At a time when the first Afro-American President resides at the White House, Annette Gordon-Reed’s The Hemingses Of Monticello: An American Family published by Norton is a timely reminder. Presidents of the United States of America used to own slaves. This book covers the story of the 'second' family of a historic president residing in pomp at Monticello.
Obviously, American President Thomas Jefferson is in this story which sheds light on his two families. First, there was his wife, Martha Wayles Skelton, daughter of a fellow slave owner in Virginia. With her came her slaves as part of her dowry, one of them her half sister by her father, Sarah ‘Sally’ Hemings. From today’s view, it makes you wonder what fathers thought owning and selling their own children as slaves.
Sarah was nine when Martha died, and she later became the mistress of Jefferson. Jefferson took her along to Paris when he was posted there as US ambassador to France. The French might not object, and the slave owners of Virginia might think it normal, if a bit eccentric, but in American political circles it was frowned on. Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams the predecessor to Jefferson as President, warned him not to do that, writing from London where her husband was US ambassador to the throne of the United Kingdom at that time.
When Jefferson was called back to the United States, Sarah felt disinclined to follow as slavery was outlawed in France and she therefore was legally not a slave anymore but a free woman. She was pregnant with his child as well. Only upon being promised that her children would be freed at the age of 21 did she agree to go back with him.
Jefferson didn't take great care to conceal the state of affairs when returning to the United Sates. The relationship produced four children and held unto his death. It also laid him open to political and other base and abusive attacks. The high point in abuse was reached during his Presidency when rabid racists constantly and publicly attacked him over it.
Eventually, he freed Sarah's children as promised, two of them by deed of will. Sarah was not freed in his will, neither was she sold in the estate auction with the other ‘130 valuable negroes’ mentioned in the auction report. It seems she was given ‘free time’ to spare her from having to leave Virginia. As a freed slave she would have been bound to leave the state within a year of being freed.
The book covers the whole time period of Jefferson’s adult life. It contains a lot of information without being boring. It also makes you wonder about the thoughts of that time, when the same man who wrote ‘All men are born free and equal’ would keep slaves including his own children.