Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson, and Mormon History

By August 16, 2010

As a grad student, one?s life is composed almost entirely with books. While all books are at least in some part formative of how one thinks and understands one?s field, most are somewhat forgettable beyond the pages of notes taken for future reference. However, every once in a while there?s a book that not only stands out from the rest but leaves a deep impression on how one views the historical craft. For me, Annette Gordon-Reed?s Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (W. W. Norton & Company, 2008) is one of those books.

Hemingses of Monticello is a family biography that follows the descendents of Elizabeth Hemings for nearly a century. Though a slave family, complexity and unique circumstances made their experiences difficult to simplify or categorize. Gordon-Reed deftly follows several family members through multiple environments, utilizing a deep understanding of the surrounding context in order to fill in numerous details. And when I say that there were details that needed to be filled in, that is an understatement. Gordon-Reed wrote about a family that left almost no records themselves. In a way, she became so immersed in the context that she was painting a portrait by filling in all the surroundings first, or creating a picture from a negative. She was successful, too. The book received almost every major award, both in scholarly and popular circles. It is a must-read for understanding many themes of the 18th and early 19th century: slave culture, race relations, Parisian life, and even the contradictory mind of Thomas Jefferson. It opened my eyes to new avenues of historical methodology, encouraged me to be a better historian, and validated my belief that historical works are worthwhile and provide insights into the human experience.

I wonder, though, whether Mormon history is collectively conditioned to embrace such a book—at least not yet—for two reasons.

The first reason is Gordon-Reed?s refusal to be mired down with some of the controversial aspects that have bogged down previous works on the Hemings family. Most significantly, she takes as fact the sexual relationship between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson. (It should be noted that Gordon-Reed had previously devoted a book to the issue.) While a majority of scholars have accepted as much for at least a decade, the issue is still hotly debated?especially by some factions of the Thomas Jefferson Family Association. By sidestepping this issue?the only time she really addresses the controversy is in a footnote?she is able to move forward in her narrative and answer more pertinent questions.

I have some doubts whether such an approach would fly with many within Mormon history circles. We often become obsessed with controversies that, when viewed from a larger perspective, don?t really matter. We feel obligated to settle the debates over when the First Vision occurred, what year the Melchezidek Priesthood was restored, or the exact amount of wives Joseph Smith had, just to name a few examples. These can be important questions, of course, but they can become a red herring that distracts us from other issues and forbids us from moving on to more intriguing topics. Though some progress has been made of late, it will be interesting to see if the trend continues.

The second aspect of Hemingses of Monticello that could be tough to incorporate is one of the key aspects of Gordon-Reed?s methodology itself, as outlined in her introduction:

Historians often warn against the danger of ?essentializing? when making statements about people of the past?positing an elemental human nature that can be discerned and relied upon at all times and in all places. Warnings notwithstanding, there are, in fact, some elements of the human condition that have existed forever, transcending time and place. If there were none, and if historians did not try to connect to those elements (consciously or unconsciously), historical writing would be simply incomprehensible?Therefore, we should not be afraid to call upon what we know in general about mothers, fathers, families, male-female relationships, power relationships, the contours of life in small closely knit communities, as we try to see the Hemingses in the context of their own time and place. (31-32)

Anyone who has read the book knows that Gordon-Reed wasn?t shy about essentializing throughout the text. While I was somewhat hesitant at first, worried that a presentist misstep would appear at any moment, I actually found this approach quite liberating. By using her sources to not only answer questions about historical context but also to explore issues of the human psyche, the story became not only fascinating but also profoundly relevant. This was the type of work that reaffirmed my belief that history mattered.

Again, I have reservations aboout whether Mormon historians would be accepting of such an approach. Mormon historians love focusing on facts, sticking to details, proving (often in tedious detail) minute data, and eschewing generalizations. Perhaps due to the significance of the events to believing members?or perhaps to the sometimes novice-nature of Mormon history?LDS historians want everything proven, and anything that is not bedrock solid is dismissed as ?speculative.? This is, of course, an important perspective to remember, because history should not stray too far from the documents?our only solid connection to the past. However, when the stakes are so high, and the battle lines often so firmly drawn, it is difficult to make interpretive and imaginative leaps, even for a scholar so entrenched in the historical context and details as Annette Gordon-Reed. As a result, we are often left debating the same points, rarely broadening our interpretive frameworks, missing out on important insights, and running around the same historiographical circles.

What I am left wondering is whether these are existential problems inherent in Mormon history (since Mormonism is believed by many, it is too potent a topic for these kind of approaches), or whether it is a reflection on the developing nature of Mormon studies, and that it will improve once the field matures (the current research of Laurel Ulrich and Kathleen Flake, among others, gives hope that the latter is the case).

Or, perhaps I am just being pessimistic.

Article filed under Methodology, Academic Issues State of the Discipline


  1. What an excellent post, Ben!

    Comment by Rick Grunder — August 16, 2010 @ 10:40 pm

  2. Ben–

    I too love this book. As someone who is engaged in a “community biography”, I think Gordon-Reed’s method is a wonderful model to employ.

    As for your reasons why Mormon scholarship might not be able to apply the model, I think you rightly point out the need for the historiography to move beyond the speculations, the “who done it” and the “who married whom”. The more work done in this vein the more we will move the historical community away from the pro and anti divisions that dominated Mormon scholarship for most of the last century. And on the second point, after leaving behind our investments to find fault or find divinity in the characters we chronicle, we’ll be more free to make the leaps between the historical data we collect without prejudging where our leaps will take us.

    Thanks for the post!

    Comment by Max — August 17, 2010 @ 9:26 am

  3. This is a needed post, Ben, and reflects many of my own thoughts as I’ve read through not only Gordon-Reed’s book, but others this summer that employ a similar approach.

    I remember hearing criticisms from some corners that Rough Stone Rolling was a disappointment because it “didn’t contain any new information.” That characterization, it seems to me, highlights your point.

    I mentioned it a couple of weeks ago on David’s thread about the best LDS biographies, but will repeat here that I think a family biography of the Whitmers, starting several generations back and tracing the religious genealogy of their German ancestors, then going into the nineteenth century and John, David, et al?s experience with Mormonism, would make for a fascinating read. It would speak to Brooke’s The Refiner’s Fire in many respects, but allow for a closer and more personal case study.

    Comment by Christopher — August 17, 2010 @ 9:40 am

  4. Thanks, Rick, Max, and Chris.

    Comment by Ben — August 17, 2010 @ 11:50 am

  5. Thanks for the post Ben. I like your assessment and suggestions, but I’m not so pessimistic. I think this is what the good scholars on Mormonism do mostly.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — August 17, 2010 @ 3:40 pm

  6. Thanks, Ben.

    Comment by Jared T. — August 18, 2010 @ 5:30 pm

  7. Ben, thanks very much for a very thoughtful post about my book. It was always my hope that THOM might be of use to others in different contexts.

    Comment by Annette Gordon-Reed — August 20, 2010 @ 2:49 pm

  8. Thank you for stopping by, Professor Gordon-Reed. I sincerely hope others are making good use of the book as well.

    In case you check back again, I would love to hear about the reception you have received concerning the book’s methodology. Has there been resistance? Or have most readers focused on the benefits of such an approach?

    Comment by Ben — August 20, 2010 @ 10:43 pm

  9. For me, one of the greatest joys of graduate school came in discovering books like this one. My best ideas about my own areas of interest were always stimulated by reading work done by scholars studying very different things. As a result, I continue to read as many books from outside of my specific area of interest as possible. Thanks Ben.

    Comment by SC Taysom — August 21, 2010 @ 9:20 am

  10. I’ve had a few complaints about breaking the narrative to talk about Sally Hemings in the second part of the book. But for the most part people have been very supportive of my approach. Writing about enslaved people requires different tools. It doesn’t make sense not to use whatever avenues available to sort things out. I also think that writing about black people demands breaking out of the confines of stereotype and conventional wisdom. As I said, the tyranny of the social over the individual experience can obscure the reality of black lives–enslaved and free, past and present. I do believe that there are continuities in human behavior and it was important for me to bring the Hemingses into that mix. I understand the concern about asking people to reference human nature as they read the book. But I think it was important to do that because the Hemingses have not been written of as if they were fully human at all. So, I think the stakes are different.

    Comment by Annette Gordon-Reed — August 21, 2010 @ 5:21 pm

  11. Thanks for the thoughtful response!

    Comment by Ben — August 22, 2010 @ 9:59 pm


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