The Hemingses of Monticello

The Hemingses of Monticello

An American Family

Book - 2008
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In the mid-1700s the English captain of a trading ship that made runs between England and the Virginia colony fathered a child by an enslaved woman living near Williamsburg. The woman, whose name is unknown and who is believed to have been born in Africa, was owned by the Eppeses, a prominent Virginia family. The captain, whose surname was Hemings, and the woman had a daughter. They named her Elizabeth.

So begins this epic work--named a best book of the year by the Washington Post, Time, the Los Angeles Times,, the San Francisco Chronicle, and a notable book by the New York Times--Annette Gordon-Reed's "riveting history" of the Hemings family, whose story comes to vivid life in this brilliantly researched and deeply moving work. Gordon-Reed, author of the highly acclaimed historiography Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, unearths startling new information about the Hemingses, Jefferson, and his white family. Although the book presents the most detailed and richly drawn portrait ever written of Sarah Hemings, better known by her nickname Sally, who bore seven children by Jefferson over the course of their thirty-eight-year liaison, The Hemingses of Monticello tells more than the story of her life with Jefferson and their children. The Hemingses as a whole take their rightful place in the narrative of the family's extraordinary engagement with one of history's most important figures.

Not only do we meet Elizabeth Hemings--the family matriarch and mother to twelve children, six by John Wayles, a poor English immigrant who rose to great wealth in the Virginia colony--but we follow the Hemings family as they become the property of Jefferson through his marriage to Martha Wayles. The Hemings-Wayles children, siblings to Martha, played pivotal roles in the life at Jefferson's estate.

We follow the Hemingses to Paris, where James Hemings trained as a chef in one of the most prestigious kitchens in France and where Sally arrived as a fourteen-year-old chaperone for Jefferson's daughter Polly; to Philadelphia, where James Hemings acted as the major domo to the newly appointed secretary of state; to Charlottesville, where Mary Hemings lived with her partner, a prosperous white merchant who left her and their children a home and property; to Richmond, where Robert Hemings engineered a plan for his freedom; and finally to Monticello, that iconic home on the mountain, from where most of Jefferson's slaves, many of them Hemings family members, were sold at auction six months after his death in 1826.

As The Hemingses of Monticello makes vividly clear, Monticello can no longer be known only as the home of a remarkable American leader, the author of the Declaration of Independence; nor can the story of the Hemingses, whose close blood ties to our third president have been expunged from history until very recently, be left out of the telling of America's story. With its empathetic and insightful consideration of human beings acting in almost unimaginably difficult and complicated family circumstances, The Hemingses of Monticello is history as great literature. It is a remarkable achievement.
Publisher: New York, NY : W.W. Norton & Co., 2008.
Edition: First edition.
ISBN: 9780393064773
Branch Call Number: 973.460922 HEMIN GOR
Characteristics: 798 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm


From the critics

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This book includes the most fascinating depiction of the institution of slavery I've ever read. It is much more than the story of the Hemings family and their impossibly complicated relationships with Thomas Jefferson. I was fascinated throughout.

Apr 07, 2016

The depth and historical accuracy are fantastic and it is a story that needs to be told but as with others I almost abandoned the book because of the redundancies. Too many words!!

Nov 13, 2015

There were many aspects of this book that were extremely thought provoking and interesting. However, the writer makes the same points over and over and over until I was just about ready to abandon reading the book. It would be a much better read with some better editing.

Oct 03, 2015

The author is a lawyer and evaluates evidence from a lawyer's broad, but disciplined perspective. She distinguishes between what is known and what cannot be known, and includes evidence for evaluating various hypotheses.

To help readers she has included diagrams of the Hemmings family tree and a chronology of the Hemmings Family.

Feb 10, 2013

I read it in 2009. It revealed what a paradoxical life Jefferson led ~ he was in love with one of his slaves, yet he continued to keep slaves. Even so, there is no denying the great contributions he made to society.

JMP7 Feb 07, 2013

Won the National Book Award. Fascinating history of the Hemings family, who were slaves under Thomas Jefferson. Sally Hemings was his mistress and the mother of several children with Jefferson. I read it for my book club a couple of years ago. It's really long but worth it.

May 06, 2011

Long, but never a wasted word or thought. A historian's dance, threaded with irony over the racial theme, loaded with perspective about an entitled class that disappeared after the Civil War. Jefferson is, as ever, conflicted and complex - and more than slighly evil.

Oct 04, 2010

Fascinating topic: the slaves of Thomas Jefferson, in particular, the family consisting of half siblings of his deceased wife, including the wife's half sister with whom Jefferson had several children. Oh, would that the author have been a more skilled writer. Redundancies abound, complicated by the fact that this was a time where people named children after dead children and relatives, so keeping them straight is like trying to keep the characters in War and Peace straight. A good editor would have helped this book immensely. Nonetheless, it was worth the read.

Feb 11, 2010

Selection for the online book discussion program of New Yorker magazine, February 2010.

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