Annette Gordon-Reed: Some thoughts about Sally Hemings: Weekend Reading

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Annette Gordon-Reed: Some thoughts about Sally Hemings: "It makes no sense to think of her life out of the context of her family's story. She was a part of a web of relationships put in place before she was born.Her specific context can only be discerned by garnering details from the archives. Simply looking at a statute book and/or looking at other people's lives, and extrapolating to create a picture of SH's life, will not do. She cannot be taken, nor should any one person be taken, as the embodiment of the system of American slavery...

...SH imparted her vision of her life to her son, Madison Hemings, through a story in which she used the leverage of law to negotiate a particular kind of life for herself and her children. It was not a perfect life; not the life that I, her biographer, would have wished for her. ut my wishes don't count in trying to discover what people long ago thought they were doing. I have had to ask myself in considering her story: What would she have seen of women's lives in the 18th Century?

She experienced a world in which women were, by and large, attached to men whom they could only hope would treat them well and keep whatever promises they made. Neither outcome was ever assured. It is wrong to say that SH could not have negotiated with TJ because the law didn't allow it. Other members of her family (her siblings and their progeny, before and after SH and TJ were in France) negotiated with him to their advantage. Again, these were his wife's relatives. This kind of connection rarely meant anything to other white enslavers, but it means something to TJ.

All the evidence indicates that he saw SH and her siblings through the prism of his feelings about his deceased wife, their older sister. He took his cue for how to deal with the Hemings siblings from her response to them. Many white women whose fathers had children with enslaved women insisted those children be sold or sent away. Martha Jefferson brought her siblings to live closely with her at Monticello. TJ made the eldest of her enslaved siblings, Robert Hemings, his personal valet when he was 12, replacing the adult Jupiter Evans. The Hemings women were at Martha's deathbed, and carried the story of Martha's request that TJ nor remarry and his promise that he would not.

SH's son's recollections presents her as a determined and resourceful person who used the tools at her disposal, law and her knowledge of TJ, to fashion a life for herself that allowed her to be with her family and ensured that her children would leave slavery behind.

Partus sequitur venture would end with her. It did. Only 2 people could have known the details of what happened in France: SH and TJ. Madison Hemings certainly talked to TJ. Some of the information about Williamsburg is pretty detailed. It is more likely that SH told her son.

Whether we like it or not, understand it or not, Madison Hemings clearly saw himself as part of a "family". He uses the word. He calls SH "Mother" and TJ "Father". He draws a circle around the 6 of them. There were family rituals and an important endpoint was always in mind: the emancipation of the children when they became adults. The "treaty" between his parents, as he terms it, was fulfilled.

After the author John Dos Passos brought Madison Hemings's recollections to the attention of scholars in the mid-Twentieth Century,the near uniform response among white historians was to say that he was lying, or that his mother was lying about her life to try to look "good". But the recollections fit with other information from the archives-the description of SH's life from contemporary 3rd parties, information from TJ's records, and from other sources. Whether we like what he is saying or not, it is the best source for SH's vision of her life.

Of course all members of the Hemings family were victims of the system of slavery. But Sally Hemings presented herself as a forceful and knowledgeable actor in her own story; one who accomplished something that was extremely important to her. I cannot ignore that.