never be certain. Still, Gordon-Reed's reexamination of the evidence will convince many readers that they can be as sure about the reality of the Hemings-Jefferson.
Herbert Sloan 61
8) Overall I would say that there is no more specific evidence to support the idea of Jefferson as "cold" or asexual following his wife's death than there is to say that he was particularly "randy." Gordon-Reed notes that Jefferson "had a stated appreciation for beauty in women, music, and art. He loved good food and good wine." She goes on to say, "Even if individual character traits were reliable indicators of a person's level of sexual passion (a claim that requires the employment of stereotypes and extremely subjective judgments), it would be wrong to seize upon some aspects of Jefferson's character to draw inferences about the likely state of his sexual drive to the exclusion of other aspects." I wholeheartedly agree. He had appetites, but there is no suggestion that he was overcome by them. He loved food, but he was lean all his life. He had an extensive collection of wine, but we never read of him drinking too much. Okay, he probably bought more art than he could afford, but it was an investment; yeah, that's it.
Anonymous , Lehigh University
9) The book has been well received, with critics using terms like "fascinating" and "brilliant," and calling it "devastating" to the character argument.
Daryl Royster Alexander E7
10) Gordon-Reed downplays the importance of a youthful crush TJ had on Rebecca Burwell, stating that everyone has probably experienced something similar. That may be, but my experience probably should not be taken as evidence of TJ's response to a similar situation. She adds that, "Scholars also have employed the Rebecca Burwell episode along with Jefferson's clumsy attempt as a young bachelor to seduce Mrs. Walker, his friend's wife, as evidence that he was awkward and shy with women. . . . Even if Jefferson continued to be awkward and shy with women all of his life, does that necessarily indicate he was without sexual passion of sexual partners?" I fail to see why getting turned down is an indication of awkwardness and shyness. Do Gordon-Reed and her fellow historians think that women just automatically swoon over confidence and poise? There are thousands of possibilities as to why Jefferson was unsuccessful in these attempts, and only several hundred of them have anything to do with Jefferson. For me, the best evidence that Jefferson may have been more hot-blooded than history has traditionally allowed is the fate of his wife. In the midst of unpacking Jefferson's "My Head and My Heart" letter to Maria Cosway, she writes, "Jefferson's actions and others' accounts of their relationship show that he truly loved Martha. . . . If reason always reigned supreme for Jefferson, how could he have put his beloved wife through the rigors of frequent childbearing when reason should have told him that she was unsuited to that particular task?" What Gordon-Reed does not say here is that only two reasons, both indicating significant passions, are likely: desperation for a male heir or an ungovernable physical desire for his wife. Either way, he is a driven man. Based on what we think we know: youthful crushes (Burwell) and indiscretions (Walker) that came to nothing, a loving and all too-brief marriage (Wayles), an interest in beautiful and intriguing women with whom he crossed paths (Cosway) and a long-term cohabitative and likely mutually satisfying, if illicit, relationship (Hemings), the guy seems (dare I say it) kinda normal.
Anonymous , Lehigh University
11) By moving beyond the debate over the fact of the liaison, and then beyond the debate over the significance of such a liaison, Annette Gordon-Reed has produced a work that teaches vital lessons about both the state of the historical profession and the craft of history. Alongside its contributions to the fields of Southern history, African American history, the history of race and slavery, the history of the family, and the history of sexuality, this book guides scholars to guard against long-standing prejudices in the interpretation of documents. It also impresses upon us that the best writers of history will never seek to explain away the contradictions.
Martha Hodes 515
12) This section of the chapter is dedicated to refuting the idea put forth by some historians that Jefferson was too cold and asexual to have engaged in an affair with Hemings or any other woman for that matter. Given that Jefferson was a breathing/functioning human, this allegation seems rather improbable from the outset. Gordon-Reed fully dismantles this theory by citing several of Jefferson's own writings as well as the writings of some of the very historians who gave life to this charge. It is highly unlikely that all of Jefferson's sexual desires died with his wife, and Gordon-Reed makes this point abundantly clear. From there, however, she proceeded to walk way out onto that outer limb she seems so fond of. When discussing why Jefferson's reason, his mind, didn't cause him to cut off all ties with Sally Hemings when the story broke in the press, Gordon-Reed states that he would never have changed his actions based on the words of journalists. In her words, his pride would have prevented him from allowing it to appear that "a group of newspaper columnists, not he, ran the plantation." For someone attempting to point out the ridiculousness of using a character defense to exonerate someone whom these historians have never met, nor could truly have known every intimate detail about, Annette Gordon-Reed is certainly leveling some pretty severe judgments against Jefferson's pride. Next, while making her very valid point that it is unwise to attempt to discern much about this politician's personal life based on the public documents he penned, Gordon-Reed again hypothesizes about a different Jefferson. She alleges that "The day-to-day Jefferson may have been, not the opposite of, but perhaps very different than, the Jefferson who appears in his self-consciously constructed documentary legacy." How good of her to throw in that little "not the opposite of"; that's truly the only caveat keeping her from alleging outright that Jefferson burned all of his personal correspondences to keep the public from knowing his nymphomaniacal side. I'm somewhat torn though. I can't decide whether she throws out these other hypotheses that are based on the same minimal data and are equally as far-fetched as the "asexual Jefferson" model of the historians in an attempt to demonstrate the absurdity inherent in making such claims or whether she's simply sinking to their level. I certainly hope it is not the latter.
Eric Edgerton, Lehigh University
13) Her [Annette Gordon-Reed] work forces a reconsideration not only of Jefferson's life, but also of the unconscious, and at times racist, assumptions that have long tainted interpretation of the historical record in this case.
Jewel L. Spangler 477
14) The character defense is one of those incredibly conservative and at the same time desperate arguments used when there is more evidence against your argument than for it. The first of the two "questionable theses" outlined is the idea of such a terrible act as this relationship being an example of Jefferson "overreaching" himself. Because he was not normally an abusive person, this line of abuse would be too horrific to be within the realm of possibility. To this AGR answers: "His contradictory statements about the nature of freedom and of black people suggest that this ability to draw absolute lines on these matters was not as refined as some would allege." In other words, a man who could hold humans as slaves, buy and sell them, separate children from parents, and comment so frankly on the inferiority of blacks, could easily have held a relationship with one of them. Secondly, AGR argues that people naturally assume that such a relationship was one in which Jefferson must have been a rapist, taking advantage of the young girl. What if it was a consensual, romantic relationship? What if Hemings was not completely powerless but was exercising her free will to "say yes" to an advance by Jefferson. This, coupled with her argument that Jefferson was as much a physical and warm-blooded man as he was intellectual and wise, makes for a strong counter argument for the character defense. I am still not completely convinced by her, but she uses as much evidence as possible to come to this conclusion. From his letters of unrequited love to the popular opinion that Sally was actually quite stunning, it seems just as credible as any sort of character defense. My issue is that it seems hard to imagine a middle aged man and a 15-yr-old slave girl having a consensual relationship. She couldn't be at a level of maturity necessary to separate intimidation from a master from love or desire. Who knows, though, it is more believable than the idea that Jefferson was immune to natural sexual desire.
Anonymous , Lehigh University
15) After reading this book, most people will probably share Gordon-Reed's anger and wonder how it could be that a sensible revaluation of the Hemings-Jefferson relationship appeared only in the late 1990s.
Kathleen M. Brown 901
16) As an impressive exercise in logic, Gordon-Reed's work will force all but the most resolute doubters to reconsider their doubts. Her even-handed tone and rational dissection of the pertinent documents compare favorably to the careless misreading of data, special pleading, and patronizing tone that has marred much discussion of the question.
Douglas R. Egerton 348
17) I find myself enthralled with AGR and her tearing apart of previous attempts to cover things up. Her logic is sound, and the way she takes Adair's story apart, for instance, is fascinating. I found myself very interested when reading her account of Adair's story -- heck, nearly wanting to believe it myself (I really don't know why a small portion of my brain holds out hope for more of this to be a coincidence than I know it to be). When she started pulling it apart, I was enthralled. The account of the freeings of James and Robert Hemings go a long way to disprove things. If these two freeings are the only real pillars one stands on to make the point that Jefferson intended to free all Heming's males, they are weak pillars indeed. And the caveat that Adair put in about how some slave just didn't want to be freed, is, frankly, bull. It's hard to imagine a skilled slave who wouldn't take that offer and run with it. AGR's mentioning of some of Adair's assertions made with no evidence, while providing facts that are verifiable herself, lends an amazing credibility to her statements. And, finally, her gentle touch on the "Harriet was sent to James" bit is well-done. When anyone who thinks reads it, come on. What a mistake for Adair to have made. Harriet was sent to someone who was 21 years dead? Really.
Greg King, Lehigh University
18) So, from what I can tell, there are a few main defenses for Jefferson's gentlemanly nature preventing such "ungentlemanly" behavior. Gordon-Reed notes that some people refuse to believe that he and Hemings had a relationship because of the degree of exploitation that it must have involved--a master having sex with his slave, regardless of any possible affection between them, would be taking advantage of his power over her. People become squeamish with this line of thinking because they don't want to believe that Jefferson would even engage in sex or any kind of relationship with a black woman, especially a slave (more on that later) and also because exploiting power during sex is rape, and no one wants to think of Jefferson as a monster. Some scholars have defended Jefferson from these charges on this basis. Sally's age at the beginning of their liaison is also used to show that Jefferson would never have involved himself in a relationship that would amount to child molestation, but Gordon-Reed concisely avoids presentism and debunks this particular theory. The aspect of miscegenation seems to be the most troubling aspect of the rumored liaison for many people. I'm not sure whether it's the dynamics of a relationship between master and slave or the racism between whites and blacks that makes an idea of a biracial relationship (note how the term has evolved from miscegenation) so "terrible" to behold. But Gordon-Reed, and other scholars, do note that Hemings' beauty was both well known and well regarded and that Jefferson has shown interest in beautiful women before. Black or not, Jefferson was playing it safe with Sally Hemings, because he knew he could never marry her and therefore would uphold the promise to Martha, of which both he and Sally knew first-hand. Gordon-Reed conducts a seemingly objective evaluation of the primary and scholarly evidence, but she still seems to support the fact that there had to be at least a little affection between Jefferson and Hemings--otherwise, how could their relationship have lasted 38 years with no proof of children from different fathers? She also seems to support that the circumstances within their relationship may have been simply a sign of the times: they could not live together as man and wife, if he freed her she would have to leave the state, and so they lived as master and slave because that was the only way they could live together safely. She tries to discredit the romanticization of their relationship, but her analysis also leaves little room for belief in any downright monstrous behavior.
Anonymous , Lehigh University
19) Gordon-Reed, a professor at New York University Law School, regarded historians' conventional arguments against the likelihood of an affair between Jefferson and his slave as suspiciously outmoded compared to the increasing sophistication of modern historiography. The nature of such denials, she asserted, "required the systematic dismissal of the words of black people who spoke on this matter." Gordon-Reed subjected the arguments of Jefferson defenders to a legal cross-examination that exposed their inconsistencies.
Bradford Vivian 286-87
20) I think that Gordon-Reed makes some powerful statements throughout her book about Jefferson's role as a father not only to his own white children but his "slave" children as well. Jefferson loved his family very much and Gordon Reed brings up such valid points as if he truly loved his family why would he act in a way that would cause them pain, for instance, driving himself deeper and deeper into debt from which they would suffer. Frankly, I think that it necessarily makes him a bad person because he got into so much debt. My feeling is that he maintained and accelerated such a level of debt out of love for his family. Back then and even now money and status are very important, and I could imagine why in such a time Jefferson might have felt that the better decision was to drive his family deeper into debt in order to maintain a certain lifestyle that they were used to. It most definitely was irresponsible on his part but does that really make him a bad father? Although in the eyes of others his actions may not have been the correct ones and may have ended up hurting his family, but who are we, or Gordon-Reed for that matter, to decide what was the best course and the loving course of a father such as Jefferson to take?
Alexandra Horowitz, Lehigh University
21) He gave us our creed. A lot of nations emerge from the mists of history, and their basic identity is tribal, it's rooted in groups. Ours is rooted in a great assent, an assent to certain propositions. We are as Lincoln said . . . a nation dedicated to a proposition; Jefferson wrote the proposition.
George Will, qtd. in Burns
22) In regards to his affair with Sally Hemings, can we really fault Jefferson for following his heart, that is, if we are assuming this relationship was one about love and not only about lust. Anyway, many people often say that a happy parent is a good one, so I can't necessarily believe that his relationship with Hemings made him any less of a father to the family he had before this woman. Yes, I understand that an affair of this magnitude would be detrimental to his loved ones, especially in relation to their lives in the public eye and their family being criticized by people such as Callender. Frankly, I think that Jefferson did love his family and just did not maintain a level of awareness as to how his actions would affect his family. It is not that Jefferson was a bad father and grandfather, it may have just been that he was a selfish man who cared more for himself and his own needs than the needs of those around him. Many people believe Jefferson had too much love for his family to commit such acts with Sally Hemings. This brings me back to something we read earlier that essentially said Jefferson was too moral a man to commit such actions as well. My feeling is that it has nothing to do with his morality or his love for his family. They are completely unrelated. I think that, yes, it is probable that this affair hurt his family, but I really can't believe that the love he had for his family would really change his actions in regards to this situation. At the end of the day, he loved his family, and he loved Sally Hemings, and they are really not related loves.
Alexandra Horowitz, Lehigh University
23) Within the scholarly world, especially within the community of Jefferson specialists, there seems to be a clear consensus that the story is almost certainly not true. Within the much murkier world of popular opinion, especially within the black community the story appears to have achieved the status of a self-evident truth. If either side of this debate were to file for damages in a civil suit requiring a preponderance of evidence as the standard, it is difficult to imagine an impartial jury finding for either plaintiff. Jefferson's most ardent defenders still live under the influence of what might be called the Virginia gentleman ethos (i.e., this is not something that a Virginia gentleman would do), which increasingly has the quaint and charmingly naïve sound of an honorable anachronism.
Joseph J. Ellis, "Appendix" (in American Sphinx) 365
24) I have some issues with Annette Gordon-Reed early in the book. Particularly the manner in which she can look at two identical situations and proclaim one as irrefutable evidence that Jefferson fathered Sally Hemings' children and disregard the other as meaningless. Before I go any further I feel the need to say that, as a whole, I found AGR's book extraordinarily compelling, and I completely agree with her conclusions. That does not mean, however, that there aren't moments where her own prejudices show. In the chapter on Madison Hemings, under the section regarding Edmund Bacon's statement, we see her struggling to make her point appear valid. In this section she claims that Bacon's omission of the event in which Beverly Hemings left Monticello indicates that Bacon intentionally left this happening out of his recollection since it would have demonstrated TJ's relationship with the Hemings family. When she addresses Jamey Hemings' (who it seems was not fathered by TJ) departure, however, she claims that Bacon's omission of this event was motivated by his desire to keep his former boss from appearing weak by letting a slave escape. In short, two slaves with the same last name left Monticello without being freed. They up and walked away. One was fathered by Thomas Jefferson, and the other was not. For AGR, one of these events and its subsequent recounting is evidence that Jefferson had a relationship with Sally Hemings, and the other is of no consequence. To make such a stark, severe distinction between so comparable situations (that happened hundreds of years ago) for me demonstrates that AGR was most certainly already leaning in the direction of portraying Thomas Jefferson as guilty of miscegenation when she began investigating for this book.
Eric Edgerton, Lehigh University
25) The author clearly states that "I cannot say that I definitely believe the story is true" (p. xvii), but in net effect she tilts the scales steeply in that direction. As an attorney, perhaps, she is not much interested, as historians ought to be, with matters of probability. When I first wrote about this matter, I thought there was possibly a 60 percent likelihood that the essential story was correct as to fact; when I later reviewed Brodie's book, I recall thinking that 65 percent might be closer. Now, I would raise the probability to 80 or even 85 percent.
Winthrop D. Jordan 317
26) Readers can detect Gordon-Reed's personal sentiments seeping into her "lawerly" discussions. The paragraphs in which she discusses the different kinds of racist seem to come from a voice familiar with racism. When she refers to racists who are, at heart, "decent people," one can detect the many levels on which she has been made to feel subordinate. She seems to draw her conclusion about Jefferson, not only from scholarly research, but from personal exposure and first-hand experience. She has probably come into contact with many white people who are polite and tolerant for brief encounters or professional relationships but, like Jefferson, would probably not want to share the community with blacks.
Lehigh University Student
27) Gordon-Reed's book will challenge historians to more thorough and honest explorations of the past. Though she makes any future study of Jefferson and Sally Hemings redundant, she has opened up new inquiries into the roles of people like the Hemings family in American history.
Robert J. Allison 309
28) I have to think out loud concerning some of Gordon-Reed's reasoning and her comments about human nature. In the opening paragraphs of the "Thomas Jefferson" chapter, she talks about Jefferson not "living up to the vision he set before us" and how that has "troubled some Americans from his time until today." As "lawyerly" and reasonable as Gordon-Reed may want to sound, her statement seems emotional and naïve. Isn't the disappointment we all feel about Jefferson's hypocrisy an example of the paradox of the American Dream? Does it exist? Does it exist only in the perfect places of the human heart and mind? Can we put it into action? She wants to defend with logic that which elicits so much emotion. Am I making sense here? I think most of her comments about human nature seem valid. Why would a person who believed a race that could not function as independent adults in society train those same people to do highly skilled work that would render them independent? I agree. Why would a 38-year relationship last unless the woman welcomed the man -- a slave woman? Yes, I can buy that. Sexual passion has nothing to do with cleanliness, stoicism, or compulsion. I know that to be true. I'm not buying the assertion that his myopic financial planning showed disregard for his family's financial future. To me that's just Jefferson's refusal, somewhere in the recesses of his mind, to acknowledge that he's going to die and life after that is out of his control. You don't get any closer to the prime insecurity our humanity brings -- mortality. Hell, Thomas Jefferson was human, and I'm feeling that Gordon-Reed is judging him against an idea -- kind of like the American Dream.
Teresa Salvatore, Lehigh University
29) Weighing the evidence as a trained lawyer would is Gordon-Reed's great strength and contribution, and I think it is safe to say that she will persuade most readers -- as she largely persuaded me -- that the claims of the Hemings descendants to be Jefferson's, too, cannot be casually dismissed.
Jack N. Rakove 684
30) Reading AGR made me think about what I wrote earlier, and I want to go back -- I think J HAD to recognize the humanity of these people. He had to! I keep coming back to the fact HE LIVED WITH THEM. They took care of his kids, his farm, his livelihood! He had to recognize their humanity in the personal relationships that he had with them. I think this is what keeps me from believing that he hated blacks so much, that he ACTUALLY meant what he said in the "Notes." No person that ever has such close experiences with people can keep such a hardened and racist view . . . they just can't. Which makes him a coward.
Maxine McCoy, Lehigh University
31) Her conclusions make a credible case for Sally Hemings the mistress. Her scholarship also makes it difficult, if not impossible, for any future scholar to maintain simply that Jefferson lived on an intellectual plan, not a physical one.
Daryl Royster Alexander E7
32) I felt that AGR was strongest when discussing Jefferson's money and debt issues in his later life. Her point is this: if Jefferson would supposedly put his children and family first on his list of priorities, why would he constantly have intrusive guests in Monticello, and why would he be so careless with his money as to put his family over $100,000 in debt? If his love for his family did not stand in his way of those follies, how could such a relationship with Sally? This puts everything into perspective when talking about Jefferson's "moral impossibilities." Just because the man was a genius, does not mean that his "morals" or love for his family was any greater than other men.
Stephen Rumizen, Lehigh University
33) Gordon-Reed's aim is not to settle the debate (she believes that surviving evidence will not support a definitive conclusion), but to shine light on the backstage battle to control "public impressions of the amount and the nature of the evidence" (xv) and to correct the short shrift given to African-American testimony.
Jewel L. Spangler 477
34) Gordon-Reed makes so many arguments for Jefferson the racist, and yet I admire how she consistently comes back to the hope that she did not want to discover any of it was true. I do find, however, places at which she seems to make assumptions about Jefferson. She talks about Jefferson's assistance to Thomas Bell by selling his lover Mary Hemings and their two children to Bell. She hypothesizes whether Jefferson would have been so helpful if Bell were a black man and wanted to be sold to a white woman. Gordon-Reed states that TJ "might not have been so accommodating to the couple." Can we say for sure? She goes on to say that "the real horror of horrors for Jefferson would be "the possibility that white women and black men could do more easily what white men and black women had been doing." She talks about the double standard in which Jefferson lived and was happy to be part of. The story about Jefferson walking with his grandson seems especially damning to me. Jefferson's lesson to T.J. Randolph is to behave the way you should --better than a black man. Ugh! Gordon-Reed judges someone like Jefferson to be "more dangerous" than racists who are "openly hostile." I can sense she's speaking emotionally here. The racist defense ends with Jefferson's belief that infusion of white blood improved blacks. Ouch! Her point, this belief makes it easy for him to rationalize his relationship with Sally. I don't know, I think Gordon-Reed makes some good arguments, but you can tell this is not an objective endeavor.
Anonymous , Lehigh University
35) Although most would agree with Gordon-Reed's conclusion that a liaison with a male slave would be unlikely in light of Jefferson's documented interest in women, this argument strategy eerily parallels that of some Jefferson scholars, whose problematic assumptions about human nature made Gordon-Reed's study necessary in the first place.
Kathleen M. Brown 902
36) Sally Hemings seems like the jackpot. Being a slave, there is no chance of marriage, no matter how deeply attached Jefferson becomes. She resembles his wife, but younger. To me, it seems like Jefferson has basically started his love life over again, without fear of repercussions!
Anonymous , Lehigh University
37) These and other ever plausible but always unprovable evidentiary points will no doubt continue to be rehashed; Gordon-Reed has made sure that these reassessments will be done more scrupulously and evenhandedly than was once the case. But that in turn exposes the great irony that undercuts the value of this book: it seems to have been written for (or simply against) an earlier age. Whatever the prejudices of that time (and whether they were indeed prejudices is a point many could still contest), reluctance to believe that Jefferson and Hemings could have been an item is hardly a mark of the current generation of scholars.
Jack N. Rakove 684
38) I think AGR is going farther out on a limb than she needs to in order to cast doubt on Wills' assertions. Wills follows what appears to be a sound line of reasoning about Jefferson's personality to what seems to be the least likely conclusion. I have only AGR's quotes and her spin on those quotes to go on, but it seems to me that if Wills saw Jefferson as "dedicated to beauty and refinement" and that he wanted to "hover above the squalor and horror of slavery," it is more likely that he would form an emotional bond with Sally Hemings and provide himself with at least the illusion of a love affair, than that he would use her as a "squalid" man might use a prostitute, repeatedly, over a period of years. It is more likely, based on Wills' reasoning, that he would free a woman's children (his children?) from a place of emotional, even romantic, connection rather than as payment for services rendered. AGR's move to the charge of stereotyping, rather than attacking Wills' own language, appears to betray a sensitivity that she need not betray in order to make her case. It reminded me of something from her Author's Note. On page xii she writes, "The casual implication that Sally Hemings's children may have been fathered by different men is not based upon anything we presently know about the social situation at Monticello. It is more likely the product of long-held beliefs about the licentiousness of black women and the looseness of the black family structure." When I read that I thought: that would not have occurred to me. If Sally Hemings' children had different fathers, I would have supposed it to be because of the sexual licentiousness of slaveowners and the prevalence of the sexual abuse of slaves. How's that for stereotyping?
Anonymous , Lehigh University
39) The moment of Jefferson's ascent into the American version of political heaven can be dated precisely: April 13, 1943, the day that Franklin Roosevelt dedicated the Jefferson Memorial on the Tidal Basin. . . . Jefferson was no longer just an essential ingredient in the American political tradition; he was the essence itself, a kind of free-floating icon who hovered over the American political scene like one of those dirigibles cruising above a crowded football stadium, flashing words of inspiration to both teams.
Joseph J. Ellis, "Jeffersonian Surge: America, 1992-93" (in American Sphinx) 9
40) AGR makes it clear that her job has been to take what is known and make speculations based on this information that are reasonable and justifiable. She also asserts that her fellow historians have not done this themselves. The trouble being that so many of them have approached the subject of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings with a goal in mind: "Make it so no reasonable person can believe they were together." One can argue that AGR did much the same, approaching her book from the opposite goal. However, her treatment of her sources and information shows otherwise. I particularly like how she treats Fawn Brodie in her conclusion. She defends Brodie where she can, showing where she was mistreated, while also conceding where Brodie was weak. She does not elevate her source to infallibility. She treats her as a human being. Many of the historians G-R refutes have done the opposite. They take what is, in essence, weak testimony or evidence, and elevate it far beyond its station. They make assertions based on this information that are treated as fact and skew people's opinions. AGR is basically saying, "I don't care if you like me, I'm going to present what I know and what I feel as what they are; take me or leave me, but you're not going to find holes in my arguments." Whether we can or cannot find said holes is irrelevant. AGR at least approached the subject with every ounce of reasonableness she could muster.
Greg King, Lehigh University
41) As I completed this review, news broke that DNA testing on the male descendants of Eston Hemings offered persuasive evidence that Thomas Jefferson, rather than Samuel or Peter Carr, was his father. This new finding supports Gordon-Reed's interpretation of the truthfulness of Madison Hemings's statement. It should also spur readers to see for themselves how she arrived at similar conclusions about Jefferson's involvement with Hemings by reviewing the historical evidence, unburdened by the presumption that a Jefferson-Hemings relationship was an impossibility.
Kathleen M. Brown 902
42) While reading Gordon-Reed's conclusion, I began to wonder just which is worse, stubbornly defending a man you have built a career around knowing every detail about or not merely being satisfied with exposing a historical figure's infidelities but further insisting upon casting baseless aspersions against said figure. It is because this question exists after reading her book that the words of her conclusion ring a bit hollow to me. For her to write on the corrosive nature of defense after her endeavors into the realm of offense left her way out on a moral limb gives one the impression that the pot is calling the kettle black. In fact, it seems to me that what she has done on occasion in this book is even worse than what Jefferson historians have done. I can certainly understand why someone who has spent his or her life attempting to know everything about a man would chafe at the suggestion that they had failed to notice something as critical as a multi-decade affair leading to the creation of several bastard children. While the methods these historians use to refute these allegations may be utterly despicable (especially the character defense), at least I can understand the motivation behind pursuing them. Gordon-Reed on the other hand has utterly nothing to gain by alleging that Jefferson might have intentionally covered up his vast sexual appetite (for instance, page 127), especially given that she'd already quite firmly proven her original point. Regardless, that Jefferson scholars conducted themselves in a reprehensible manner on the Sally Hemings issue is not a hard sell for Gordon-Reed to make at this point in the discussion. In fact, I agree with her insinuations that some of these men might even be racist. But I think it must be noted that some are simply professionals who responded badly to having their pants pulled down in public over the single issue they purported to know everything about. I especially like her last lines of this section in which she states that she simply wanted to move the conversation on this topic away from the erroneous conception that this liaison could not have happened, that she merely wanted to lay all the evidentiary cards on the table. If only she had stopped there!!
Eric Edgerton, Lehigh University
43) Although she [Annette Gordon-Reed] has clearly mastered the evidence regarding a possible Jefferson-Hemings liaison -- perhaps better than anyone who has written on the issue -- she appears to know very little about slave law or perceptions of race in the early republic. She repeatedly, for example, states that Sally's octoroon children were white under Virginia statute (53-54), although in fact the law was perfectly clear on this point.
Douglas R. Egerton 349
44) By touching on both the historical and the public opinion of Jefferson, AGR solidifies her installment as one that discounts the views of Jefferson scholars with the clear agenda of preserving his face. I like the letter of Malone's, in which he openly admits the selectivity with which he wrote the biography of Jefferson. Immediately, a sensible reader will see that the historians often choose what to include in their own portrait of our founding fathers. It is simply irresponsible to leave out such a tremendous portion of Jefferson's life on the basis of the meek and quaint character defense. You should not simply include the parts that paint him as a hero and a savior when there is so much more to talk about. I suppose it is just another example of censorship, but now we have people like AGR challenging traditional and conservative thinking with a more logical and progressive one. Yeah, Jefferson wrote letters repudiating such an action. He also wrote letters directly contradicting other actions. Because of the close mindedness of historians such as Malone, the public more readily looks for alternatives. As AGR points out, they are the people who have made us believers. She pretty much hits the nail on the head here, and whether or not Jefferson did schtoop Hemings, the way she defends her point is not only more logical and systematic, it is more honorable as well. Good job, AGR!
Anonymous , Lehigh University
45) The rhetorical effect of Gordon-Reed's treatise was twofold. On the one hand, it signaled a political intervention, exposing the biases of Jefferson scholars as well as their investment in "restrict[ing] knowledge as a way of controlling allowable discourse on this subject." On the other hand, her forensic survey of the evidence transformed the criteria for judgment in this case. Contrary to the arguments of professional historians she asserted that the absence of objective standards in historians' assessments of relevant circumstantial and, in her view, highly credible evidence had hindered judgment on this question.
Bradford Vivian 287
46) I found a quote in the conclusion that really rang a bell for me: "When one sets out to prove something that is manifestly possible is impossible, one is on the road to recklessness." By saying this, AGR effectively undermines every ounce of "defense" that the Jefferson scholars have brought to light. Unlike AGR's research, which took all possibilities into account, the Jefferson scholars set out with an agenda, a totally biased outlook on what they would find in their research. Even Malone, when asked if he had left anything out of his biography that might go against Jefferson's morals, he replied effectively "no." He said that one must pick and choose between facts to put in the biography, and that events that were incongruent to those of Jefferson's accepted personality were simply anomalous. AGR makes a good point here when she says that we must know the "out-of-character" things that Jefferson did or we will never no his outer limits as a man. This is how we underestimate and overestimate people, by not knowing their true boundaries.
Stephen Rumizen, Lehigh University
47) There is, of course, a perplexing circularity built into the denials of the Jefferson-Hemings affair/liaison/romance, and Gordon-Reed does a masterful (if at times tedious) job of exposing their self-confirming assumptions. If in fact Jefferson and Hemings were intimate over a long period, then obviously all our impressions of his character would stand sorely in need of correction.
Jack N. Rakove 683
48) The main elements of Gordon-Reed's conclusions are as follows: (1) Jefferson scholars have made no serious attempt to get at the truth of the Sally Hemings story; (2) Historians' attempts to restrict discourse on the matter amount to disrespect of readers and dissenting scholars; (3) in an effort to render the possibility that T. Jefferson fathered S. Hemings children impossible, historians have distorted the lives of S. Hemings and Madison Hemings to fit their preconceptions; (4) Historians, who routinely must speculate on or "interpret" the nature and character of long-dead individuals based upon scant hard evidence, have favored stereotypes over testimony in their treatment of black witnesses to history, particularly regarding the Jefferson-Hemings legend.
Anonymous , Lehigh University
49) Jefferson is important because he wrote in imperishable language some of the most important truths about culture and about freedom in civilization. The Declaration of Independence has been quoted back at tyrants by every insurgency movement since Thomas Jefferson. . . . He's the man who found the language to express the greatest aspirations humanity has.
Clay Jenkinson, qtd. in Burns
50) To take up a defensive position implies that one considers oneself offended. The condition of being offended requires the perception of a threat. Feeling threatened implies some lack of confidence or lack of security, real or imagined. For example, I know I'm not stupid; if someone calls me stupid, I am going to chuckle or ignore that person rather than take offense and assert my intelligence in my defense. If a little child were to start punching me, I might walk away or restrain the child but would not defend myself because I know I am not going to be hurt. So I think it's worth asking of the historians who have taken up the "defense" of Jefferson, "What do you take to be the nature of the offense?" The biggest threat to our estimation of and the reputation of Thomas Jefferson is not in dispute: Thomas Jefferson owned perhaps more than 200 human beings, and he used their labor to relieve his own and to add to his comfort and wealth. How much worse than that is it going to get? Mitigating circumstances such as his moment in history and the idea that he was probably a relatively "good" master should certainly be considered, but this is a charge against which no one is "defending." The charge against which he is defended is the charge that he might have loved one of the human beings he owned, that he might have fathered children by her, and that he might have taken one of them as a "wife."
Anonymous , Lehigh University
51) But nothing that we know about Jefferson supports the linkage between sex and sensuality. His most sensual statements were aimed at beautiful buildings rather than beautiful women. In sum, the alleged relationship with Sally Hemings, if it did exist, defied the dominant patterns of his personality.
Joseph J. Ellis, "Appendix" (in American Sphinx) 366
52) Why would TJ need to be defended against the typically inoffensive charges of love, fatherhood, and monogamy? Gordon-Reed's book points out, quite justly, I think, that the nature of the defense of Jefferson by most historians springs not from a dispassionate search for the truth but from distaste for the possibility of such a union, and that distaste for such a union springs from racism. Critics of Gordon-Reed, and I count myself among them, argue that her conclusions are at least as tenuous as those she criticizes and are based on highly subjective suppositions about "human nature" and interpretations that are no more or less likely that the generally accepted interpretations. I agree. Moreover, I think that is precisely the point. Gordon-Reed's book is mostly about the absence of evidence and the assertion that in the absence of evidence, prejudice has won the day. If witnesses to a crime are unable to agree upon the sequence of events, the height, clothing, and race of a perpetrator, and the make, model, and color of a getaway car when they are questioned only minutes after the crime has occurred, then constructing coherent, reliable narrative of events that occurred hundreds of years ago seems a hopeless business. Under such conditions, it is worth asking the questions and having the discussions about why all of the respected, scholarly work has dismissed the possibility of a Jefferson-Hemings relationship out of hand when the possibility surely existed. Gordon-Reed's book wisely avoids pronouncing a verdict on the truth of an affair but, instead, indicts the phalanx of historians who have rushed to "defend" Jefferson. While Gordon-Reed's work may not bring us closer to the truth or falsehood of the affair, it is a valuable and much needed corrective to the construction of the history of the matter.
Anonymous , Lehigh University
53) Gordon-Reed needed an editor and reviewers who should have told her that her book misses a much more interesting and comprehensive question: how did the casual dismissal of the possibility of the Jefferson-Hemings relationship give way to its nearly as casual acceptance (by scholars and citizens alike) today? As much as I learned from Gordon-Reed's careful and often persuasive assessments of the points in contention, I would have learned much more had she truly brought the controversy down to date. It is an opportunity missed.
Jack N. Rakove 684
54) I understand that historians are limited to their resources and opinions of those they interview, etc., but, frankly I just cannot buy this "against his nature" argument. How is love against someone's nature? I understand that at the time a relationship with a black woman and a slave at that was a HUGE taboo, but, honestly, you can't help whom you love, and there are people every day who are proof of that very fact. I understand that everyone is entitled to their own opinion on the subject, but I just feel as though the argument that the relationship was not in his nature just ignores so many other things. AGR points out that aside from Cosway, Martha Jefferson was the only woman recognized in Jefferson's life, if we discount the relationship with Hemings. Are we to assume that a human man went that many years without some sort of companionship? Yes, he had his daughters and his work to distract him, but we need to get real here. Jefferson may have promised his wife never to remarry, but he did not promise her he would sit around twiddling his thumbs for the rest of his life. If someone finds another to "click" with on a physical and emotional level, how can they be expected to ignore that? I believe that people today have a better grasp on the emotions both physically and mentally that exist within a relationship such as this one, and I think that is why so many people now so willingly accept this relationship as plausible. We live in a different world, and while not everyone is open-minded, I think so many people can empathize with the Jefferson-Hemings relationship.
Alexandra Horowitz, Lehigh University
55) The job of historians, she [Annette Gordon-Reed] argues, is to evaluate all the facts, not just the comfortable facts, and admit possibilities even if there are no definitive conclusions. The portrait she paints of Jefferson scholars reveals instead an effort to protect a public icon, according to their own image of him and their own investment in him, from interpretations that they believed would reduce his cultural value.
Kathleen M. Brown 901
56) How can anyone accuse a slave of being a prostitute as Wills does? I really thought about how Hemings (probably) really wouldn't have a choice in the matter of whether or not she could be a sexual object for TJ, so even though she did get something in return, it doesn't make sense that that was her motive, considering she wasn't even in a position to HAVE a motive.
Samantha Feinberg, Lehigh University
57) "Sally Hemings was fair-skinned enough to have blushed" (134-35), Gordon-Reed writes, thus failing to grasp that for Jefferson race was based not upon appearance, but upon the percentage of "pure negro blood" that one carried. Only octoroons had been purged of African blood; to employ Jefferson's terminology, Sally was but a "quarteroon," and therefore, still black.
Douglas R. Egerton 350
58) One really powerful way AGR gets the reader's attention is that at one point she generalizes the situation and makes it something everyone can relate to: "Few people, if any, always act in character according to what others take to be their personality. Human beings do surprise one another, and we often think that we know someone when we do not. This is particularly likely to be true if the person in question died well over a century before we were born" (169-172). I really thought this was brilliant. It is true, and it completely invalidates the argument that it was a moral implausibility that TJ would have an affair with Hemings, or any black slave for that matter. The idea that it was morally implausible is one that many historians (advocates of this concept) rest their claims on.
Samantha Feinberg, Lehigh University
59) This work [Annette Gordon-Reed's] may convince many readers, but it says far too little about race in the age of revolution and reveals even less about that most impenetrable of all the founding fathers.
Douglas R. Egerton 350
60) AGR's argument in regard to "Mammy love" I think is a good example of how people forget that there were meaningful relationships between slaves and masters in the form of the Mammy. However, I think it is a stretch to connect this type of love to a sexual relationship between a master and such a young slave and call it love as well. Her point about the nature of human feelings is a good one, although again I think motherly love and sexual intimacy are hard to compare. I think AGR's point at best makes readers realize that there were loving relationships between slaves and whites that we forget to acknowledge when looking back at history.
Elaina Kelly, Lehigh University
61) Jefferson is American scripture.
Gore Vidal, qtd. in Burns
62) Overall, I think that AGR's responses to Adair's arguments are incredibly strong. There is not much you can argue against when the facts are the truth. However, to think in terms of a lawyer, I have thought about how I would rebut her argument. Aside from hard facts, AGR has also played the character card with Sally. As she mentions in one of her interviews, she has tried to alter Sally's reputation from that of a slave and cause of scandal, to that of a person, mother, sister etc. I have to agree that if we are going to judge Jefferson's character and use that as evidence for or against the validity of his actions, we should do the same for Sally. The problem is that as much as we would like to relate to Sally or Jefferson, no one really does know their full character. She says, "What made Adair believe that Sally Hemings would have been so careless in her treatment of her children?" (203). As a slave however, a mother might be forced to be less attached to her children (the fear of having them taken away and sold is too viable). There is really no way to know for sure what Sally feelings toward her children were. I just think that if she is going to say that we can't use the "Jefferson character card," then perhaps we should not for Sally. Obviously there is not refuting hard facts. However, the problem is that AGR, Adair, and many other historians, writers etc have taken hard facts and made assumptions based on them. In truth, there is simply just too much that we don't know. I do think that AGR does a very good job at making sure that her statements are valid and her facts doublé-checked. These facts, coupled with her well articulated arguments, are the reason she is able to have such an impact.
Abigail Harris-Shea, Lehigh University
63) My own experience as a college teacher suggested that most students could be counted on to know two things about Jefferson: that he had written the Declaration of Independence and that he had been accused of an illicit affair with Sally Hemings, a mulatto slave at Monticello.
Joseph J. Ellis, "Jeffersonian Surge: America, 1992-93" (in American Sphinx) 7
64) I'm personally a little ambivalent about the way Gordon-Reed debunks the claim that Jefferson would have known better than to sleep with his slaves. While I agree with her point that many slaveholders surely lacked any sort of moral compass or empirical sense of "rightness" and "wrongness" in the way they treated their slaves, I do think she is discounting the fact that it wasn't necessarily the way of all men who held slaves. I guess I just feel like she is little brief in her approach of the topic and is hasty to lump Jefferson in with the group of extremely-exploitative-slaveholders as opposed to the still-obviously-exploitative-but-not-quite-AS-bad-as-other-slaveholders group of men. Just because he held slaves doesn't necessarily beg the assumption that he also slept with them at the drop of a hat. I also don't know how to feel about her claim that people won't accept the relationship because they won't accept it as being consensual. It is an unusual argument, and honestly one I am still mulling over. I guess I never thought people "assumed" the relationship was consensual -- that in itself is so uncertain that to base part of your argument on that being a commonly held belief is a little shaky, I think. That being said, however, I do think Gordon-Reed raises interesting and worthwhile points of view on the situation. If I was just an average reader that wasn't being assigned to pull them apart, I think I would agree with her points rather heartily.
Mary O'Reilly, Lehigh University
65) Gordon-Reed often attempts to second-guess the motives and feelings of men and women long dead, when it might have been wiser to avoid insupportable conjecture in favor of her stronger suit, the lawyerly marshaling of hard evidence (especially because she takes Jefferson's de-fenders to task for their flights of fancy).
Jewel L. Spangler 477
66) I found Gordon-Reed's strategy throughout this section to be really successful. After reading Mapp's excerpt where he stated that "one is asked to believe that even amid the caresses of the cultivated belles of Paris he pined for an ignorant serving girl whose eleven or twelve year old charms were indelibly burnt into his brain" (111), Gordon-Reed seems more level-headed. Her juxtaposition of Mapp's exaggerated and weakly supported claim with her seemingly rational and well-justified counter-claim make it very easy to come to the conclusion that this section leaves us with: females like Sally often had relationships with older men like Jefferson.
Kimbrilee Weber, Lehigh University
67) The author's [Annette Gordon-Reed] thin endnotes and bibliography, which contain little besides books and essays on the Hemings issue, betray scant investigation of Jefferson's plantation world.
Douglas R. Egerton 349
68) Annette Gordon-Reed's work might have had the impact she seeks if it had been compressed into a thirty-five-page article published in a major journal. Gordon-Reed boxes herself into a polemic corner and becomes more of a prosecutor than a historian; her anger gives way to accusation.
Robert A. Rutland 1051
69) Her forensic discourse supplied what recurrent historical arguments dismissing the notion of an affair between Jefferson and Hemings had not: standards that could produce an equitable judgment. On the basis of these standards, Gordon-Reed's treatise function enthymematically; her point-counterpoint rehearsal of cases for and against the likelihood of an affair allowed the credibility and reasonableness of that likelihood to emerge as self evident.
Bradford Vivian 287
70) He is the greatest enigma among major figures in American History. I think we are attracted to him in part because of his mysterious character. If he were a monument, he would be a sphinx. If he were a painting, he'd be the Mona Lisa. If he were a character in a play, it would be Hamlet. There is an inherently elusive quality to Jefferson's character and personality.
Joseph Ellis, qtd. in Burns
71) He is the conceiving spirit of this country.
James Cox, qtd. in Burns
72) Perhaps because she is largely unfamiliar with the period, Gordon-Reed does not adequately investigate Jefferson's racism as a formidable obstacle to a loving, thirty-eight-year romantic relationship.
Douglas R. Egerton 349
73) On the basis of what we know now, we can never know. This means that for those who demand an answer the only recourse is plausible conjecture prefaced as it must be with profuse statements about the flimsy and wholly circumstantial character of the evidence. In that spirit, which we might call the spirit of responsible speculation, after five years mulling over the huge cache of evidence that does exist on the thought and character of the historical Jefferson, I have concluded that the likelihood of a liaison with Sally Hemings is remote.
Joseph J. Ellis "Appendix" (in American Sphinx) 365
74) In short, this is an important work, with things to say not only about its formal subject but about the practices of historians as well. Students of Jefferson will ignore it at their peril; students of American race relations will find it compelling.
Herbert Sloan 61
75) "Historians keep saying it's not important," she said, "and the public says by their interest, 'Yes it is important to us.' Their job is to figure out why." But history is not written by the public. Five years after Jefferson was born, Lord Chesterfield wrote to his son, "I look with some contempt upon those refining and sagacious historians, who ascribe all, even the most common events, to some deep political cause; whereas mankind is made up of inconsistencies, and no man acts invariably up to his predominant character."
Daryl Royster Alexander E7
76) Unfortunately and tragically, I would say that in a sense Thomas Jefferson personifies the United States and his history. He was a man, you see, who claimed to be a man of the Enlightenment. He was a scientist, a humanist -- he knew what he was saying when he said all men are created equal, and it simply can't be reconciled with the institution of slavery.
John Hope Franklin, qtd. in Burns
77) Gordon-Reed's precise and logical argumentation is not just persuasive, but often stunning, as is often the case with scholarship that overturns received wisdom.
Kathleen M. Brown 901
78) Jefferson knew what he was doing, and the transgressions that he committed were transmissions of the mind as well as the heart and that makes it less easy to understand how a man of such gigantic intellectual powers, and so forth, could fritter away his time speculating about how blacks smell or how they reason, and that sort of thing.
John Hope Franklin, qtd. in Burns
79) Far from resolving this controversy, Gordon-Reed's and Foster's responses have only identified further zones of "undecidability" and still deeper ethical and political desires: to imagine the lived burdens of Sally Hemings's existence in terms other than those of historical caricature, and to exhume the alleged psychological torments that Jefferson's marbled public persona has entombed for centuries.
Bradford Vivian 288
80) I'm a forgiving man, therefore I forgive him for what he did, but I remember that what he did was a transgression against mankind.
John Hope Franklin, qtd. in Burns
81) As a practicing professional historian who had recently decided to make Jefferson his next scholarly project, I found this a rather disconcerting insight, full of ominous implications. Jefferson was not like most other historical figures—dead, forgotten and nonchalantly entrusted to historians, who presumably serve as the grave keepers for those buried memories no one really cares about anymore. Jefferson had risen from the dead. Or rather the myth of Jefferson had taken on a life of its own. Lots of Americans cared deeply about the meanings of his memory. He had become the Great Sphinx of American history, the enigmatic and elusive touchstone for the most cherished convictions and contested truths in American culture. It was as if a pathologist, just about to begin an autopsy, had discovered that the body on the operating table was still breathing.
Joseph J. Ellis, "Jeffersonian Surge: America, 1992-93" (in American Sphinx) 12
82) Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings offers the most persuasive case that I know for Jefferson's having fathered mulatto children. But that alone seems to me of limited historical significance. Even if exhumation and DNA testing were to be attempted, what would the effort prove? What is more important is that Annette Gordon-Reed provides a significant lesson about the way America's historians have mangled an emotionally charged matter.
Winthrop D. Jordan 318
83) I think we must consider who Thomas Jefferson was. The idea that Thomas Jefferson could have had a young mulatto mistress in a house overflowing with young children whom he adored is inconsistent with everything we know about the real Thomas Jefferson. His granddaughter Ellen said, "There are such things as moral impossibilities."
Natalie Bober, qtd in Burns
84) When I was younger, the words, these magnificent words [from the Declaration], superseded the man and took over from the man and surpassed the man. As I've gotten older and have begun to look at the man as much as the words, you see this in terrible conflict. The words are so wonderful, they've inspired so many. They've helped create so many other movements beyond his time and his life. And yet his life stood against the words, in opposition to the words. And you wonder about the conflicts in his own mind and whether or not he foresaw the conflicts that would develop as his words were compared with the reality of the ages that followed him. But, when I was young, I never thought about the man and how he may have lived. And, even though I knew he owned slaves, I never, never considered that a conflict with these words. The words stood apart and separate from him.
85) Well, I think we must beware of the arrogance of modernity, the tendency to think that we are wiser and better than all previous generations. Now, one way of asserting that superior wisdom and superior virtue, which I don't share, is to assume that every man in the past had the freedom and the power to assert all the virtues that we believe in. Jefferson, of course, was not an abolitionist, but he did everything within the framework of his time to assert the evils of slavery. In fact, he—in his draft of the Declaration of Independence—included a provision condemning George the Third for having condoned slavery in this country. And his Notes on Virginia are savage in their strictures on the evils of slavery. But he was not an abolitionist; he was a man of his time, and we must accept his limitation with those of his age.
86) Through all of my life, as long as I have known there was a Thomas Jefferson, I have known there was a Sally Hemings. And I have known, not in the scientific way or the scholarly way, but I have known that a relationship existed between these two. This is part of my growing up. This is part of what my parents told me. This is part of what my teachers in school instructed me. I know this relationship existed and, while I cannot prove it, I don't at all find it odd that it might have, or could have, or actually did happen. A man who owns slaves is not far removed from a man who will sleep with his slave. A man whose slave is the daughter of his father-in-law is not far removed from a man who will sleep with a slave. There's no distinction between the slaveowner and the adulterer with his slaves; in my mind, these are equal evils or parallel evils.
87) Jefferson saw African-Americans as noble human beings. In the abstract, he could appreciate the African-American's humanity. We have to understand that Thomas Jefferson occupied a particular moral space and within that moral space, he was a liberal who believed that the most humane thing that could be done with the slavery problem was to re-colonize African-Americans back in Africa. He was not alone in this. James Madison felt similarly. The American Colonization Society was formed for this purpose. And Jefferson wanted slaves to have decent lives. He wanted to be the best slaveholder in America. He could not, however, find the means because he did not think that America was politically ready. Perhaps John Quincy Adams expressed this better than anyone when he said that Jefferson did not have in him the spirit of the martyr.
88) No, I don't think slaveowning or a relationship with Sally Hemings strikes Jefferson off the list of favored Americans or heroic Americans or Americans who set us on the path we're on today. It's a blot, it's a stain, it's a bad mark, it's a disgraceful part of his life but . . . You know, we think Martin Luther King plagiarized his Ph.D. thesis, but when we think about Martin Luther King, we don't say, "Boy, what a great Ph.D. thesis that man wrote" ; we think no, this guy was a freedom fighter and led a movement for human liberty. And the thing about Jefferson is that although this is an awful part of his life, these words and the ideas behind the words just rise above that, at least they do for me. This calling of the best of us rises over what was the worst of him and I think makes him a better person than he might have been.
89) I would describe Jefferson as a scientific racist. What he wrote in the Notes on Virginia was a description of what he thought was an objective scientist's appraisal. He did not feel that he was bringing his personal emotion to his statement that African-Americans had offensive body odors, or African-Americans could not aspire to the same degree of rationality as whites. This is unfortunate but Jefferson did not do this with any ill will. He did not write other than what he considered to be the search for objective truth. We don't like it. It doesn't make us happy to think that the man who is heralded for his love of equality and liberty, who believed in the promise of America perhaps more than any of his generation, that within Jeffersonian optimism, there could exist this dark side. We don't like to think of it that way, but Jefferson was not alone. He was merely a conservative, socially a conservative, Virginian.
90) Jefferson is masked. I feel even his style is almost like a death mask. That it's hard to feel the emotion. There is the sense of abstraction that's there but then you learn. You can begin to see. And I will say, I think slavery was one of Jefferson's real disturbances. I mean, the mind . . . the minute he touches it, there's a vibration. At almost a . . . it's there in the Notes on Virginia and it's there very much again when he comes to it in his autobiography. He says it is written in the book of fate that these people are to be free. So, as you see, he would see history as a book and he could see that it was inevitable that they were to be free. Yet, he is just as sure that they can never live together. So, the minute he sees freedom, he either sees trouble or he sees that they'll have to be relocated—he thinks of Santa Domingo as a place to colonize them outside the country. And it can't help seeming strange that, here he lived in Monticello with all the slaves around him and yet could not see them free and living in the proximity of the white race. That's a difficult problem to face.
91) I don't think it's our place to forgive. He was only capable of doing so much. It's 20th century Americans who expect so much of Thomas Jefferson because we know the eloquence that he was capable of. We can relate to that. And so if he was able to write in such a way that continues to inspire us, continues to make us feel that there is hope for the progress of the human spirit, we just can't accept that a man with that kind of vision who can connect with us in that way could not have understood that black people were just as competent, just as inspired, just as noble as the Americans whom Jefferson embraced in his writings.
92) Jefferson, the slave-owner and slaveholder and slaver-worker, contradicts Jefferson, the father of liberty. These are two ideas that can't, in my mind, be reconciled. He obviously struggled with reconciling them, but did not come to grips with them. But it is a poison that dilutes the effectiveness of these wonderful words, of these noble words. It's a scourge that whips them and beats them back as they're trying to push to the forefront. It's a blot on him. It's a blot on his record. It's a blot on his reputation. It's a blot on his generation.
93) The reason why it's highly unlikely that Jefferson could have fathered the children of Sally Hemings is that he was a moralist, but beyond that he was a practical politician. And as President, he would not have been capable of giving Sally the two children that were born when Jefferson was a 60-year-old man and in the White House. Callender's revelations had surfaced.
94) So it's always been part of my world that Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings had a sexual and romantic relationship. How willing she was, who can say? No one knows. Perhaps it was a loving relationship. And it's always struck me how resistant scholarship has been to this notion, at least until fairly recently, refusing to consider the possibility and just rejecting it. "Mr. Jefferson never would have done such a thing." Of course he would have. If you own slaves, if you can bring yourself to own other human beings, why is it such a major step to sleep with one of them, to have a sexual relationship with one of them, to possibly abuse and use one of them? What is the difference here? There is none in my view, so it's perfectly understandable. And was part of my life.
95) In a perfect world, Jefferson would have had the foresight to write something more promising about the relations he would like to have seen develop among the races. He felt he was being an objective scientist when he said that Americans and Indians could intermarry and produce beautiful offspring, but that white Americans and black Americans would produce unattractive offspring. Why? Why did he think this way? I don't know. He was a man of his time. It's not a good excuse, but that's just the way it was.
96) We've said that Jefferson is a man of many contradictions and paradoxes. Without question slavery is the central paradox, the central contradiction of his life that he could never completely answer. Well, the fact is that he was born into slavery and died with about 200 slaves that he owned. In the course of his life, he probably owned between three hundred and fifty and four hundred African Americans. And his life was dependent upon those people who were his manservants and the people who built Monticello. The life that Thomas Jefferson lived and wanted to live was impossible without slavery. And yet, and yet he also was the man who, more than anyone else, articulated in a truly eloquent way the values of human equality, the values that are central to the liberal tradition in America and the values that led the way in various reforms, including the Abolition movement, to the end of slavery. How did he reconcile himself to this? It's his darkest mystery and it, I believe, goes back to the capacity to create inside himself different personae, different identities that can co-exist without bumping into each other. He is in some sense the first post-modern man, Protean man, several persons, multiple personalities.
97) With regard to slavery, the first thing to keep in mind about Jefferson was that he was passionately opposed to slavery all his life and he meant it. He was an honest man. The second thing is to ask yourself with what basis are you going to approach history. It's very easy to approach everything in history from a moral standpoint because that makes you superior to or equal to the person you're attempting to judge. But is judging the way to actually learn? I don't think so, you know? With many teachers today who like to set themselves up in a position of judging the people that they are teaching about . . . but if you do that, you blind yourself to them.
98) The hardest problem with Jefferson is slavery. Jefferson articulates the ideal that we're all created equal and yet he owns 150 to 175 slaves at the time. By the time he dies, he owns 200 slaves. It's extraordinarily difficult to get at the contradiction. My sense is that Jefferson is not thinking about slaves when he's talking about "all men are created equal." That doesn't mean we can't take his words and reinterpret them for our own lives. In 1780, Massachusetts wrote a constitution where they almost quoted from the Declaration and the Supreme Court used that constitution to end slavery in Massachusetts. So, people even at the time could use Jefferson's words that way. But I don't think Jefferson meant it to include non-whites.
99) I answer the question regarding Thomas Jefferson as a man of his times by saying that he was himself different from some of the men of his own time on this very question. I speak not of persons who did not own slaves, for example. I speak not of the antislavery crowd in the north. I speak of Jefferson's contemporaries, his fellow Virginians, his neighbors. And while he set the high standards, they practiced these standards with much greater seriousness and much greater honesty than he did. For example, Thomas Coles, his protégé, said that he could not bear to hold slaves, and therefore he set his slaves free and left the state and went to Illinois. Thomas Jefferson told him he was making a mistake—he should remain in Virginia and take care of his slaves. Thomas Coles said, "No, I can't do it." George Washington, while not the great intellectual that Thomas Jefferson was, was nevertheless perhaps a greater humanitarian. George Washington set his slaves free upon his death. Thomas Jefferson, no, just a few.
John Hope Franklin
100) I think about Jefferson sitting in that house, torn between what he, in his best times, knows is wrong and what he knows is right. The agonizing over his attitudes towards his slaves, towards black people generally. I feel drawn to him. I sympathize with him. I almost want to reach out and say, "Tom, you know, you can work this out." I'm sorry he didn't, that he didn't come to some closure in his own lifetime, or some closure that satisfies us now, in his own lifetime. So I do feel some sympathy for him, some feeling toward him. I want him to have done better than he did. I want him to have worked this conflict through. And he didn't do it.
101) What's unattractive to many of his most ardent fans is that he really was, despite his rhetoric in the Declaration, dependent on slavery and a racist, a believer in the inability of blacks and whites to ever live together in peace and harmony in this particular society. One of the major reasons he never freed his own slaves—he ended up freeing in his lifetime eight of his slaves—one of the reasons he never freed more than that was that he didn't really believe that, once free, they could exist in this society with whites. And I think that this is the central paradox of his life and, as we focus more on that as historians now in the late twentieth century, it's ironic that this tribune of democracy has helped to create a democratic movement that has now reached the civil rights stage and promised equality for both blacks and whites in this society. And in that sense, it's outdistanced his original intention.
102) I don't want to pretend to judge Thomas Jefferson. And actually I refuse to judge Thomas Jefferson. But Jefferson was the, Jefferson was the owner and the caretaker of a family estate in the South. It could not be run without slaves. His choice was to sell it and move to an apartment in New York—which many people today would say he ought to have done—or to carry on and argue against the very institution of slavery on which his own plantation was based. He took that second courageous position for which, it seems to me, we ought to give him his due credit. It does not make him out to be a hypocrite. He was always opposed to slavery even though he benefited.
103) Lots of people who work on Jefferson are always looking for some humanizing traits or incidents, something that is a human-interest angle on Jefferson. I think that's one reason they focus on, say, something like the Sally Hemings story or the romantic affair with Maria Cosway in Europe, or Jefferson and his children.
104) That, in fact, is the dilemma. It's our national dilemma, which is to know that slavery is wrong, it was wrong and yet Jefferson continued to own slaves. And we continue to have a problem with racism in this country. The way I approach this issue is to recognize and to realize that when we judge Jefferson poorly, it is by his own standard. The only way we can judge him a failure is by holding up his own words against him, that all men are created equal. Had he not given us that doctrine, had he not popularized it in this extraordinary way in the nation's founding document, we wouldn't be able to judge him poorly, as we do. So, it's by Jefferson's own standard that we judge him, and he doesn't meet his own standard in some way, then in a very important way, Jefferson is a tragic figure.
105) The Sally Hemings question seems to me to be almost silly. Short of digging up Jefferson and one of Sally's children and doing a DNA test, we could never know if he was their father. But I don't think it really matters. Sally Hemings is the half-sister-in-law of Jefferson. Sally's father was also the father of Jefferson's wife. So therefore, all of her children are his half-nieces and nephews. Furthermore, most Jefferson scholars claim that Jefferson didn't father her children, but one of Jefferson's own nephews did. One of the Carr brothers. So they're doubly his nieces and nephews. To me it doesn't make much difference whether you're enslaving your children or your own blood relatives and the blood relatives of your wife. There's something immoral enough about owning slaves. There's something even more immoral about owning your blood relatives as slaves.
106) The Sally Hemings story is in some sense the kind of red herring of the Thomas Jefferson life, that is, everybody seems to want to talk about Sally Hemings. Sally Hemings was a mulatto girl who worked for Jefferson. The Hemings family was about 30 people. Many of them were house slaves and Sally was one of the house slaves. The accusations were originally made by a notorious polemicist named Callender in 1802, that Jefferson and Sally were lovers or that she was his concubine, this has been dragged through the pages of history. It's like a tin can that's been tied to Thomas Jefferson's tail and has rattled through the ages and pages of history. And Fawn Brodie's book in 1974 revived it. I think that, if it were a legal case brought before a dispassionate group of jurors, the evidence would now be such that Jefferson would be found not guilty. The bulk of the scholarly evidence suggests that it is not Jefferson who fathered Sally's children but probably Jefferson's nephew, Peter Carr.
107) It is always possible to take a morally superior position to someone who lived two centuries before you did. If Jefferson had lived in the North, one could say, "Sure, he opposed slavery, but he wasn't part of that system of the South that was so integrated into slavery." As he lived in the South, you can say, "Sure, he opposed slavery by word but not deed, therefore he was a hypocrite." This is all hogwash. He was the best man he possibly could have been under the circumstances short of making some dramatic showboat gesture such as ending the family fortune and freeing his slaves, which I think Jefferson would have put in the category with miracles.
108) The words that he wrote and the natural law that he articulated are essential to human freedom. The Declaration of Independence has been quoted back at tyrants by every insurgency movement since Thomas Jefferson; so the Declaration of Independence instantaneously became one of the world's most important documents. So we have to know about Jefferson because he's the man who found the language to express the greatest aspirations that humanity has.
109) I think you can hold Jefferson responsible for failing to free his slaves. Many of his neighbors freed their slaves during and after the Revolution. Washington freed all of his slaves at his death. Jefferson's neighbor, Edward Coles, took all of his slaves to Illinois and freed them. Jefferson lived in a world where many people challenged slavery. Many people freed them. Jefferson did not. He freed three slaves during his life, all of them under very questionable circumstances. In one case, the slave was living in Philadelphia and may have had a legal claim to freedom already. He freed five at his death. The most tragic thing is Jefferson freed one of his slaves at his death and said that the slave could live on the grounds at Monticello in a house with his family but Jefferson didn't free that slave's family. That slave's family was auctioned off with the rest of the other slaves after Jefferson died. Jefferson could have joined an emancipation organization. There was a Manumission Society in Virginia that Jefferson could have joined. He was invited to join the French Manumission Society when he was in France. His friends all over the country were involved in trying to end slavery. Jefferson didn't lift a finger to do so and when people like his neighbor Edward Coles wrote to Jefferson and said, "I'm planning to free my slaves," Jefferson said, "Don't do it. Keep your slaves. Be a good master. Don't free your slaves." Coles asked Jefferson to propose a gradual emancipation program in Virginia. Jefferson flat out refused to do it. By this time Jefferson was retired. He had no more political ambitions. This would have been the crowning glory of his career. And instead, he ignores the issue. He fights the issue. At the very end of his life during the Missouri Compromise debates, he writes and says that he thinks that the nation is committing treason against the hopes of the world because they're debating slavery. To my way of thinking, it's Jefferson who's committing the treason against the hopes of the world because he had the opportunity of all of the Americans to take a forthright stand against slavery. He doesn't do it, ever.
110) The real issue that the Sally Hemings scandal raises is, how could this man who was living in the midst of what is effectively a bordello at Monticello where relations between blacks and whites were going on all the time, whether or not he himself was involved, how could he be presiding over this and simultaneously believe in the values associated with the Declaration of Independence? Again, it comes back to this capacity to disassociate himself from other parts of himself. But, to me, the Hemings episode isn't significant in terms of did he or didn't he, so much as the way it shows that Jefferson is immersed in racial and sexual issues that he can't escape from.
111) There's a tremendous contradiction, a tremendous hypocrisy between Jefferson's words and his deeds when we look at his articulation of human liberty and when we look at the fact that he is a tenacious slave holder, going after his runaway slaves throughout his life, holding onto his slaves and, of course, using his slaves as a source of ready capital whenever he needs money. Jefferson goes to France and seems to buy everything in sight: over 80 crates of everything from dishes to furniture to books to sculpture to paintings. It goes on and on and on. They recently found bottles of wine still in France that Jefferson forgot to bring back with him. How does he pay for all this? He pays for it in part by the labor of his slaves. He pays for it in part by selling slaves. He sells over 80 slaves in just the decade alone from 1785 to 1795.
112) Thomas Jefferson, in Notes on Virginia did develop a kind of racial theory, but I think it's important to remember that he said, "this is a hypothesis." He also said, "Even though I perceive, based on my experience in a plantation in Virginia that there are racial differences, it doesn't undermine in any way the fact that all people have a moral value. It doesn't mean that half of the Americans don't have certain rights. It's just this is my perception at this moment in time." By our modern standards, we would say that those are racist notions, but I think it's very important for scholars and other people too to keep people in the context of their own times.
113) In some sense, that incompatibility of the ideas of liberty with the institution of slavery, combined as they are in this person who gave us the formulation of who we are, perhaps is also symptomatic of the difficulty that this country has had in dealing with race and the problem of racial war. I think that people are created differently, and I agree with Jefferson that some of them are endowed with some gifts and others are not, but this is not—does not—correspond to racial or sexual or other lines. So in that sense, it may be a sad but a very profound admission that we have to make. We identify with Jefferson in more ways than one.
114) This is the great contradiction of Thomas Jefferson—the fact that, as a slaveholder, he was also a great advocate of human freedom. He had difficulty, I think, reconciling his principles with his actions. In that way, he was human. We have often placed Thomas Jefferson in a situation which is not always fair to Thomas Jefferson. I mean, this is a man, this is a man with human frailty. The fact that he was so much more than many of the average men of the time has sometimes confused us so that we start to think of him as more than human. And he really wasn't. He was really a human being.
115) Jefferson serves, in other words, as a kind of convenient rallying point for both those people who wish to argue in an inspirational way about the greatness of America as a nation and those people who find that that greatness is wanting and that are really arguing in a very critical way about the failure of our nation to live up to its ideals. He becomes the convenient conduit, crucible, rallying point, call him what you will, to bring together these different camps and to let them argue with each other.
116) I think Jefferson felt that slavery was doomed. I don't want to make him out to be a prophet who can see everything in a crystal ball, but he certainly understood that slavery and the moral health of the United States were incompatible. And he argued that from the Declaration of Independence on forward and backward in history. He again and again argued against slavery. One question to ask about Jefferson if one's going to judge him is how many thinkers of his era can you point to who maintained that slavery was an unjust institution, that all races were equally well endowed mentally and physically, that equality really meant equality for everyone. It's a fairly short list and Jefferson's on that list.
117) In some ways, Thomas Jefferson invented racism in America. I realize that's a strong statement. But Jefferson, I think, because he knew in his heart that slavery was wrong, and yet at the same time was so hooked into the system and could never give it up, felt the necessity of creating a scientific rationale for racism. And he does so in the Notes on the State of Virginia. He talks about the blood of blacks perhaps making them black. He suggests that blacks mate with orangutans. He suggests they prefer white women to their own. He also goes on and on about the inferiority of blacks, that they aren't as smart as whites, that they don't have the same skills, that they have no musical skills, no poetry. He says they're as brave as whites but that's only because they lack forethought. And he does all this very articulately because he's perhaps the most articulate man of his generation. So that Americans come to believe in racism by reading Jefferson. And in the 1840's and 50's, these Southern racists who are defending slavery are reading Jefferson and quoting him on these issues.
118) Slavery, to me, was the great unresolved issue in Jefferson's life. He took a swing at some complex questions like freedom of religion, freedom of speech, democratic values, public education, and his legacy there is extraordinary. But he grappled with the issue of slavery and never succeeded in resolving it. He wrote sincerely, I believe, that slavery was a moral wrong, but he was dependent on slavery. He abhorred it but he was a part of it. So this is the great unresolved issue. Before we criticize him too much, I think we have to keep him in the context of his times. Slavery was a way of life. It's an abomination to us today. But the American people required a horrible war and 600,000 deaths to resolve that issue.
119) Jefferson probably invented in a sense American racism. In the Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson goes on and on for many pages about the inferiority of blacks. He suggests on one hand that they mate with orangutans in Africa but, on the other hand, he suggests that they are also always after white women. He says that blacks are not as smart as whites, that they have no skills in poetry, in music. He says that they can never accomplish what whites can accomplish. He compares Roman slaves to black slaves and says Roman slaves did all these wonderful things but that's 'cause they were white. He also says that blacks are brave, as brave as whites, maybe even braver, but he says that's because they lack forethought so they can't see the causes or the consequences of their actions. This is very damaging, horrible ideas and they are used over and over again in the 1840's and 50's by the defenders of slavery to argue in favor of continuing slavery. Jefferson justifies slavery, in fact, by arguing that blacks are inferior to whites on almost all levels. Furthermore, throughout his life he expresses fear of miscegenation, race-mixing. He is obsessed with the question. He is also obsessed with the problem of free blacks. He thinks if you ever end slavery, you must transport all blacks out of the United States. This is impossible to do. He knows it. And if it's impossible to do, then the logical conclusion is you can never end slavery. So, in fact, his own racism justifies the continuation of slavery because he can't conceive of free blacks in his own society.
120) I know that Thomas Jefferson was deeply pained by the institution of slavery. He thought it was a corrupting force, and he said that, many times, in his letters. He tried to pass legislation to lighten the burden and was unsuccessful in that and saw that it was going to be unsuccessful for quite a while. I think it's an honor to him and to the country that he felt such pain about it. Since he was a true visionary, he saw where slavery was leading us and was appalled, saw that freedom would come sooner or later, saw the cost of it. And embraced that, contained that pain.
121) To say that Thomas Jefferson is a racist is perhaps to apply a 20th-century term to him. I would simply say, without putting a label on it, that he talked very much like a person who felt superior in every conceivable way to the slaves or to free blacks. He thought he was superior to them when it came to color: he thought the color of blacks was very, very foreboding and unattractive, as I think he put it. He thought that slaves or blacks had a smell that white people did not have and that came from sort of—sort of the function of the kidneys of blacks. Well, he might be a scientist but I think he's pretty far off base on that score. He spoke of blacks as having memory almost equal to whites, but no reason. They were not capable of reasoning. As he said, "I have found none who could understand the problems posed by Euclid." That's as though saying he was running up and down his roads in front of Monticello or somewhere else, and all the whites that he found were capable of understanding the problems of Euclid but no blacks were. On both scores, I think he's probably just dreaming and making up things.
John Hope Franklin
122) No, I do not think that she was his mistress, no. That would have required—just to pursue this a little further—that he continue this relationship for a period of 25 years and that two of the children would have been born after the Callender story came out and while he was president of the United States. And that would have been a tremendous presumption on the American public, I think, and public sensitivities in this area as well as his own sensitivities. And so I think it's quite impossible.
123) It seems to me that anyone who has a sense of integrity will recognize integrity in Jefferson and won't believe that there was an atom of possibility that the Sally Hemings story happened, since Jefferson was such a deeply compassionate man and felt the way he did about slavery. Besides, he simply didn't have that strong a libido. I just don't think it's possible that he was a liar and a whoremaster. Few people can be that schizophrenic.
124) We hold him, in the end, as a person who did some good things, said some good things, performed some good deeds. And a person who, at the same time, committed some awful offenses against human beings and who, I think, was quite aware of what he was doing when he did so.
John Hope Franklin
125) Since you can't factually prove or disprove it, you have to resort to Jefferson's character and it seems to me that the whole thing is a great libel on Jefferson's character, that everything that Jefferson did in his life repudiates that story about Sally. And it's been exploited for various reasons down through the years either by people who are just plain against Jefferson or by other people who want to exploit romanticism of one sort or another, you know, about a great man.
126) Jefferson knew and exemplified the fact that history is the history of mind, that ideas have consequences. Indeed, that only ideas have large and lasting consequences. And being a man self-aware and sophisticated about history, Jefferson, it seems to me, had to know the probable consequences of his ideas. He did not know, surely, that sowing this proposition "All men are created equal," would one day work itself out in four years of civil war, but he had to know that at the end of the day, the consequence of his ideas would be liberty for the enslaved.
127) What do I think about Sally Hemings? I think that it doesn't really matter whether he slept with her or not. He could have. After all, he owned her. She was subject to his exploitation in every conceivable way. It was he who brought her to Paris; it was he who sent her home from Paris. He had complete control of her destiny. And he might have fathered the several children for which we sometimes give him blame or credit. But, you see, it's not the important subject, it seems to me. It's not the important question. When we see the countryside at Monticello and all over Virginia and South Carolina and North Carolina and other places littered with mulattos of every conceivable description—red-haired, green eyes, freckled faces, and all the rest—we know that someone is busy sleeping with the slaves, and I see no reason why Thomas Jefferson should be excused from that. He was more discreet than James Hammond. When James Hammond's wife asked him if a certain baby on the plantation was his, he said, "Well, it could be." Jefferson would never say that. But these youngsters around Monticello could have been his children. And it's perhaps as easy to ascribe them to him as to his nephews. It's easy now. Many people who deny that Jefferson fathered any mulatto children say that it was done by his nephews or by some other relatives. They seem to have scientific proof for that, without having any scientific proof for his not having slept with Sally Hemings or some other slaves. The important point to make is that throughout the land in the 18th and 19th centuries, blacks were the victims, the subjects, the exploited people of their owners and of those whites who didn't own them. And that we lived in such immorality, such irregularity . . . that these things were part of the natural landscape in Virginia, and Mr. Jefferson was as likely as any others to have done this because it's in character with the times—and indeed, with him, who believed in exploiting these people that he controlled completely.
John Hope Franklin
128) The Hemings family is terribly important to the Monticello story. There's no historical evidence that there was a relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally. She enters the scene as a 14-year-old in France, where she had come along somewhat unexpectedly to accompany Jefferson's youngest daughter. There are oral traditions that are in conflict. There are many blacks today who believe they are descendants of that possible union. On the other hand, there's another oral tradition that would say that the paternity rested with others than Thomas Jefferson. My own belief is that, as one of the contemporaries of Jefferson said, it would be morally impossible for that relationship to have occurred.
129) I think that his reluctance to set the slaves free comes from selfishness and arrogance. Not fear. For a man who was in control, in complete control, who had no experience with insurrections or plots to insurrect or to rise up, I don't think that was a reality for him. I think that he was satisfied with the institution of slavery. He was comfortable with the work that slaves were doing for him. And it's merely one more excuse—you could call it arrogance if you will—for his arguing that slavery should be maintained or that he cannot set his slaves free or that they have a wolf by the ears and we cannot let him go or that, in the case of Thomas Coles, he should stay here and take care of his slaves. I think that that's what he had decided to do, and it was not fear.
John Hope Franklin
130) Thomas Jefferson railed against miscegenation. We know it was a common practice on many Southern plantations. I don't think it's acceptable to say because it happened elsewhere, it necessarily happened with Thomas Jefferson. Was Thomas Jefferson an average person? Was he like everybody else? Well, obviously not. He was also totally devoted to his family and he had 11 grandchildren living with him. And one of the granddaughters lived essentially directly above him. She heard everything. She heard him when he got up in the morning and sang Scottish airs and the like . . . There are no secrets on a plantation, certainly not at Monticello. And his family, to whom he was totally devoted, completely discounted this possibility.
131) We want him to be a hero and he was not a hero in relation to slavery at all. He was a pragmatist. He was an Enlightenment figure and there is a dark side to the Enlightenment. He believed so strongly in the progress of the human condition that it, in some ways, forestalled his efforts to end the institution. He was so confident that things were gradually improving and that it was only a matter of time before this terribly unjust institution would be eradicated.
132) I would not hold Thomas Jefferson up as an American hero. I would hold him up as an American, an American who was a talented, gifted, creative human being, but whose flaws were such that they stand out graphically and even dramatically. So he's not a hero to me, but there are not many heroes without flaws. Perhaps we think that they shouldn't have flaws. In any case, his flaws are so great that he ceases to be a heroic figure for me.
John Hope Franklin
133) Jefferson was a man of his time and his place. And in 18th-century Virginia, property in human beings was the fabric of society. Still, Lincoln, the man who was to end that institution, said, "All honor to Jefferson," because Jefferson had taken what was a merely national struggle, the American struggle for independence, and cast it in rhetoric that made it a human struggle. And by doing so, he sowed the seeds of the end of the peculiar institution of slavery.
134) Jefferson was a racist. He believed that blacks were genetically inferior to whites. And he concludes in his book, the only book he ever published, Notes on Virginia, that either from separate origin or some divergence from a common origin, that blacks are inferior both of mind and body to their white counterparts. And he erects an elaborate and in some ways outrageous argument to justify this scientific claim. Now admittedly, Jefferson says in Notes on Virginia and everywhere else that he addresses this question, that he has come to this scientific conclusion with enormous reluctance and hesitancy. And at one point, he says, "I fear to make this conclusion because I may be condemning a whole race of people unjustly." And he hopes always that better anthropology, better science will disprove his theory of race inferiority. But he argues that blacks have a different odor from whites, that they're less intelligent than whites, that they cannot produce poetry, that their thought is primitive and so on. In fact he goes so far as to repeat a notion put forward by a Scottish anthropologist that blacks like to breed with white women just as orangutans in Africa like to breed with black women, that is that primates like to breed up if they can. And so here's a man of exquisite science and sensitivity who somehow allowed himself in his most important single piece of writing to retail views that we now consider to be outrageous.
135) That's a very difficult question to answer except to say that he believed that race was a key determinant of a person's ability and of a person's character. To that extent, yes, he was. Was he a racist in terms that we would understand in 1995? That's a more difficult question to answer. But I would have to say that if Thomas Jefferson were living in 1995, looking at himself and his life 200 years before, he would certainly agree that race had played the central role in his viewing of human beings and his shaping of his ideas about human character.
136) Sally Hemings remains the notorious mystery of Jefferson's sexual life. Most Americans think that Jefferson had a slave mistress named Sally Hemings and at least four and perhaps more children by her. Most historians have been reluctant to admit this. We don't know. The evidence is slender. What we know is this: that Jefferson was at Monticello about nine months before Sally Hemings' children were born, that her children were certainly mulattos, that they had a white father, that Jefferson may have been their father. Her youngest son, Madison Hemings, late in his life gave a newspaper interview in Ohio saying that his mother Sally had told him, Madison Hemings, on her deathbed that Jefferson was his father and the father of his siblings. Now historians don't know quite what to make of that testimony because there are some things about it that lack credibility. But it seems to me that it would not be out of the range of possibilities for Jefferson to have had a slave mistress and to have fathered children by her, in spite of his well known public statements that he abhorred mingling of black and white blood.
137) Was Sally Hemings his mistress? We don't know. How can you know that? The only thing we do know is that there is strong circumstantial evidence. I think a more interesting question is: Why do we care? And the answer to that question, I think, lies in our need to believe in the perfection of this American icon. The fact of life is that whether or not Thomas Jefferson produced children by Sally Hemings, it was not at all unusual for slaveholders to produce children by slaves. That was true in the 18th century, through the 19th century, and most people in the South before, after, and during Thomas Jefferson's time understood that.
138) The question to be asked is, Why are we so intent upon learning the answer to that question [whether Sally was his mistress] which, obviously, we can never learn? Would it make a difference? Would it make a difference that this man who says "I'm for freedom" holds people in slavery, and then does he have to take the next step and produce people who he will hold in slavery? Perhaps; perhaps he did. I think, as I said, that there's strong circumstantial evidence that he did. But there's certainly no definitive evidence that he did. I would still honor the Declaration of Independence even if Thomas Jefferson had produced children by Sally Hemings. And I would also argue that blacks at the time and in the century following honored the Declaration of Independence and Thomas Jefferson's words even as they recognized the inconsistency of the man in terms of his actions.
139) Well, I think Thomas Jefferson is a hero but a hero that is flawed. He is a hero in that he said the right things and wrote them well. He is a hero in that he stands for the things that most Americans hold dear. But I think that he is not a hero because he didn't have the personal tenacity, the personal wherewithal, to stand against many in his society and stand in favor of a total liberty and a total freedom.