People often ask me how I can write about Thomas Jefferson or James Madison, Abraham Lincoln or the American Revolution, the U.S. Constitution or the South. Hasn’t it all been said? Isn’t there already a mountain of books about them?
They are right to think that a great amount of ink has been spilled on these topics. Where a layman’s intuition fails him, however, is in telling him that these subjects must have been, or can ever be, exhausted.
Consider the current state of Thomas Jefferson scholarship.
In 1997, Annette Gordon-Reed published Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. Gordon-Reed, a professor at New York Law School since 1992, hazarded a new approach to an old question: whether Jefferson fathered Sally Hemings’s children. She also described the way that bygone Jefferson scholars had handled the issue.
The first person publicly to assert that Jefferson had children by one of his slaves was James Callender. This hired-gun journalist leveled this charge to besmirch Jefferson’s reputation at the dawn of the 19th century. While Jefferson’s partisan opponents snickered or sneered, this allegation had little contemporary political effect. (Instead, Callender himself became the target of obloquy that is still heaped upon him today.)
In fact, exceedingly little attention was paid to such issues in the nineteenth century or the first half of the twentieth. Only coincidentally with the Civil Rights Movement did scholars begin to investigate the history of slavery in America. One of the great fruits of American historiography is the increasingly full picture of slave society bequeathed us by scholars as diverse as Kenneth Stampp , Eugene Genovese, John Hope Franklin, and Peter Kolchin these past five decades. Reading their works, one is struck by how little was known before.
Still, even as the tide of slavery scholarship swelled, the image of the Master of Monticello remained essentially unblemished. From their high positions at the University of Virginia, historians Dumas Malone and Merrill Peterson—authors respectively of the leading multi-volume and one-volume biographies—scoffed. A psychohistorian who dared to raise the question in the 1970s earned stern rebukes from the “thoughtful” precincts of both academia and the media.
Gordon-Reed’s 1997 book asked why that should be. Marshalling long-standing oral traditions in black families connected to Monticello, traditions that included but certainly were not limited to claims of descent from the penman of the Declaration of Independence, Gordon-Reed asked how the matter would be treated if those traditions had been preserved by white people instead of by black. Notably, she made no assertions. She simply asked the question. As a historian of Jeffersonian Virginia not fixated on sex, slavery, or the Hemings question, I found her book persuasive. Jefferson, it seemed, had fathered children by Hemings.
Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy was not merely a work of historiography, however: it also instantly became an artifact of American social and intellectual history. Virtually immediately, Gordon-Reed found herself under attack. Her book suffered comparisons to that 1970s psychohistory, comparisons it in no sense deserved. Psychohistory, a trendy approach in the days of “Boogie Oogie Oogie” and “Saturday Night Fever,” pet rocks and 8-tracks, and ex-seg committee chairmen and Cabinet secretaries, featured in the hands of the inexpert a heaping helping of speculation about its subjects’ thoughts and psyches. Gordon-Reed’s book, on the other hand, dared simply to ask the right questions and to interrogate the subject of Jefferson historians’ approach to their materials as a scholar might have evaluated the work of virtually any other group of historians.
She did not call reflexive incredulity toward the Jefferson-Hemings story a vestige of white supremacy. She didn’t have to.
Note that I am not saying that serious scholars could not disagree with her implication. Some did. Among them were leading lights such as the late Lance Banning, Forrest McDonald, and Alf Mapp. In general, however, the historical profession found her book devastating — not of Jefferson, but of the Malone/Peterson approach.
Among those who resist the idea that Jefferson fathered slave children are some of his white descendants. Seldom has the question been publicly discussed that one or more of them did not turn up to dispute what came to be seen as the Gordon-Reed thesis.
And then, the year after the book’s publication, Nature published results of genetic testing dispositively proving that at least one Hemings descendant descended from a male Jefferson. It also proved that at least one family’s oral history of being descended from Jefferson was almost certainly mistaken. Ha! Said the opponents, this didn’t prove that Jefferson sired children by Hemings. It only proved that oral history couldn’t be trusted! Some of them trotted out other Jefferson males as likely candidates for the role of father of Hemings offspring.
They were right that the DNA evidence did not perfectly prove that the black families’ oral history of being descended from Jefferson must be true. I note, however, that there is more proof that Jefferson is the ancestor of certain black Americans now living than there is that the person I understand to have been my great-grandfather had anything to do with events leading to me.
There is, in fact, virtually no one living or in history, virtually no one, for whose ancestry we have more evidence than we do for the descendants of Eston Hemings, whom some now call Eston Hemings Jefferson. Certainly not John Kennedy. Or Julius Caesar. Or Queen Elizabeth I. Quite probably not you.
Most leading Jefferson scholars fell into line. Joseph Ellis, who had denied that Jefferson had fathered Hemings offspring, now hopped on board. Andrew Burstein, who admitted to his “love” for Jefferson, wrote an entire book on the subject.
Gordon-Reed’s new book on the Hemings family has won two of this year’s major prizes, the National Book Award and the Pulitzer. As the review in the latest issue of The Journal of Southern History aptly notes, there is a growing desperation in the arguments of those who deny that Jefferson does indeed have black descendants.
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Why are they so desperate? And come to think of it, why did Gordon-Reed’s book win these major prizes? As the same review notes, this new Gordon-Reed tome was in serious need of an editor; it could well have packed more punch into far fewer pages. So, if not the craftsmanship, what makes it so notable? Book prizes, like most publication decisions and awards in the field of history, are highly political. To some extent, they are concerned with rewarding authors of books that contribute to the construction of what one historian/activist called a “usable past.” (Thus, for example, I knew as soon as I saw Gordon Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution in a bookstore that it would win major prizes, and I told my shopping companion so. Certain ideological precincts had an interest in claiming the heretofore conservative Revolution for a left-wing usable past.) For Malone and Peterson, a certain image of Jefferson, that of the Olympian dispenser of democratic truths, “The Sage of Monticello,” had immediate applicability. While a slave-owner, their Jefferson was unhappily so; while a man of the nineteenth century, he is easy to imagine in the twentieth; while an exhorter to violence and proponent of states’ rights, he only took those stances in specific circumstances, and his statements of principle are to be found elsewhere.
More recent scholars have dethroned that old marble man. Ellis, in saying that he had changed his mind about the Hemings question, added that he hoped that knowing Jefferson had behaved this way would help persuade senators to acquit Bill Clinton at his impeachment trial. This seemed to be a non sequitur to me, but in Ellis’s mind the two subjects were closely linked.
Having noticed the political goings-on in the historical profession, some members of the white Jefferson family have pointed to an academic cabal intent on tearing Jefferson down for contemporary purposes. If his personal probity is called into question, they say, it becomes that much easier to flout his limited-government principles. Note that Jefferson’s personality and sex life are the prime concerns of contemporary Jefferson scholars. Long gone are the days when attention to his advocacy of peace, limited government, states’ rights, and citizen involvement in decision-making lay at the heart of prize-winning books. Gordon-Reed, Burstein, and Ellis are typical of contemporary Jefferson chroniclers.
How might public awareness of Jefferson’s siring slave offspring affect today’s political debates? While scholars long have known that slave-owners, indeed men of the slave-owning class, commonly had sex with slaves, that knowledge seems not to have made much of an impact on the populace at large. If it had, the reasoning goes, perhaps contemporary proposals of compensatory measures would be more popular. So, this fact about Thomas Jefferson and the stories of his slaves’ relationships with him certainly could help to make a “usable past” for those with contemporary ideological and political fish to fry.
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Gordon-Reed, from all appearances, is not one of them. She does not say that Jefferson’s relationship with Hemings was tantamount to rape, although she might have. (The Journal of Southern History review, in evaluating the onset of the Hemings relationship, rightly calls Jefferson “creepy.”) Instead, she endeavors to situate the two of them in their environment and to imagine a relationship consistent with everything she knows about them. This, too, marks her as an excellent historian.
How much effect should recognition that Jefferson quite likely behaved this way have? While Jefferson remains a popular personage with Americans today, his political philosophy is essentially defunct. States’ rights? Almost entirely local self-government? Highly limited federal spending? Strenuous endeavor to avoid war? No entangling alliances? Anger at federal judicial usurpation? They are nearly as dead as Jefferson’s seemingly comfortable acceptance of the idea that, as a slave-owner, he had a certain droit de seigneur. There’s really not much of a Jefferson legacy to fight over, intensely lamentable though that fact may be.
As I said, I am persuaded. The far more interesting issue, though, is what so many people are so excited about.
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