Author Annette Gordon-Reed will deliver this year’s Governor’s Lecture in the Humanities on Thomas Jefferson’s intellectual development. That might sound fairly abstract. But Gordon-Reed comes at the subject with a flesh-and-blood perspective on Jefferson.
Gordon-Reed remembers growing up in east Texas and reading about Thomas Jefferson in elementary school. “I was in the third grade when I read a biography of Jefferson that was supposed to be narrated by a fictional slave boy. And the point was to sort of contrast Jefferson to the boy,” she said. “Jefferson loved books, loved learning, was interested in science and ‘he always has his head in a book’ is what the boy said. And this was meant to contrast Jefferson with his curiosity to the slave boy, who always said, ‘Let’s go fishing. Let’s go hunting. Let’s do something else.’”
Gordon-Reed said that made a big impression on her. “I identified with Jefferson as a lover of books. I loved to read and he loved to read, so I thought that that was a point of connection,” she recalled. “But I also knew that there was a connection to the slave boy because I am a descendent of people who were enslaved in east Texas. And I am an African-American and he was an African-American.”
That led Gordon-Reed to an interest in how blacks and whites have been treated differently in historical writing. In particular, she wrote about the controversy over whether Jefferson fathered children with Sally Hemings, a slave, after his wife Martha died. In her first book, “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy,” she describes how historians discounted testimony of people who claimed descent from Jefferson and Sally, while accepting denials of such a relationship by descendants of Jefferson and Martha.
Subsequent DNA tests established that Hemings’ descendants had come from a Jefferson, although it did not establish which one. But Gordon-Reed said the evidence is convincing. “History is not just about science. To me, the DNA was the icing on the cake. The historical record that I outline in my book plus the DNA testing I think closes the case, as much as anything in history can be closed,” she said. “We know more about Jefferson’s genetic connection to a family called Hemings than we do his genetic connection to his children with Martha.”
And while the case for a relationship still provokes some controversy, Gordon-Reed said she thinks most people accept it. “I actually don’t think most people care about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings as a problem. Some historians have problems with it,” she said. “But…I’ve gotten letters upon letters – I’ve lectured all over this country and in other parts of the world – and I don’t think most people have a problem with it.”
“In fact, after the DNA testing came out, there was a survey that was done where they asked people if it changed people’s attitudes about Jefferson. And people said no. They still admired him,” she added.
Gordon-Reed said the fact Jefferson, an advocate of liberty, continued to own slaves has to be seen in historical context. “At this time, what he and his generation are capable of seeing at the moment is not the equality of African-Americans with whites. And he certainly did not believe that in terms of his willingness to do away with the property rights of whites for the benefit of blacks,” she said. “He thought this was something that progress would solve.”
In her forthcoming book, “’The Most Blessed of Patriarchs’: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of Imagination,” Gordon Reed said she and co-author Peter Onuf tackle people’s perceptions of Jefferson as an inscrutable bundle of contradictions. “What we hope they get out of it is a sense that Jefferson is more coherent than people have made him out to be. There’s a cliché that Jefferson is this unknowable person – the emphasis (is) on his contradictions as if his contradictory nature is were more powerful, a more salient feature of his personality than it is in most people,” she said.
Gordon-Reed said Jefferson, like everyone else, was changeable. “He grew and developed over time. And not always in the best way. Certainly by the time we get to the 1820s he’s very, very, wary of the possibility of conflict between the North and the South. And it makes him double-down a lot on states’ rights issues in ways that he might not have in years earlier,” she said.
“The point is not to just sort of say, ‘Point, counterpoint. He said this at one time and now he’s saying something else.’ It is to show the context in which the statements are made and why they make sense at the moment,” she said.
“This is very human. This is what we do. Human beings don’t stay the same,” Gordon-Reed said, adding, “There should never have been one ‘timeless’ Jefferson."