Annette Gordon-Reed explores how the public view of Thomas Jefferson has changed.
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I’m Alexander Heffner, your new host on The Open Mind.
The Founding Fathers have long been memorialized as the infallible spiritual guides of America. While they continue to be revered, in recent decades the Founders have been the subject of more nuanced and dispassionate evaluation.
And no living historian has more dramatically enriched the course of contemporary scholarship concerning these men and their era than today’s guest.
The Charles Warren Professor of American Legal History at Harvard Law School and the Carol Pforzheimer Professor of Advanced Studies at the Radcliffe Institute, Annette Gordon-Reed has become the authority not only on the Thomas Jefferson-Sally Hemings relationship but also on the legacy, sensibility, and politics of our brilliant yet hypocritical third president…who owned more than 100 slaves when he declared all men to be equal.
When she first critiqued the historiography of Jefferson’s liaison with Sally Hemings, Annette Gordon-Reed exposed biases in the analysis of primary source material that actually invited the very real possibility that Hemings and Jefferson engaged in a romantic relationship.
A 1998 DNA study of genetic paternity confirmed Gordon-Reed’s conclusion that Jefferson had, in fact, fathered children with Hemings. Her exploration of the four generations of those children, “The Heminges of Monticello: An American Family,” won both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award.
My guest is now exploring the more up-to-date lineage of the Hemings family. She then plans a biography of Jefferson that will illuminate his life as a slaveholder. As cases of sexual scandal ensnaring our elected officials persist, Gordon-Reed’s investigative lens is ever relevant, as is her illumination of America’s moral complexity.
And we’re all eager for updates from the archival trail of Annette Gordon-Reed. But first since her work originally challenged historians’ dismissal of slave perspectives, I want to ask her if she believes a more objective approach has been achieved throughout the profession – and if current readers have found her reappraisals to humanize or dehumanize Jefferson? Professor Annette Gordon-Reed are we more outraged by him or more sympathetic with Jefferson?
GORDON-REED: Well, I think it depends on who you are. I think people who are predisposed to being … to sort of liking Jefferson will find it a more humanistic portrait. And people who are predisposed to demonize him will go the other way.
I suppose there are some people in the middle who might be swayed. But I found that most people and, as a matter of fact, someone did a survey about this and asked people if the stories about Hemings changed their view of Jefferson. And in the high nineties, people said “No.”. Because I think most people, if not most historians, of the past … but most people understood that this was a part of slavery. That these kinds of liaisons happened and the real problem is being a slave owner … that to the extent that you have a problem with Jefferson that that’s it, not this aspect of his life that was an integral part of, of that institution.
HEFFNER: And do you think there still is a double standard in the historiography or in our more contemporary American political consciousness?
GORDON-REED: Well I think the historiography of slavery … I’ve often said this, it’s like the crown jewel of American historiography. I think people have done … for the past I would say 40 or 50 years a pretty good job of trying to bring the perspectives of enslaved people into the history.
The difficulty with Jefferson is that he was a singular figure. So it was like everything was moving around him, but that particular historiography that was under the control pretty much of biographers and biographers who were, you know, came of age before, you know, the Civil Rights Movement even … Dumas Malone who wrote the majestic six volume of Jefferson was born around the turn of the century. And had … was a Southerner … had the kinds of sensibilities that you would expect from a man of that time.
But I do think that the job, overall, of writing about slavery has been wonderful. It’s just that in this particular thing there was, there was a problem. And I think we’ve moved beyond that now with the aid of historians.
But also Monticello … the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. People who visit Monticello today have a very, very different experience than they would have had 20 years ago. So, things have gotten better.
HEFFNER: And your work, obviously, is credited with that transformation of mindset. And let’s … let me ask you, based on your research, is there any indication that Jefferson had misgivings about his role as a slave owner?
GORDON-REED: Ah, yes. I think that there are indications. Certainly even notes from the State of Virginia that’s notorious for his comments about race. He makes is very plain that he had misgivings and thought slavery was wrong.
In his Memorandum books as a, as a younger man even before he becomes a public figure, he copies out … actually I should say his commonplace book, he copies out a poem about the evils of the slave trade. This is not something that’s done for public consumption. It was a thing people … used to do clippings very often of things that impressed them and they thought were important.
And so this is an indication that even as a young man, he saw himself as anti-slavery or, or, or had a critique of the institution that he nevertheless lived in.
HEFFNER: But he never demonstrated himself any culpability for perhaps his own role as a slaveholder or, insofar as his relationship with Sally Hemings and fathering children who he kept in bondage.
GORDON-REED: MmmHmm. MmmHmm.
HEFFNER: He never was public about that and he never in, in any materials addressed that.
GORDON-REED: No, he never … slave owners who were involved with enslaved women … it was not … sex was not a topic that people talked about. And they certainly didn’t write about it to family members in any kind of way that would be known. I mean … I should say … William Byrd has … is very famous, he’s not of Jefferson’s generation … a diary in which he … a sort of coded diary in which he talks about sex and so forth.
But for the most part this was a very reticent era about putting those kinds of things down. No, he did not. And most slave owners who had children with enslaved women kept that secret and he did as well. Kept it secret in the sense that it’s not something that he talked about. I, I do find it interesting that the children were named for people who were his favorite relatives and friends. And so in that sense and sort of a marking of them in a way that people in Virginia would have understood. Because people know … you know names are very, very important in terms of genealogy and so forth. And so that’s the only thing that … well, one of the most public things that he could do would be to give them names that people would have understood the significance of.
HEFFNER: And to take a step back from that … can you tell us how Sally Hemings came to Paris and how she ultimately forged a relationship with our third President.
GORDON-REED: Sally Hemings came to Paris accompanying Jefferson’s younger daughter. He had gone a few years earlier to be on a, on a mission there for the United States. He actually became the Minister to France after Franklin gave up after eight years and came home.
Jefferson left his youngest daughter with his sister-in-law who was in this very convoluted Virginia world, was also Sally Hemmings’ half sister because Jefferson’s wife and Sally Hemings were half siblings. So he left them there. She was a companion to Jefferson’s daughters. And when one of Jefferson’s daughters died, he decided he wanted the other daughter brought to him in Paris. And he asked to have a middle-aged woman accompany them.
He ends up … well, they ended up sending Sally Hemings instead of the older woman and she’s about 14 at this time. So, the girl that she’s accompanying is 9 and so she is the 14 year old baby-sitter for a 9 year old. Which was not uncommon during that time period in the South. That’s a role that a slave … young slave children played … young slave girls.
So she comes to Paris. First she stops off in London. They stop off at the home of John and Abigail Adams and they stay there for a couple of weeks and then Jefferson sends a servant to pick them up and then she comes to Paris.
Abigail Adams had actually thought that she should have been sent back home because she was actually too young to take care of, of Patsy … excuse me Polly … that’s the younger daughter, but for whatever reason, Jefferson doesn’t think that’s a good idea. And it probably was not a good idea to send a teenage girl back on a ship with a bunch of sailors by herself (laugh) on a long ocean voyage. And so she comes to Paris in 1787, August of 1787 …
HEFFNER: And what are the circumstances under which she forges this relationship over time. I know in, in your book you illuminate and give great texture to this culture and, and really her lifestyle which was not one of a slave … when she was in Paris …
GORDON-REED: Well Paris … in Paris the situation was … her status was … I don’t want to say ambiguous … I mean it … you could petition … slaves could petition for freedom in France. And everybody who petitioned for freedom in the 18th century … got it. So it was sort of a pro forma thing.
So she and her brother, who had come over … James, who had come over with Jefferson originally … they could have been freed when they were there … they could have petitioned for their freedom, when they were in France.
Ah, Jefferson began the policy of paying people and he sort of kept this up later on when he came back to the United States, when he had enslaved people mixed with free workers outside of Monticello he paid people a salary. So … wages, I should say is more appropriate.
Sally Hemings and James Hemings were paid wages. And one of things I found out in the book was that they were paid pretty good wages. They were paid at the sort of higher end for the types of jobs that they would have been doing.
And so here’s a person who’s a slave in Virginia and comes to a place where she can, in fact, be free and is getting wages, so it’s a very, very different kind of lifestyle. And we don’t have Sally Hemings’ words on this, but you can only … I mean something like that can only change a person’s sensibilities and understandings about possibilities in her life.
HEFFNER: And she agreed to travel back with Thomas Jefferson …
GORDON-REED: Mmm. Well, in the … and the sort of change in her circumstances … her son … their son recollects that … his recollections say that she wanted to stay there because she would have been free there. And Jefferson promised her a nice life if she would come back and that any children they had would be freed when they were grown. They would live with them and then go away when they were adults. And she decided to do that. And people always ask me, you know, why did she do that? And there could have been any number of reasons. If you … one of the dilemmas in slavery is … do you leave your family behind and seek your own freedom? You can be free, but the rest of your family is still in bondage. And so it’s not, it’s not an easy question.
So, it could have been she wanted to come back with him. It could have been …and I talk a lot about this in the book … how close this family was, that the thought of leaving her mother and her … all of her siblings behind was not something that she wanted to do.
And his promises that she … and her … their son says that she relied on … were enough inducement to get her to come back.
HEFFNER: And that promise of freedom for her children at the age of 21 … right?
HEFFNER: And do you think that also implies, more than historians initially understood the possibility of a truly romantic, substantive relationship between Sally and Thomas?
GORDON-REED: Well, it … that’s a tough question because for … in, in this particular world … a slave owner who was considered to be a decent slave holder … freeing the children that you had with the woman was the thing that decent slave owners did.
I think the characterization of it as romantic … I know what you’re getting at … is, is this some sort of authentic thing … do these people have some sort of connection?
We don’t really know about her … I mean she does come back and I say that there are lots of reasons she could have come back with him … that … beyond “Oh, I’m in love with Thomas Jefferson” … I want to get back to Virginia and be with my family and face whatever we’re going to face together.
I’ve said I don’t find it likely that he had a purely sexual relation … interest in her for 38 years. So from his standpoint, I don’t see an issue with the idea of attachment because obviously he could have done something else, I mean.
But the freeing of the children is … that’s something that slave owners, you know … I mean not all slave owners did … most of them didn’t. Most of the people who had children with enslaved women didn’t do that. But the ones who saw themselves as being (laugh) … you started to use these terms … ah, “decent”, in these kinds of circumstances … that’s what they did.
HEFFNER: You refer to Monticello before … have they embraced more fully in the 21st century, this idea of a multi-cultural Thomas Jefferson?
GORDON-REED: Ah, a multi-cultural Thomas Jefferson? I don’t know about that. They have certainly embraced slavery as an important topic. And it’s sort of … you wonder how could people have not … Monticello is a slave plantation …
GORDON-REED: … you can … it’s easy to, to forget that when you’re up there on top of the mountain because the fields were .. are gone now and they would have been way down the mountain. And you see this nice house with all the gadgets in it and the hidden rooms and the weird staircases. And you focus in on Jefferson.
But they have … over the years … since really 19 … the early 1990’s understood that to tell the real story and history of, of Monticello and of Virginia in that period, you have to talk about slavery. So, they have a plantation community tour.
Even when you do tours of the house they are … they have to mention slavery in every room.
GORDON-REED: So it’s never far away. I’m not so sure lots of … sometimes visitors are … some, some category of visitors are upset by that … don’t want to be reminded that this was a slave plantation, there were slaves there. They have certainly embraced the Hemings’ story … in the film that you do in the Visitor Center they say that historians now believe that all of her children were fathered by Jefferson and they have, in the visitor’s center, a large family tree of the Hemingses and Jefferson is on it as the father of Sally Hemmings’ children. So that’s been a sea change …
GORDON-REED: … in their understanding of, of … and their presentation of life at Monticello.
HEFFNER: How do you think this question of slavery weighed in his personal life, but also Thomas Jefferson, some of his writings feared the idea of a slave rebellion …
HEFFNER: … or a Southerner’s idea of an up-rising among the enslaved. Do you think that factored into why he was not as fervently abolitionist in spirit later in his life? Is that, is that one of the cruxes of why?
GORDON-REED: I think he made his peace with slavery. One of the things … I’m working on a book now with Peter Onuf, who is the Thomas Jefferson Foundation professor at, at UGA’s Americas Now … and we’re doing a book about Jefferson and we’re talking a lot … we’re going to be talking a lot about slavery and one of the things we, we talk about is Jefferson making his peace with slavery in, in France and coming back and deciding that he’s going to be a good slave owner, that he’s going to ameliorate the condition of enslaved people.
I think he felt that this was a project … this is the thing that exasperates people about Jefferson … that this was a project for the future … for the next generation … would handle this. His generation had founded the country and put it on the track and time and progress would yield an answer to the, to the slavery question.
I do think he felt concern … and he says this in the Notes in the State of Virginia about what happens when there’s emancipation. He felt that Blacks would never forgive Whites for what they had done. And there would be a race war.
And he felt that and a lot of other people felt it, too. And you can kind of see how they would … I mean if you are in the system that you have some inkling is wrong … you think you’re doing wrong to people … you sort of … he wouldn’t have thought of it in terms of transference … that the, that’s a Freudian kind of thing (laugh) … but the idea is that “How would I act if I were in this situation?”. And the anger and resentment he thought would spill over into conflict.
HEFFNER: So his response to freedom and a dagger as he said in a letter to John Adams …
HEFFNER: … was incrementalism?
GORDON-REED: MmmHmm … incrementalism. He was a man of the enlightenment and the enlightenment has its good points and its bad points. And one of them is that it allowed people to sort of … people like him who had other preoccupations … I, I’ve said this … Jefferson was preoccupied with the founding of the United States. And the continuance of the Union and of the United States … the Federal Union that was put together.
He was not obsessed with slavery, he was not obsessed with race. These are things that interest us and we could say, “He should have been” …if he had understood how these things would …the role that they would play in the dissolution of the Union … he might have paid more attention to it.
But he thought that this is a problem that will solve itself in the way that people who are … who believe in progress and believe in … sort of idealistic … that of course, of course this is going to go away, but … not realizing that sometimes you actually have to … very often … most of the time … you have to take action to do it. You can’t leave it to other people. But he felt, you know, that … look, I’ve done my part and he was obsessed to the end of his life with this idea of, of his role in the Revolution and the importance of the Revolution … not just for American history, but for world history.
HEFFNER: Do you think he saw it coming to a head in, in the Civil War?
GORDON-REED: Well, the Missouri crisis and he wrote a letter to John Holmes and he yet used the famous phrase of “Firebell in the night”, that that crises about bringing Missouri into the Union as a slave state was the first inkling that he had that this could end … and he talks in his letter … he sort of suggests that this is going … could lead to bloodshed and the dissolution of the Union. And he was in agony about that. Because, as a Southerner his reaction was to … instinctive reaction is to go with what the Southerners wanted. But and people sort of assume from that that … how … what position he would have taken in the Civil War.
But on the other hand, he hated the idea of America being drawn into European power politics and the surefire way of doing that would have been to have the dissolution of the Union and that’s what happened.
You know the South tries to get the aid of England whom he hated. I mean you just think of what he would have responded to … if he, had in fact, lived to see that. If he’d been present at that moment to see a region of the United States ask for help from the very nation he hated so much and this whole idea of being drawn into those kinds of power politics, it would have been terrible for him.
So … you know, he’s a Unionist to protect the United States. But he was a States Rights and a Southerner because he was concerned about encroachment of a Federal government.
HEFFNER: In turning back to the Heminges now … his grandchildren …
GORDON-REED: MmmHmm …
HEFFNER: … at least two of them … right? … participated in the war as Union officers.
GORDON-REED: Yes, two of his grandchildren with … from Sally Hemings’ line participated in … well actually three of them … from two branches … Madison Hemings’ sons were in the Union Army. They were Black, they identified as Black, but the actually … because they looked White and everybody in the town would have known that they were actually (laugh) you know, considered Black … joined a White regiment and participated. The Eston Hemings’ line, who had moved into the White world … on John Wayles Jefferson became a Lieutenant Colonel and fought at Vicksburg and was wounded at Vicksburg and he sent back lots of dispatches from the battle. His grandson with his wife … George Wythe Randolph … was for a time the Secretary of the Confederacy … so you have descendants on both sides and on both sides of the color line.
HEFFNER: Mmm. That’s interesting. How do you think that, that Jefferson foresaw, if, if he had any imagination of what would happen if the country were to be resurrected in, in a more color neutral, racial neutral way …
HEFFNER: … did any of his philosophy speak to that?
GORDON-REED: None at all because he … the Liberal position and this is hard for us to imagine in this time period … the Liberal position at the time was emancipation and expatriation because there was no vision, no idea that he could express that Blacks and Whites could live together after what had happened over the past couple of centuries with slavery.
And also strangely enough, he said the fear of intermixture. Even though he knew very well that slavery provided an opportunity for intermixture as well …
HEFFNER: And he had participated …
GORDON-REED: Exactly, but the difference is … it would be Black men and White women and there’s a gender and a patriarchy issue here, as well, in his understanding of, of what would happen after this.
HEFFNER: So here’s what I wanted to ask you this whole interview. And I’m dying to ask you this. In the more recent lineage of Heminges …
HEFFNER: … has there any … dialogue been recorded between the Hemings and later figures, either radical Republicans or Civil Rights leaders? In your, your more up-to-date research …
GORDON-REED: MmmHmm. MmmHmm.
HEFFNER: … the grandchildren from Eston Hemings …
HEFFNER: … and beyond …
HEFFNER: … did, did they have any conversation or involvement in abolitionism and Civil Rights beyond emancipation?
GORDON-REED: Well, the Madison Hemings’ line definitely did. Frederick Madison Roberts was … became a very, very prominent newspaperman. He was the first California … Black California legislator. And he was very active in Civil Rights policies and was a noted campaigner against Birth of A Nation and was a very, very prominent Civil Rights person. So they … he … they were very active in it. And there were other members, branches of the Hemings family … William Monroe Trotter was a Hemings who was … partially founded the Niagara Movement with W. E. B. DuBois and was very, very prominent in Boston. These are not … I mean the … Frederick Madison Roberts is a direct descent of Jefferson, but the other members of the Hemings family were also prominent members …
HEFFNER: Did they have any interaction with Charles Sumner or Thaddeus Stevens, or people …
GORDON-REED: Not that I, not that I know of, not that I found yet. But on their own right they … one of the things that Senator Stanton says is that that generation … the people, the Black people from Monticello fought the hardest in some ways to keep Jefferson’s words alive … in the Declaration … “all men are created equal”. They took that very much to heart and sort of set about trying to make that a reality.
HEFFNER: MmmHmm. I wonder, do you think having an articulate and accomplished two term President of color has further reversed this double standard or do you think it might have exacerbated it. Or has it, has it had any effect on the historiographical approach that you see yourself or others taking in the field?
GORDON-REED: I don’t … I don’t … that … that’s left to be seen. I mean that’s a question … I mean I deal with the past and that a prognostication … we have to see in the future for that. I do think it’s been a … obviously a turning point in the country. Because many people never thought this would happen. I didn’t think this was going to happen any time soon. And when it happened we were happy. But on the other side, there were a lot of people who thought this would not happen in their lifetime and they’re very, very unhappy. And so some of the reaction to this President … it’s pretty clear that it sort of has exposed a lot of latent racism. And a lot of latent adherence to White supremacy. The belief in White supremacy that this some how challenges that. And challenges what this country is about. So it’s going to be interesting to see what the fallout is.
HEFFNER: And lastly … your newest book out in 2015 …
HEFFNER: … explores Jefferson’s character …
HEFFNER: … give us a little tidbit … what you’re going to illuminate in that …
GORDON-REED: Well, we hope we take … it’s a thematic approach … we’re talking about Jefferson as a slave holder, Jefferson in music, ways that show how he … you know sort of try to discern what he thought he was doing in his life. What can we … sort of taking Jefferson at his own word, which hasn’t happened in quite some time now (laugh) and people are pretty much second guessing all of these things. But to sort of start fresh and try to draw a … what we think is a more complete picture of him.
HEFFNER: Thank you so much, Annette Gordon-Reed.
GORDON-REED: You’re very welcome.
HEFFNER: I hope you’ll come back …
GORDON-REED: I definitely will.
HEFFNER: … when you publish that book.
GORDON-REED: Lots of fun.
HEFFNER: Great, thank you. And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time in pursuit of intellectual vigilance for a modern age. Until then … keep an open mind.
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