Gordon-Reed begins by reconstructing the background and life of Sally's parents, the "bright mulatto" slave Elizabeth Hemings and John Wayles, English migrant, lawyer and debt collector, whose daughter Martha married Thomas Jefferson in 1772. Hence, notoriously, Sally was the half-sister of Jefferson's wife and the two were said to look alike. For some white Southerners, this quasi-incest has served as an explanation, because Jefferson can be seen as having reached out to his dead wife through Sally. A less familiar fact . . . is that, because there was interracial sex and resultant children over two generations -- Wayles with Elizabeth Hemings, Jefferson with Sally Hemings, assorted white employees and neighbours with other Hemings women -- Monticello was an intricately claustrophobic site of family ties, acknowledged and hidden. Slaves and free people had relationships based on power and dependency, but also on blood. Sally was a maid to Jefferson's daughter Polly, but Sally was also Polly's aunt, and Sally's children by Jefferson were Polly's cousins, just as Polly's son by Francis Eppes was cousin to Sally's children. These people could be mistaken for each other by strangers. This consanguinity was a central fact at Monticello, for the Hemingses formed a mulatto elite, and they kept aloof from darker slaves, with whom they almost never intermarried.
Sunday, February 28, 2010
The Strange World of Monticello
Now that the first shocked or triumphalist reactions to proof of the liaison between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings have passed, we are starting to see interesting writing about what life at Monticello must have been like. This is Michael O'Brien writing in the TLS, reviewing a book by Annette Gordon-Reed: