Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy

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When Annette Gordon-Reed's groundbreaking study was first published, rumors of Thomas Jefferson's sexual involvement with his slave Sally Hemings had circulated for two centuries. Among all aspects of Jefferson's renowned life, it was perhaps the most hotly contested topic. The publication of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings intensified this debate by identifying glaring inconsistencies in many noted scholars' evaluations of the existing evidence. In this study, Gordon-Reed assembles a fascinating and convincing argument: not that the alleged thirty-eight-year liaison necessarily took place but rather that the evidence for its taking place has been denied a fair hearing.

Friends of Jefferson sought to debunk the Hemings story as early as 1800, and most subsequent historians and biographers followed suit, finding the affair unthinkable based upon their view of Jefferson's life, character, and beliefs. Gordon-Reed responds to these critics by pointing out numerous errors and prejudices in their writings, ranging from inaccurate citations, to impossible time lines, to virtual exclusions of evidence—especially evidence concerning the Hemings family. She demonstrates how these scholars may have been misguided by their own biases and may even have tailored evidence to serve and preserve their opinions of Jefferson. This updated edition of the book also includes an afterword in which the author comments on the DNA study that provided further evidence of a Jefferson and Hemings liaison.

Possessing both a layperson's unfettered curiosity and a lawyer's logical mind, Annette Gordon-Reed writes with a style and compassion that are irresistible. Each chapter revolves around a key figure in the Hemings drama, and the resulting portraits are engrossing and very personal. Gordon-Reed also brings a keen intuitive sense of the psychological complexities of human relationships—relationships that, in the real world, often develop regardless of status or race. The most compelling element of all, however, is her extensive and careful research, which often allows the evidence to speak for itself. Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy is the definitive look at a centuries-old question that should fascinate general readers and historians alike.

University of Virginia Press

Possessing both a layperson's unfettered curiosity and a lawyer's logical mind, Gordon-Reed writes with an irresistible style and compassion about Thomas Jefferson's sexual involvement with his slave Sally Hemings. Her fascinating and convincing argument: not that the alleged 38-year liaison necessarily took place but rather that the evidence for its taking place has been denied a fair hearing.

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Editorial Reviews

Charles B. Dew

This is the definitive work on the Thomas Jefferson-Sally Hemings issue. Gordon-Reed has produced an extraordinarily fine piece of historical research on a subject loaded with minefields for even the most cautious of historians.

Joseph J. Ellis

Short of digging up Jefferson and doing DNA testing on him and Hemings' descendants, Gordon-Reed's account gets us as close to the truth as the available evidence allows.

author of The Alchemy of Race and Rights Patricia J. Williams

In this lucid and compelling book, Annette Gordon-Reed confronts the tale of a Jefferson- Hemings liaison neither to prove nor disprove it. Instead her goal is to weigh the evidence, to evaluate its possibility. In doing so, she provides a meticulous review of primary documents and looks at the way in which the best historians can fall prey to unreasoned predispositions.

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Gordon-Reed takes on the historians who would deny that Thomas Jefferson had a 38-year relationship with Sally Hemings, one of his slaves, and she does so both by presenting historical evidence of that relationship and by critiquing their denials. While her account is reasoned and logical, Gordon-Reed is a law professor (at New York Law School) who writes like a lawyer. She justifies this legalistic tone in her preface by pointing out that historians often use legal phrases when debating the controversy, but that doesn't make this dry presentation of the facts any more readable. Primary sources (Madison Hemings's recounting of his mother's relationship with Jefferson, in which he claims Jefferson as his father; the memoirs of Israel Jefferson, a former slave of Jefferson's who corroborated Hemings's story; and a pair of letters discussing the Jefferson-Hemings relationship) are the most lively reading, but they have been banished to an appendix. Gordon-Reed approaches the various players in this drama chapter by chapter and dissects the collective denial of traditional historians with regard to each. She not only handily refutes theories such as the idea that one of Jefferson's nephews, either Samuel Carr or Peter Carr, fathered Hemings's children, but points out the racism inherent in insisting, for example, that Madison Hemings's story of his life cannot be correct because the language is too sophisticated. Her contention that "Thomas Jefferson's racism was not extraordinary" is believable and intriguing, but too much that is of interest here becomes obfuscated by legal devices, including a chapter titled "Summary of the Evidence." History Book Club dual main. (Apr.)
Explores evidence of Jefferson's involvement with his slave Sally Hemings, his wife's half sister, arguing that evidence for the alleged 38-year liaison has been denied a fair hearing. Chapters are based on key figures in the families involved. Includes a key to important names, the memoirs of Madison Hemings and Israel Jefferson, and letters. For general readers and historians. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780813918334
  • Publisher: University of Virginia Press
  • Publication date: 3/28/1998
  • Edition description: 1 PBK ED
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 410,745
  • Product dimensions: 5.83 (w) x 9.57 (h) x 0.79 (d)

Meet the Author

Annette Gordon-Reed

Annette Gordon-Reed is the Charles Warren Professor of American Legal History at Harvard Law School, Professor of History in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and the Carol K. Pforzheimer Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. She is the author of The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, which won both the Pulitzer Prize in History and the National Book Award for Nonfiction.

University of Virginia Press

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Table of Contents

Genealogical Tables
Introduction 1
1 Madison Hemings 7
2 James Callender 59
3 The Randolphs and the Carrs 78
4 Thomas Jefferson 105
5 Sally Hemings 158
6 Summary of the Evidence 210
7 Conclusion 224
Appendix A Key to Important Names 239
Appendix B The Memoirs of Madison Hemings 245
Appendix C The Memoirs of Israel Jefferson 249
Appendix D Henry S. Randall to James Parton, June 1, 1868 254
Appendix E Ellen Randolph Coolidge to Joseph Coolidge, October 24, 1858 258
Notes 261
Bibliography 273
Index 281
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Customer Reviews

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( 12 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 12 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 2, 2000

    Thorough Analysis

    Having an attorney analyze the evidence (pro and con) was perfect. She poked holes in all the theories that have been advanced. She also demonstrated why either based on an intense need to protect or due to the racism prevelant at that time, all the evidence that pointed to the existence of the relationship was ignored. Many of Ms. Gordon-Reed's predictions came true based on the DNA evidence. A must read.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 10, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Neither thorough nor persuasive

    "Everyone is entitled to their own opinion but not their own facts." Senator D. Patrick Moynihan

    This book deserves only 1 star but anyone interested in this subject should still read it, with a grain of salt.

    The only way to review an interesting story like this is to review the facts, all of them. Not just the ones that fit the theory we would like to accept. This book is incomplete and that should trouble people.

    Reviewer comments to the contrary, this book is hardly the end of the story. AGR wrote her book before the DNA testing was completed so we can't fault her for that. Still, we should be aware of the fact that the tests did not prove that the third president had children with Sally, only that some of those tested share a male ancestor with Thomas Jefferson. Maybe Thomas was in their family tree but the media mislead the public about the DNA test results swamping the true story that scientists tried to report.

    But we can fault her the huge gaps among the facts presented. According to the recently published "In Defense of Thomas Jefferson" by William Hyland there are more than two dozen genetically viable suspects, but only a three are mentioned in this book: Thomas Jefferson and two of his nephews, Peter and Samuel Carr.

    Why does Randolph Jefferson's name never appear between these covers? He was Thomas Jefferson's younger brother. He lived near or at Monticello for years, and he was known to "socialize" with his brother's slaves. He was claimed as an ancestor by the Eston Hemings branch of Sally's descendants for over 170 years. But his name is missing.

    There is no mention of the medical condition of Mr. Jefferson during the period of conception. People forget that he was already and old man for his times, 52 when the first child was born. Viagra was 200 years in the future. Some doctors believe that Thomas was already infertile by the time Sally began having children. Randolph was more than 10 years younger, the children began to be born after his wife died, and stopped when he remarried.

    I do not claim to have facts that prove anything one way or the other. Reading all the facts may not change your final answer but to reach a final answer, readers deserve all the facts. But in my opinion, this book is incomplete and should be only one of many books that any interested in this subject should read.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 12, 2005

    My Review

    I picked this book to read for my American History class because I found the subject matter intriguing and after finishing the book I found that it really was quite fascinating. This is one of the first books that I have read on this matter and I thought it was a great book to start with. The author, Annette Gordon-Reed, did an impressive job showing and examining all the different sides and theories behind the controversy surrounding Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. What was really great is that she used solid facts and honorable sources to explain each point instead of just making a statement without explaining the reasoning behind it. She examined evidence that supported the theory that Jefferson was not the father of Sally Hemings children and then she would later prove and show evidence how Jefferson could indeed be the father of Hemings children, allowing the reader to make their own hypothesis, Gordon-Reed was unbiased with the facts. This book also introduces the reader to many different people who had interactions with Jefferson throughout his life. One in particular, James Callender, I found to be extremely interesting. He seems a little sketchy to me and this intrigued me, I fully intend to do some more research on him. Another thing that I really like is how Gordon-Reed investigates the character and different sides of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. I found this book to be extremely complex but all together fascinating, however it was a little repetitive. The book supplied a lot of good, factual, and remarkable information. It is a great resource for anyone wanting to learn all the facts behind the controversy of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 8, 2014

    This is a fascinating story however, the author is redundant in

    This is a fascinating story however, the author is redundant in her ranting and raving over the course of 1,000 pages. Her book would
    have been more effective, if it were more concise and if she left her personal feelings out of the story telling. I would have appreciated and respected her arguments much better if she weren't so angry. I also reviewed the DNA evidence and would agree that it could have been another male in the family tree. It is not conclusive that Thomas Jefferson fathered the children. The story of Thomas Jefferson's relationship to his slaves is a moving tale and Sally Hemings a remarkable woman. I did find the book and arguments captivating.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 28, 2014

    Idiot author

    Her book constitutes slander. Dna has proven that it could have been any jefferson male of which there were twenty and ten likely ones. The most likely was thomas's brother randolph who was known to go out and mingle with his brothers slaves. By the way he inherited his slaves and under virginia law he couldn't free them

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 28, 2014

    Highly Recommended

    I purchased this book after visiting Jefferson's home. This book should be a must for all when reading about slavery, Jefferson and especially for history students. Annette Gordon - Reed is outstanding ans a writer and historian.

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  • Posted February 20, 2012

    Exceeds Expectations

    The book appears to be brand new with no show of wear. As an avid reader who enjoys reading about our ancesters and tracing my ancestery, I'm very anxious to start reading this book.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 24, 2010

    We may now be ready to look a new at this issue

    In the book Thomas Jefferson and Sally Heming's An American Controversy by Annette Gordon-Reed, Ms. Gordon-Reed shows that she is a very capable lawyer. She explores this controversy from every side of the issue. This book is an argumentation document and should be view as such. The fact that this book has been written, shows that this is still both a topic debate among Historians, and within the public at large. From the point of one who has been working on Presidential genealogy, this both gives clues as to those related to the Jefferson family, and the permission to explore the Heming's family.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 16, 2009

    Great history; too much detail

    The author was too obsessed to prove the family relationships. This relationship is an exciting story that becomes a dull academic study when mired in facts more useful in a courtroom than in a book of history. Do we REALLY need all that detail?

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 26, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted December 18, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted November 15, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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