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Obscuring Testimonies: Review of Thomas Jefferson & Sally Hemings by Annette Gordon-Reed

This is a late post and is pretty irrelevant. It’s just shameless self-promotion of my work as a scholar. This was a reaction paper for my Theories & Methods class I took in the Fall Semester of 2017. My professor praised the paper so much and I think it was also a pretty good start to a successful semester (shukarAllah) Take a read. This is about a book about Thomas Jefferson and his possible relationship with his mistress, Sally Hemings. Historians debated whether or not Jefferson had a mistress and contemporary historians debate whether or not the relationship was consensual. This essay hopes to give a novice albeit scholarly approach to my review of the book as well as my opinion to the Thomas Jefferson & Sally Hemings question.

There is a strong albeit uncomfortable fascination people have with scandals. Especially when it involves individuals with revered notoriety. Indeed, it would be an arduous task to rival such an assertion, yet one cannot overlook the constant literal and figurative rubbernecking of tabloid magazines, whispering tales of infidelities caused by celebrities or the inside stories involving civil servants, no longer clandestine. As to whether the stories are fabricated or not only increases the sense of wonder and purpose for further examination. Therefore, it is only natural that one would be drawn to the apologue of Thomas Jefferson’s hypothetical infidelity with his slave, Sally Hemings where, “[f]or whatever reason, the American public seems willing – almost anxious—to believe that Jefferson and Sally Hemings did have a relationship.”[1] Nevertheless, in examining Dr. Gordon-Reed’s attempt to discover the authenticity of the accusations of Jefferson having an affair with Sally Hemings, while indeed worthy of merit, often finds herself playing devil’s advocate more than endorsing a side of the argument.

            Understandably of course, as her goal is “not to prove that the story is true or false”[2] but rather, “to present and analyze in as clear and strong a fashion…the evidence that exists to support the story… [as it] is necessary both for general interest and to show that [her] concerns about the nature of the response to the allegation[s] are valid.”[3]  By looking at a variety of written assessments of the case between Jefferson and Hemings including: Dumas Malone, Virginius Dabney, John C. Miller, and Douglass Aidar, Gordon-Reed is able to successfully deduce their arguments and critique their evidence (or lack thereof) in a way that will allow the reader to make their own verdict. In other words, she utilizes her skills “as a law professor and lawyer”[4], to submit evidence to a metaphorical jury of readers, the feasibility of entertaining the idea of Jefferson’s illicit relationship with Hemings, thereby avoiding any possible potential criticism from other or future Jefferson scholars, and leaving the ultimate judgement to interpretation for the reader.

A lot is to be taken into consideration in examining this controversial topic and often times, as Gordon-Reed mentions, “some scholars and commentators, when confronting the Jefferson-Hemings controversy, often use the terms or phrases…such as evidence, proof, and burden of proof”; usage of these terms, while comprehensible, due to the lack of any written statement, despite what scholars contend, by Jefferson himself[5], supporting and/or denying his relationship with Hemings, inclusion of those terms is still inapplicable for Gordon-Reed to accept. “Evidence goes toward establishing proof…If the item of evidence offered does not itself add up to proof, they deem it to be ‘no evidence’, or alternatively, never mention it at all.” Be that as it may, Gordon-Reed maintains that the scholars of Jefferson like, Henry Stephens Randall, who was one of the first to discuss, albeit reluctantly[6], the liaison between Jefferson and Hemings, have in their empirical vigor determined adamant convictions that do their best to either refute or endorse the assertion.

One of the many ignored pieces of evidence that Gordon-Reed refers to includes the testimony of Madison Hemings, the product of Sally Hemings and possibly, Thomas Jefferson, and whose statement, conducted by a man named S.F. Wetmore, “the editor of the Pike County (Ohio) Republican”[7] and “is the only known recitation of the details of this controversial story by any of the parties involved.”[8] In spite of this, his statement “has been either ignored by historians, or dismissed out of hand with no attempt to address what Hemings actually said.”[9] This does not come as a surprise to Gordon-Reed, considering that “most Americans do see and hear blacks…only when and how they want to see and hear them.”[10] In this respect, Madison Hemings found himself only believed by a minor audience, if at all. Such was the case because most scholars believed the story to be apocryphal and the motivations in publishing the story were brought into question. Dumas Malone in particular, seemed to believe that Wetmore, being “sympathetic to the freedmen”[11],  was simply using this story as a way of gaining readers’ attention. Perhaps for the sake of white guilt but regardless, Malone contends that Wetmore out of the blue, “decided to begin a series on old colored residents of the area.”[12] Coincidentally, Wetmore just so happened to be “scouring the countryside to find stories told by black people that would reflect badly upon white southerners”[13] and just so happened to come across “a black man who said he was the illegitimate and somewhat neglected son of Thomas Jefferson.”[14]

The dismissal of testimonies from African Americans rears its ugly head again with Gordon-Reed mentioning Israel Jefferson, a former slave from the same plantation as Sally Hemings where, “in an interview published nine months after the Hemings piece, Israel Jefferson confirmed, as far as he could, the substance of Madison Hemin[g’s] story.”[15] Granted, it would be naïve of any reader to simply believe every word of everything they read. Simultaneously, it would just as naïve to dismiss the testimony of former slaves who may be able to shed light on a darkened epoch in history. According to Gordon-Reed however, “historians seem to be saying, ‘Oh, everyone knows what former slaves were like, so we do not have to consider this individual man and his capabilities when we make the suggestion that he was a pawn in this game of white people.’”[16]

Much to my disappoint and perhaps to another empathetic reader, there is still no transparent answer as to whether or not the allegations to this “American controversy” is accurate. Yet, with the passing of time, contemporary individuals seem to objectively that is—without much knowledge on the subject—agree that, Thomas Jefferson fathered children from his slave. On the other hand, those that denounce such an absurd though, they do so for a number of reasons. “That there were blacks who were weak and who were used by whites is certain.”[17] Although defenders of Jefferson simply cannot fathom such a probable reality, either because they have an internal bias that prevents them from accepting the idea that “a white man might, on a few occasions, satisfy his temporary carnal urges by the use of a black woman”[18] or  because they simply revere Jefferson too much to believe he had a thirty-eight year relationship with Sally Hemings.[19] The glass case where Jefferson is encapsulated in their minds would be shattered knowing that “a slave woman, whom historians have spent generations either ignoring or explaining away…most likely would have known the real Thomas Jefferson better than anyone.”[20] Moreover, “the one she knew would be unrecognizable to the historians who had devoted their lives to knowing [Jefferson].”[21] We are still free to debate this issue and make our judgements so long as we examine all of the proper evidence. What constitutes for proper evidence however, is also debatable.

-Ahmed H. Sharma (Mr. Writer)

Originally written on the 10th of September, 2017


Works Cited:

[1] Annette Gordon-Reed, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings:  An American Controversy (Charlottesville VA:  University of Virginia Press, 1998), 4

[2] Gordon-Reed, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, xiv

[3] Ibid, xiv-xv

[4] Ibid, xv

[5] Ibid, 1-2

[6] Ibid, 2

[7] Ibid, 8

[8] Ibid, 7

[9] Ibid, 7

[10] Ibid, 7

[11]Ibid, 8

[12] Dumas Malone and Stephen H. Hochman, “Note on Evidence: The Personal History of Madison Hemings,” Journal of Southern History 41 (1975) 524 (523-528)

[13] Gordon-Reed, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, 9

[14] Ibid, 9

[15] Ibid, 10

[16] Ibid, 11

[17] Ibid, 11

[18] Ibid, 156

[19] Ibid, 1

[20] Ibid, 157

[21] Ibid, 157

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