Annette Gordon-Reed is a Pulitzer-prize winning writer.
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Hi reddit, I'm Annette Gordon-Reed, a legal scholar whose research has "dramatically changed the course of Jeffersonian scholarship," according to the MacArthur Foundation. In 1997 I wrote "Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy," a book that critiqued the historiography on the story that Jefferson, America’s third president had a relationship with an enslaved woman on his plantation, Sally Hemings. This relationship was almost uniformly dismissed by scholars, but my conclusions that the connection between Hemings and Jefferson was likely true was bolstered in 1998 when DNA evidence combined with documentary evidence supported the claim that Jefferson had fathered Hemings’s children.
My next book about the Hemingses was The Hemingses of Monticello, for which I won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for history. I have also written with Vernon Jordan, Vernon Can Read: A memoir and edited a collection of essays, Race on Trial: Law and Justice in American History. My current book, written with Peter S. Onuf is Most Blessed of the Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination.
In 2010, I was named a MacArthur Fellow. Ask me anything!
I'll be on at the top of the hour, but feel free to go ahead and begin asking questions!
Unfortunately I have to run to a meeting so I can't continue answering questions, but I'd like to thank you for all the great questions and for your fervent interest. Really enjoyed this AMA!
What did you think of Jefferson's portrayal by Stannis Baratheon in HBO's John Adams?
AGR Loved it! My favorite portrayal, by far. It is clear that he read up on what people said TJ was like. He went to Monticello before hand. I actually wrote him a note complimenting him. He wrote me back, and said he knew of my first book. I was thrilled.
What is the most unexpected and valuable source you ever found in your research?
AGR--The Lancashire Records Office in Preston, UK. I was able to learn a lot about John Wayles, the father of Sally Hemings and Jefferson's wife, Martha. When I started working on the The Hemingses of Monticello, I had no thought of actually going over to research there.
How many descendants of Thomas Jefferson and his slaves have been identified? How does their current socio-economic status compare to his "legitimate" descendants (if any)?
AGR: There are hundreds of descendants. I can't really do a real comparison. But in the earlier generations, the children of Eston Hemings, the youngest son, did very well. Eston's sons became quite wealthy and his daughter married into a well-to-do family. This is the line that lived as white people.
How should we approach slave owners' accomplishments and character? It seems that most elite institutions focus so much on the fact that Jefferson was a slave owner who fathered children with Hemings, that they almost entirely discount Jefferson's accomplishments and character. Can someone be a credible advocate for freedom, equality and justice, while at the same time being a slave owner?
AGR-- Tough question. I think people are focusing now on TJ and Hemings because in the life of Jefferson scholarship this is relatively new. It requires some readjusting of the story about life at Monticello. To me, TJ, despite the flaws, is a credible advocate for freedom, equality and justice. The words of the Declaration and other of his writing have been enormously useful to every group within American society that has sought equal rights. That he did not live up to all the things he said he believed is not enough to take away what those words and the faith they suggest, meant. That's just me, however. I understand people who take a different view. it is hard to measure up to all the standards we set for ourselves and others.
What was Jefferson's relationship like with his slaves? I don't possess much knowledge about the man and would love to also hear the weirdest fact you know.
AGR: Jefferson thought of himself "benevolent" master, what we see as a impossible thing. His closest relationships were with members of the Hemings family, six of whom were half-sisters to his wife, Martha.
Can you discuss Jefferson's fears about banks, and debt?
AGR-- Jefferson feared that banks would, in main, be used for the benefit of the elites in society. Engaging in speculation and using other financial instruments that ordinary people could not understand or, even, have access to. Certainly, private debt stalked him nearly all of his life, as it did most people who owned farms. Public debt concerned him because it reminded him of the way Great Britain conducted its affairs, and he wanted a government as different from that.
Who has a more accurate portrayal of Jefferson: Daveed Diggs in Hamilton or Ken Howard in 1776?
AGR haha. I love Daveed Digg's Jefferson. I thought my jaw would drop to the floor during his first entrance. Got to give it to "the White Shadow" though. Jefferson did love to sing, but he was likely more reserved than the wonderful portrayal in Hamilton.
What is one way that Jefferson is very overrated?
AGR: People credit him with things he did not invent-- like ice cream. He did not invent the polygraph machine he used to make copies of his letters.
Would you put a Ken Burns' film up against a well-researched bit of scholarship? Any documentaries that would meet the threshold?
AGR Film and books are such different media, do such different things. It is hard for documentary history to show the nuances and details in the manner of written history. But pictures-- of the dead on a battle field--can be worth a thousand words. Well, even with that an excellent historian can convey a lot if they are good writers and find just the telling detail that conveys the message. Drew Faust's The Republic of Suffering does that very well.
Do you use newspaper articles as sources in your research? Do you doubt their accuracy?
AGR-- Yes, I used old newspapers in my research. But, it's like anything, you have to be skeptical and look for evidence outside of what is said in order to corroborate any story, really. That's the best you can do. If other sources, unconnected to the paper, are saying the same thing and you can find circumstances that fit with what is being said, I think you have done everything you can to test the veracity of what has been said.
Does the DNA evidence support the Hemings relationship hypothesis or does it prove it outright? Is there an alternative way of interpreting the relations revealed by the DNA test than the Hemings descendants being Jefferson's as well? Is there a quantitative measure of why the latter the more likely scenario?
Thank you for doing this AMA!
AGR--- Thanks for the question. The DNA supports the relationship when added with other historical documents-- the statements of TJ's friend, and former slave at Monticello, Jefferson's neighbors visitors--. A host of things I detail in my first book that I cannot detail here and do what I've been directed. Haha. We have no DNA proof that TJ was the father of anyone, really. It's a combination of things, including the destruction of the story that Jefferson's family told about the paternity of the Hemings children, the story that historians accepted. They repeatedly insisted that one of Jefferson's nephews was the father. I think what I wrote in my book and then the DNA completely destroyed that story. So, the family picked the wrong relative, not knowing that we science would be able to refute that claim.
In your opinion, how did Jefferson's views on slavery compare with his contempories? E.g. do you think he was ahead of his time relative to the prevailing views of the late 1700s/early 1800s?
AGR TJ was ahead of most of his cohort on the issue of slavery. He believed (wrongly as it turned out) that it was a unjust and retrograde system that should and would wither away. That did not happen, of course. He was not a William Lloyd Garrison, the noted Abolitionist who was steadfast in his hostility to slavery and actually harbored non-racist beliefs. But TJ never made the pivot to pro-slavery ideology that became the norm in Virginia after his death.
I've read very little about Jefferson's history outside of the classroom, but I remember reading that he wasn't a very good public speaker. Did he ever flub any speeches or did he actually have a fear of public speaking?
AGR-- He did not like giving addresses when he was president, certainly. So, he has developed the reputation as poor speaker. He was said to be good in a courtroom. People who met him said he had a soft voice, not a booming voice that would have been good making speeches to large numbers of people. He was noted as charming at dinner parties. So, court rooms and dinner table conversations were more his speed.
Do you ever feel that scholarly research about Thomas Jefferson's relationship with Sally Hemings overshadows other important issues surrounding President Jefferson?
I feel like he was the most important founding father, in part because of his visionary approach to public education, religious freedom, his orchestration of the Louisiana Purchase, his "founding" of the Library of Congress, etc. But instead of talking about all these things, the first thing people associate with Jefferson is his relationship with Hemings.
AGR As I said, earlier, Tom and Sally take over things because it's relatively new in the historiography. Our new book definitely moves beyond that, though some reviews are still fixated on the pair. There is much more going on in TJ's life and life at Monticello, even than TJ and SH.
What was the strangest thing that happened at Monticello?
AGR The strangest thing... I don't know if this the strangest, buta man came to do a life mask of Jefferson. After he put the plaster on with TJ lying on the couch, it became clear that he had not left a sufficient pathway for TJ to breathe. He was going about his business and Burwell Colbert, Jefferson's enslaved manservant, look over and saw that Jefferson was waving his arms. He was pretty much suffocating. They had dash over and get the thing off his face. The guy never really apologize and stayed for dinner chatting happily away as if nothing had happened. I'm interpreting "strange" as being "unusual".
When I studied History, Profs would lean on the 'doomed to repeat it' trope, at least when discussing the importance of the field. When I would ask or talk about parallels between something historic and the modern day, several wouldn't entertain the discussion and called comparing the past to the present 'bad methodology.' Where do you sit on that as a Historian?
AGR I understand the notion that the "past is a foreign country", but I would say even if you landed in a foreign country, there would be somethings you'd recognize. You'd expect that there would be a person, or class of persons, who were designated as leaders. You would not be surprised if you saw that it was mostly women who were dealing with small children. The society would be different, but not every feature would be totally unrecognizable. So, there are some themes in human life that have recurred over the centuries because we all have done the same basic things-- born, live a time, and die. Comparing the past to the present can be a useful thing to do so long as you do not ignore the ways in which things are different.
How is progress coming along on the second volume of The Hemingses of Monticello?
You used a lot of great resources like eighteenth- and nineteenth-century diaries in the work you've been doing. What traits make a diary most useful to you as a historical source, or most interesting for you to read?
AGR Thanks for asking. I am just getting back to it. I took time off to work on the new book with Peter S. Onuf Most Blessed of the Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination-- oh, wait, I guess that's in introduction here. That came out on TJ's birthday, and with that done I can get back to the Hemingses. Diaries-- the people I study, unfortunately, did not leave diaries. The diaries of others are interesting to look at because they give you a view of a person you study that is outside of the person. You can get an unexpected perspective.
was Thomas Jefferson content with the U.S. constitution or did he wish for a new version to be drafted at a later time?
AGR TJ wrote to Madison in 1789 that "the earth belongs in usufruct to the living" meaning that he felt each generation should have dominion over the land, preserving it for future generations, but not being held hostage to the past. He thought there should be a new Constitution written every 19 years, which he said actuarial tables described as a generation. Madison, who had just struggled to help write a Constitution, thought that was dead wrong and pushed back. Basically TJ thought that people should be active in a democracy and should constantly reassess where thing were going and where we wanted them to go. Constitutions should be rewritten to reflect the needs of the living.
How rich was Jefferson?
AGR -- Depends on what time period. For most of his life he owned lots of land and enslaved people who were treated, obviously, as property. He also had a lot of debt, as did most planters. At the end of his life, he was pretty much broke because of the first depression in US history, the Panic of 1817, he co-signed two large notes for a relative that the relative defaulted on, and he had not saved much money over the course of his life. He thought about money in an abstract way. It did not seem a motivator to him, He was like Mr. Micawber, something would always turn up. In the end things caught up to him and he died essentially bankrupt. Had he lived a few more years, when the economy rebounded, he would have been in better shape.
What do you think of Jefferson's agrarianism? Was it hypocritical given his own situation to advocate for independent self-employed farming?
AGR-- have a meeting and have to sign off-- but-- he thought his way of life should go. He believed the planter elite would die off and future would belong to common farmers.
Would overt knowledge of his dalliances have derailed any chance he had of the presidency?
AGR Absolutely. I think people who suggest that he should have just been open about it and said,"Yes, I'm living with and having kids with an enslaved woman on my plantation" and whites would have, "Okay.That's fine" Overt knowledge is the key. Even after the story about Hemings broke, TJ was popular enough to win re-election in a landslide-- he had bought Louisiana. But "overt" knowledge would have required an admission. That would have killed his career dead, right then and there. We would not be on Reddit talking about him.
What did Jefferson think of the NSAs of his day? Are there meaningful parallels that could be drawn?
AGR--Not sure what you mean.
Is his son really the first president of Liberia?
Who? TJ"s son? Nah.
Would You Write A Book On Non White Involvement In American And French Revolution?
AGR If I had time I would. My favorite parts of The Hemingses of Monticello is the section on France. I had no occasion to think about blacks in Revolutionary France-- Haiti is another matter. But blacks in France during the Revolution is a fascinating topic. Blacks in the American Revolution is another-- particularly black involvement with the British.