Annette Gordon-Reed, author of "Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy," can you remember the first time you ever heard of Thomas Jefferson?
When I was in the third grade, I read a child's biography of Jefferson that was in a library in the back of my room, and it was about his life at Monticello actually and then did a flashback to his life as a young boy. And that was the first time I'd ever heard of him.
What'd you think of him then?
Well, I found myself quite interested in him because he liked to do the kinds of things that I liked to do. He liked to read. He had an interest in finding out about the world, and so that aspect of him was enormously attractive. I mean, the slavery part was problematic, obviously, but him as a person, as this presentation of someone who's curious about life, I found that I had a connection to him.
Where was this?
In Conroe, Texas. It's a town outside of Houston I like to refer to as east Texas.
What was your life like then?
Well, the sort of small town life, rural life of a little girl in a town that was predominantly white; say maybe 8 percent of the population was black. It was sort of much slower paced. It was a happy life, I think.
What were your parents doing?
My mother was a schoolteacher, and my father had a store in town, so we were--we lived the life of a sort of middle-class--lower middle-class blacks in a small town.
Can you remember the first time you ever heard of Sally Hemings?
The first time I heard of Sally Hemings was when I was 12. I read a copy of my parents' book--well, it was actually Winthrop Jordan's book, the copy my parents had called "White Over Black," and he has a chapter called 'Thomas Jefferson's Self In Society,' and it discusses Sally Hemings, and I thought that that was quite interesting. That was the first time I'd heard about her.
What did he say about her then?
Well, he was mainly talking about Jefferson. He just sort of introduced her as an individual who had been something of a problem in Jefferson's life, the controversy surrounding her. It was not much about her personally because there's not much known, but it was more her connected to Jefferson.
When was the first time you ever went to Monticello?
When I--well, actually in connection with doing this book. When I did the first draft of it, I took it down. This would have been 1996, I believe it was--1995--at the end of '95, I went down to Monticello to talk to people about what I had written.
What was your reaction to seeing Monticello?
Strange. This place that I had been reading about and thinking about for a number of years--it was a beautiful day, just absolutely gorgeous day, and you could almost forget that it was a plantation. You know, you come upon this beautiful house and everything is manicured in a way that Jefferson never saw it, but this very pristine quality to it, and looking over at Mulberry Row, which is the street or the road where the slaves lived, the cabins are not there anymore, so it just presented a very--a beautiful picture, but sad. I felt ambivalent about it. One part of me admired the architecture. And there's another thing that I was interested in about Jefferson, his interest in building. But then I thought about the other people who were there, who were not really present in any physical form, and so it was interesting but sad, I would say.
On a recent trip that I made to Monticello, I asked probably eight to 10 people--just nobody in particular, people that worked there: Where is the grave of Sally Hemings? No one knew.
No one knows. That's correct. No one knows where she's buried.
But no one knew that there was even a grave. I mean, when I'd ask that, they'd say, `I don't know. You have to ask the guy down the road.' And I had to--do you know where?
No. No one knows where she's buried.
Do they know where any of the Hemings are buried?
They know where her sons are buried--two of her sons. Eston Hemings is buried in Wisconsin, and Madison Hemings is in Ohio. The actual--they know the cemetery, but the cemetery wasn't well-kept so they don't know the exact--the actual grave site, but Eston Hemings, they know exactly where he's buried in Wisconsin.
Now your book was written copyright 1997 first hardback.
I found it still hardback in the stores. It's now out in paperback, but you've got a--some additional printings and a paperback in 1998, second printing in December. What's happened to your thesis--first of all, tell us what your thesis is and then what's happened over the last couple of years since you wrote this.
Well, my thesis--the point of my book, as I stated in the introduction, was not really to write a book to prove that Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings had a relationship. What it is is a review of the historiography of the controversy. And my thesis is that Jefferson scholars, the people who had been sort of entrusted with Jefferson's life, had dismissed this story too quickly; that, in fact, there was abundant evidence that the situation--that the relationship actually existed and that by not paying attention to the black voices, the black people who spoke about this, they had denied people a full and fair opportunity to view the evidence. The book came out and caused not as much controversy as I thought it would. As I matter of fact, I think people in the main were quite accepting of the book and what I was trying to do. But as you know, in recent months, the results of a DNA test that was conducted after I wrote the book came in to suggest that one of the descendants of Sally Hemings was, in fact, a Jefferson, and so it led a number of people--and myself included--to come to the conclusion that, coupled with the information that I write about and, you know, putting the DNA test together, that this story is true, as well-established as most--many more things in history have been established. So what has happened is that a sort of intellectual discussion about this topic has been supplemented by science in a way that, you know, is sort of unprecedented.
But back in January--and I've got a couple of New York Times pieces here, January 7th, January the 8th. Headline: Defenders of Jefferson renew attack on DNA data linking him to slave child. There's even a story here that--let's see, let me read it, `The author of the DNA analysis,' which, by the way, first was published where?
Nature is a science magazine. It's a scientific journal.
`Dr. Eugene Foster complains in a letter published in today's issue of Nature that the headline the journal put on his original study, "Jefferson fathered slave's last child," was misleading. Dr. Foster, a retired pathology professor, said he concluded only it was more probable that Thomas Jefferson was Eston's father.'
Well, I think that he's correct. I mean, I always viewed the DNA test as something that supplemented the circumstantial evidence that was in the--that, as I said, that I looked at and critiqued in the book. He was operating and talking about the scientific evidence, the scientific meaning, but from my perspective, the situation isn't just about what the DNA test says. It has to be seen--the totality of the circumstances have to be considered as well, so I think he's right. I mean, the headline that the test itself established a direct link to Thomas Jefferson himself is correct, but as to whether or not it could have been anybody else, there's never been any other historical indication that it was anybody else. So he's correct that the headline should have been clearer, but that doesn't resolve the question. That's just for the science, not for the rest of the information.
By the way, where are you now on a full-time basis?
I'm at New York Law School. I'm a professor of law at New York Law School.
What do you teach?
I teach property and a seminar called American Slavery & The Law.
Where did you...
And I'm a fledgling legal history professor.
Where did you get your law degree?
Harvard Law School.
When'd you get out of there?
And why did you get into this law professor business in the first place?
Well, I wanted to write and I wanted to teach and I had spoken with a number of people who told me that the law professor's life was wonderful. We get paid better than regular professors. We have the opportunity to do lots of different things, and we're sort of well-thought of. So it seemed like a good deal.
When did you first leave Conroe, Texas, for school?
Where'd you go?
I went to Dartmouth College.
And what did you study there?
I'd always loved it. It was a subject that came to me naturally. I thought about majoring in government because I'd had an inkling that I wanted to be a lawyer, or my father put it in my head that I wanted to be a lawyer. And I thought that--people told me government is a better major or political science, and I took some classes, and they just didn't strike me the way history--the history of anything--Russia, the United States. I sort of concentrated on Southern history, but it was a love from long ago, and I--as I had mentioned to you before, I think my foray into my--my first foray into history was the biography of Jefferson that I read, so it was there from the very beginning for me.
And we talked about when you were in the third grade and then when you were 12. What happened between being 12 years old and going to Dartmouth? What happened to your thinking about all this?
Well, when I was 14, I saw a notice in a magazine about a book called "Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History," by Fawn Brodie, and it was offered as a selection of the Book of the Month Club, and I joined the Book of the Month Club, even though I wasn't supposed to because I was only 14, and my parents noticed that they kept getting these books every month, saying, `Who has done this?' And they eventually got out of the contract, but I got my biography of Jefferson, and in that book, Brodie took the position that the relationship with Sally Hemings was a fact, and she wasn't writing of it as speculation or whatever, and she sort of incorporated it into her biography, and...
Was it a biography or a novel?
Well, it was a biography of Jefferson. And at the end of the book, she reprinted the memoirs of Madison Hemings, who was the son of Sally Hemings who said that Jefferson was his father and Hemings was his mother. And I was fascinated by it. I think most people, when they--or most people I've talked to who think about this story focus in on Sally Hemings. I find Madison Hemings and his siblings much more interesting. I read the memoir and it sounded real to me. I mean, it sounded like someone who was imparting information that was entirely reasonable, in a non-sensational manner, in a very matter-of-fact fashion, and after I read that memoir, that's when I really decided--I hadn't been focusing very much on Sally Hemings before then, but it was really after reading Fawn Brodie's book and reading Madison Hemings' memoir that I decided that this was something that I wanted to study sort of on my own.
Fawn Brodie was--is she still alive, by the way?
No, she's not.
She was located where? Do you know?
She was a history professor at UCLA.
And how was her book received when she published it?
Well, she was vilified by Jefferson scholars. The book became a best-seller. I think it's still in print. And they've done a new printing of it. It's been enormously popular overall. But she became viewed as sort of a non-serious, sort of hysterical romantic woman who had sort of been duped by this story, and it was not well-received by the people who were experts in Jefferson's life.
As far as you know, how many women have ever written about Jefferson in a book form?
Gee, you mean...
Well, I guess maybe I could back into it. I mean, are you the first black woman to ever write a book about Thomas Jefferson?
No. Barbara Chase-Riboud wrote a novel about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, and the name of her novel was "Sally Hemings." She is the first that I know of. The first black woman who wrote about this story was a woman named Pearl Graham, in--I think it was "The Negro History Bulletin" back in the late '50s or early '60s. But Fawn--I mean, Barbara Chase-Riboud was the first person to write a book. As far as I know, I'm the first black woman to write a history about Thomas Jefferson.
I guess the reason I ask, because you take on directly a lot of white males in here who are historians...
...including Dumas Malone, who wrote...
How many volumes were there to his...
Six volumes of Jefferson and his time.
Did you ever meet him?
No. He died before I got into this.
Now what do you think of his writings about Jefferson?
They're indispensable to studying the life of Jefferson. Six volumes, all of the family, all of the basic things that happened, so it's something that we really can't do without, but the problem that I have with it--and particularly on this subject--I think he became too identified with Jefferson and was not able to be--can't have total objectivity, but he was well along at the other end of the continuum on that point.
What did he say about Sally Hemings?
He referred to it as alleged. He thought that it was something that was concocted by Jefferson's enemies, and/or that it was sort of a huge misunderstanding, because it was his view that instead of Jefferson being the father of the children, that it was actually Jefferson's nephews, so it was sort of a misunderstanding that Jefferson's political enemies capitalized upon, so he didn't believe that it was true.
Can you describe how big Thomas Jefferson Inc. is in the United States?
Well, it's huge. It's huge. There seems to be a cottage industry in writing about Jefferson, and it doesn't--because he's so popular. There's so many ways into him. People are interested in his politics, interested in his recipes, in his building and so forth, but it's enormous. He's enormously popular figure.
So what's it like to kind of dip your toe into that world? I mean, did it make you nervous at all?
Not really. I think because I--you know, as I said, since I was writing--setting out to write about the historiography and how I think people had gone wrong, I was pretty confident about that. I mean, the ultimate issue of whether or not he did or he didn't was secondary to me. I was sure enough that the way it had been handled was wrong that I didn't really think about it. I just sort of did it.
Why were you sure?
Why was I sure? Because I'd thought about it a long time, and I thought about it a long time. I recognized sort of lapses in logic, the sort of not taking into a consideration the interest of blacks and former slaves. There were real problems with the way their arguments were structured that I was confident that I could expose and in exposing them to people who are--I mean, we've sort of--I think we've come a long way--the historical profession has come a long way in considering blacks' views, and I knew that the generation that was writing about this never had the benefit of that. And if we could sort of bring this sort of new view to the subject, that people would understand what I was trying to say, so I was pretty confident about that.
On the back of your book, you have a liner quote from Joseph J. Ellis. And it says here, `Short of digging up Jefferson and doing DNA testing on him'--this was obviously written a couple years ago...
...`and Hemings' descendants, Gordon-Reed's account gets us as close to the truth as the available evidence allows.' What I'm confused about it--and Joseph Ellis has been on this program, although he talked about John Adams when he was here.
Yeah, "Passionate Sage."
Yeah. Where is he now? I mean, it seemed like he--in his book that he wrote, "An American Sphinx," he was not on your side on this.
No, he was not. I think what he was looking for evidently was some sort of scientific twist on this, and the latest information that I have from the publicity about the DNA reports is that he now believes the story is true. So his position was there was not enough evidence before, but now there is, so he's changed his view about this.
Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, from your information, had how many children together?
Seven children, four who lived to adulthood.
And where did you get the information and how did you figure that out?
Well, because Jefferson's "Farm Book" contains--mentions all of her children, except one. The controversy over her--whether or not she had a child named Tom. Madison Hemings' memoir mentions that when she returned from France with Jefferson, where she had been while he was serving as minister to France, she had a child. He said the child died. There's a family that believes that the child did not die and grew up to be a man named Tom Woodson, and so I do believe that she gave birth to seven children, but I think that four of them--the best information that we have now that only four of them survived to adulthood.
Has anybody challenged that directly since you've written this?
Your basic thesis that there were seven children?
No. No. There is still a controversy about Tom Woodson, whether or not there actually was a Thomas Woodson, but I think everybody pretty much agrees that she gave birth seven times.
When did Thomas Jefferson first meet Sally Hemings?
He would have met her when she was about three years old, which would have been 1776--'75, '76. She was part of--if you can use the--you can believe these terms--the inheritance of his wife. When his wife's father died, he came into possession as the male, came into possession of--of upwards of 135 slaves, I believe, and one of them was Sally Hemings, so she was a little girl the first time he would have encountered her.
Where would he have met her?
They were at a plantation, I believe, Elkhill, and they came to Monticello. A certain group of slaves, mainly Betty Hemings and her children and others, but the ones that are most famous came to live at Monticello.
And who would have been Sally Hemings' mother and father?
Sally Hemings' mother was a woman named Elizabeth Hemings, and her father was John Wayles, who was also the father of Jefferson's first wife.
So we had a--is it a white and black mother and father?
So when would they have had their first liaison, from what your information shows?
Madison Hemings says that when Jefferson was in Paris, he sent for his younger daughter, Maria, to come to Paris with him. He had his older daughter there.
How many children did he have at that point?
He had two--he had three children at that point. Excuse me, when he left for France, he had three children, when his youngest daughter died. And at that point, he decided to have the remaining child in the United States come to Paris with him.
Where was his wife?
His wife was dead, too.
How long had she been dead?
She had been dead since 1782 for five years--four, five years at this point.
And what's the story about him committing never to marry again?
The story that is told by people who are at the deathbed scene is that before Jefferson's wife died, she asked him not to remarry, indicating that she did not want a woman over her children. I think--it didn't seem to be so much that `I don't want you to have anyone else,' it was she had a fear about stepmoms maybe. That was supposed to have happened at her deathbed, and he supposedly agreed to that.
So Sally Hemings went to Paris for what reason?
She went to Paris as a nursemaid to Jefferson's youngest daughter--the youngest remaining daughter. So she was there sort of as a--well, as a nursemaid, as a companion, and she was between 14 and 15 when she went to Paris.
How old was he then?
He was 44--between 44 and 45. I'm talking about in 1787...
And your information suggests that the first child was conceived between the two of them when?
Madison Hemings says that she was pregnant when they were returning, and she returns in 1789, so she would have been 16 or 17 years old at the time, and he's 45.
And so then what happened when they came back to the United States? Where did they go?
When they came back to the United States, Jefferson had accepted an appointment in the government--in Washington's government, and he stayed at Monticello just long enough--his older daughter got married and then he went off, you know, to be in the government and Sally Hemings, as far as we know, remained at Monticello.
Are there any written documents anywhere actually acknowledging, either from Sally Hemings or from Thomas Jefferson, that there was a relationship?
No. No. There are no...
No love letters, nothing like that.
No, nothing like that, nothing like that. I mean, the novel that I mentioned--I alluded to before, Barbara Chase-Riboud, there's a suggestion that there were letters, and--and very often, people will talk to me, `What about the letters?' and I say, `Well, that's in the novel.' I mean, there's nothing that has turned up of that nature.
So when you went to do your research, did you physically have to go anyplace else besides right here in New York City to find this information?
Well, I went--I did a number of visits to Charlottesville, to Monticello, looking at some of the material that they had gathered there. I was in Petersburg, Virginia, looking at some of the records of a slave who had been at Monticello before--I mean, during the time that Jefferson was there. Most of the material--since I was really writing about what other people had written and about the family, I was able to gather up in our library alone or actually going to libraries. But the New York Public Library was wonderful. It was a wonderful place where I spent most of my time doing all of the genealogy and so forth.
When you see information at Petersburg about a slave family or a slave, what's it look like?
Newspaper articles. It was largely going through newspaper articles from Petersburg at the time of Jefferson's death and trying to figure out what the reaction had been, to see if there were any statements about the slaves that he emancipated. So it was really maga--excuse me, newspaper records that I was looking for in Petersburg.
In your preface, you have this sentence. You say, `I assume that the book's message probably would confirm what whites seem to think of most blacks; that we are some lesser form of human being.' What's that relating to?
When I was reading, as a child, reading this biography of Jefferson--this child biography of Jefferson that was told through the eyes of a fictional slave boy and the author of the book had set it up so that Jefferson was everything that was wonderful and intelligent and bright and attractive, and the slave was everything dumb, stupid and dirty. You know, Jefferson wanted to read and study and the slave, `Oh, why do we have to bother with that? Why can't we just run and play?' It was sort of all the stereotypes of blacks, and there I was sitting in this small town, as I said, the only black person in my class, wondering what this book that I knew people might read would say--I mean, what message it would impart to my classmates, and I knew what it would impart, and that's what it would impart; that we were something other than human really.
How were you treated in Conroe, Texas, as the only black person in your class?
Well, my parents had--actually, I mean, the story behind this is that my parents had decided that I was going to integrate our school district. This had happened--I did this in the first grade, so by the time I get to Jefferson, a couple of years have passed. But it was very difficult. I mean, there were people who were very kind and very helpful and determined to make it work, but there were other people who were quite hostile, and it's the sort of thing where, you know, once it's happened, I view everything now relative, at least it's not that kind of thing, you know--everything is relatively better than that, so it was difficult, even though I did manage to find some people who were supportive.
Did you realize at that age what was going on?
Yes, I did.
Why, do you think?
Well, because my parents made sure that I knew what was going on, and I could see--if you remember that time, it was on television, this notion that things were on the move, people were--there were strides being made and so forth. And I kind of thought that I was sort of a part of that. It was painful to be a part of it, but I thought it was worthwhile.
Let me read this last little note here on this sentence, `that we are some lesser form of human being,' that's what whites thought. Do whites--do you find many whites today that feel that way that you know of?
Many whites that I know of--well, that's a...
Do you feel it?
Do I feel it? Yes, I feel it. I feel that maybe not as much as the book that I was reading, but the sense that the blacks as other and sort of lesser other, I think, is still a part of American society. And I see it in the--sort of the response to this story by--we mentioned before the people who are sort of mounting--sort of manning the barricades now, saying, `It wasn't Jefferson, it was someone else.' In the total dismissal of--the lack of understanding of what being able to shape one's family history means to a group of people who had that taken away from them, it's a lack of empathy, and I do still see that.
And where do you see it? How do you see it?
Well, I see it in the comments that people make, in the statements that people make, in seeing this issue as being primarily about preserving some image of Jefferson without thinking of what telling the truth means to slaves and their descendants.
Do you see it on a day-to-day basis in New York City much where you--from the white folks that you teach? Do you get any reaction? Do you see it in their eyes?
Do I see it in their eyes? Sometimes yes and sometimes no. I mean, for the most part--I think, if you--I think that racism today, if this is what we're talking about, or white supremacy today is much less open and much less visceral than the kinds of things that I was talking about when I was a child. But I think that the vestiges of it are still there. And it's something that--it's not concrete in the sense of people calling you names or doing things like that. But I know from the experiences that other African Americans have and the ones that I've had and just the treatment is a feeling that we are not viewed as true Americans.
You write in your preface, `It is possible by examining the reactions to this story to see the ways in which black people have been treated as lumps of clay to be fashioned and molded into whatever image the given historian feels is necessary in order to make his point. This, in my view, is the real scandal of the whole story.'
Well, I'm referring there to the treatment of Madison Hemings' memoir and the memoir of Israel Jefferson, who was another slave at Monticello who gave an interview to a reporter in 1873, talking about life at Monticello in which they both say that the relationship between Jefferson and Hemings was real. Madison Hemings was portrayed as sort of a dupe of the abolitionists, even though slavery was over. He was portrayed as someone who didn't have a mind of his own. I mean, the original historian said--wrote about this as though this was all a concoction of someone else. I mean, surely he couldn't have come to these ideas on his own. There's a notion that this was a way of making--he was trying to make himself look good primarily, that he would tell this kind of story in order to relate himself to whites when most black people understand that a relationship to a white person doesn't make very much difference in terms of your life. And certainly at that time it wouldn't have.
I mean, if you remember that Madison Hemings' other siblings passed into the white world. I mean, they gave up a heritage, a link to Jefferson, because it didn't matter. I mean, they were--as long as they identified themselves as black, they knew that they and their children would have no future. So if you think of the magnitude of walking away from--you're Thomas Jefferson's first son. You're thinking of Beverly Hemings, and you give that up because there's nothing in it for you. But what, you know, a person who has no relationship to Jefferson. A black person who has no relationship to Jefferson would be in the same position. So I just didn't think that they were approaching them as sort of historical witnesses who had something of value to say. It was all in terms of black people are like this. Black people have this interest. They didn't look at him as a man. They looked at him as being a part of a group.
Who took this book to the University of Virginia Press?
Peter Onuf, who's the chairman of the history department at UVA. I had sort of stumbled upon him by accident, in a way. I had wanted to find people who I knew didn't believe the story to have them read the manuscript and tell me what they thought of it, tell me where I was wrong or, you know, what didn't make any sense. And I called him on the phone and asked him if he would read it and he agreed to. And I think afterwards, he told me he was a little skeptical, `You mean you've written a whole book about this?' And he read it and he liked it and he suggested that the press publish it. As a matter of fact, I hadn't had much luck with other trade publishers before then.
Do you know why?
Well, I was told that, `Well, we don't think we can put this in bookstores. We don't think it will sell.' That was what I was told. I suspect it was the subject matter, I mean, and what it was that I was trying to do, you know, with--so as you said, going against people who had been sort of established lights in the field and, you know, who am I? I'm a--you know, not even a tenured law professor at a--you know, at a law school. You know, why should they listen to me? But I think it was more--it was the subject matter and the fact that I mean, I didn't come with a lot of credentials other than what I thought was right. But Peter read it and thought that there was something there and he took it to the press, and in a way, it makes sense for it to be there.
Well, there are a lot of the people that you are criticizing in here who make their home down there in Charlottesville.
Merrill Peterson, John Miller, Doug Wilson, Dumas Malone before he died. What was their reaction to the University of Virginia Press publishing this?
Well, I haven't heard anything from Merrill Peterson. Doug Wilson, who was at the Center of International Jefferson Studies, I mean, he invited me down for talks there, so, I mean, he was quite good about it. I sort of tiptoed gingerly around this and said, `By the way, you're in the book.' But he couldn't have been more gracious about the whole thing, so I haven't had the problems that I sort of anticipated before. I really thought that this would be much more--I would engender much more hostility and I haven't. I mean, most of the letters that I've received have been very, very supportive, from people, whether they accepted my ultimate conclusion or not, which was that this story was likely true, I think for whatever--one reason or another, people were much more accepting and tolerant than I had expected.
Are your parents still in Conroe, Texas?
My mother's no longer living. My father is there.
And his reaction to this book?
He's quite proud of it. I think he may have been bewildered because I don't think he knew that I had this sort of interest in Monticello and slavery, so it was sort of a surprise to him. But I think he's enormously happy about it and sort of follows it in the press and, you know, calls me when there are clippings and things. So he's been very, very good about it.
When did you marry?
I married in 1984.
Robert Reed. He is--or he was my classmate at Harvard. We were in the same section together. That's where we met the first year.
What's he do?
He's an attorney here in New York.
And you have a Susan and a Gordon.
Yes, I do.
And how old are they?
They are eight and six.
Do they have any idea--I mean, remember, you were eight when this all started--what this is all about?
Mm-hmm. Not really. I mean, they do know that I'm on television and that I'm on the phone quite a bit and I'm taken away from them, but I think my daughter Susan, who's older, seems to have some inkling about slavery and what slavery was about and what the issues are. But right now it's sort of a phenomenon of, you know, Mom sort of out there in the public arena is more interesting to them than the actual subject matter.
As you know, in the middle of all this, in this time period we're in, there was an accusation made that this was all a part of the Clinton administration's effort to get a good, you know, historical figure that had had the same problems that he's had.
When did you finish your book? When did you actually finish the last word before it went to the publisher? What year?
1996, it would've been.
Any conversations at all with the Clinton administration?
No. You mean me?
No, not at all.
You mean, you're not a part of helping them...
No, no, no, no, no, no, not at all.
But there is in your paperback version an endorsement by Vernon Jordan.
And he said, `I read with great excitement and enjoyment "Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy," Annette Gordon-Reed's ground-breaking treatment of a topic that has long fascinated Americans. It is a meticulous scholarly work,' on and on. Why his endorsement?
Or--and I guess, are you--were you concerned that people might draw a conclusion that there was an involvement?
No, no, no. What happened there was that he'd read the book and he called me--this was well before any of this controversy, the Lewinsky business, came to the fore to tell me that he liked the book. I got a phone call from Washington, you know, `This is Vernon Jordan. I'm a lawyer in Washington,' and, `I know who you are.' And he said he liked the book and asked me if I would help him write his memoirs, and I said yes. So that's his bid to sort of help his collaborator get some good press. It has nothing to do with Clinton, whom I've never met.
And are you doing that with him?
What's that--give us a time frame on that...
Well, the time frame depends upon things that are utterly, you know, beyond our control right now. We're gonna get beyond whatever this is and then get to work, but this is something wholly independent from any controversy with Lewinsky.
And how are you gonna do it?
Well, this is interesting. We're gonna--I mean, I'm gonna listen to him talk and interview him, tape him, interview his friends, and we're gonna sit down and work it out together.
And why did you want to do that?
Because--you know, it's interesting. I can't think of anybody else that I would want to do it with, because he's a--he's had a fascinating life, you know. I mean, from the civil rights era to business to being a figure on the world scene, there's not quite--there's no one like him, in a way, and that's--to get the opportunity to do something with a unique individual is fascinating.
And what would be your guess as to what year this memoir would come out?
Oh, I can't guess. I can't guess. As I said, it depends on when we get going on it. I hope for it to be soon because I want to get on to other kinds of projects. I would like to get back to Monticello and Charlottesville and Jefferson as quickly as possible.
How difficult is it for you to do the actual business of writing?
It's not that hard. It's something I enjoy doing and I dictate first. I typically sort of walk around with a tape recorder saying what I want to say and then transcribe it, but it's hard to get started, but once I get started I love it. I actually love it.
Where do you write?
Almost anywhere. I wrote this book primarily in my office and in my bedroom. As I said, I started out with sort of walking around with a voice-activated tape recorder and I have little microcassettes of--and then I would sit down at the computer. I'm not good at composing at a computer. I either have to write it out longhand or say it. It's more real to me if I say it. But in my office and in my bedroom.
Is there a time of day that you can talk into that tape recorder better than others?
In the morning, between 4:30 and 8, I'm at my best.
Why do you think?
I don't know. I've always--when I was in school, if I wanted to study, that's when I got up to study. I'm a morning person, and that's a surefire way to get going.
By the way, is there a follow-up book to this on this subject?
Well, there may be. I'm going to be doing a new forward to the book that will come out in the spring, and I will be--the press is doing a series of essays sort of talking about the meaning of all of this, and that will--that's not just me. There will be other people involved with that. That will be sometime in the spring. I'd like to talk about--to write a book about Jefferson as a planter, as a person in Charlottesville and his community, what he was like and what--as a slave owner, not specifically Jefferson and Hemings. I think there were other people working on that. Monticello has a project called Getting Word that's run by Lucia Stanton and Dianne Swann-Wright, and they are sort of doing a follow-up on people who were at Monticello, and that will include the Hemings family as well as other people. But more along--I don't think that I will do "Jefferson and Hemings II," because there's nothing--there's not more that I could say about that, I think, at this particular point.
When was the first time that the Thomas Jefferson-Sally Hemings connection was ever made public?
Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings--naming Sally Hemings was 1802 by James Callender. There had been sort of references to Jefferson's private life, you now, in the years preceding that, but never Sally. Thomas and Sally appear on the scene first in 1802.
What was James Callender's reason for publishing it?
He was angry at Jefferson. He had been a Jefferson partisan and he was one of these people who was very, very sort of a staunch Republican, radical Republican type in Jefferson's party. And once Jefferson was elected president, he wanted to be postmaster of Richmond, and as often happens, the people in the political party who are the most--you know, the really--the sort of the dogs of the party, the really staunch people, they're not the candidates don't think that they're--really have the temperament to hold office. I mean, they're good for being attack dogs, they're not good for being postmaster of Richmond. He denied Callender this position, and Callender was upset about that and had heard these stories before, went down to Charlottesville, he said, and talked to people about it and decided to print the story.
Where did he print it?
In the Richmond Recorder, which was a newspaper that he started.
What was the reaction to it?
There was outrage on the part of some of Jefferson's partisans, but they defused the crisis really by not answering it very much. After the initial printing of the article, there were a couple of, you know, sallies back and forth--I shouldn't use that term--but he--Jefferson and his friends just sort of defused the crisis by not talking about it. So Callender--was sort of hard to have an argument if people don't respond. It eventually died down after a couple of years.
Was there a next time for that story to be published?
Well, Jefferson was--despite this, Jefferson was re-elected in a landslide. In 1805 in New England, the story sort of resurfaced again by Jefferson's political enemies, but it never really made a difference on his political career and it died down and has sort of come back periodically anytime anybody felt like attacking Jefferson or, you know, anybody associated with Jefferson.
Did you go back and find the actual story that James Callender wrote?
Yes. I went down to the Library of Virginia, where the Richmond Recorder, the microfilms--you could find the microfilm of the Richmond Recorder, and I went through and read what he had written.
Do you remember the headline?
"Mr. Jefferson--The President Again," is the headline, because he had been writing about Jefferson before. This was not the first thing that he had written, and so he begins "The President Again" and then starts into this story about Jefferson and Sally Hemings.
Did any of the other national newspapers pick it up at the time?
Yes, they did. They talk--newspapers in New York, picked it up in Philadelphia and the battle was sort of joined, but as I said, just for a short time. But it was really Callender, the Richmond Recorder who kept the story going for a while, and then eventually he went on to other things about Jefferson.
In 1802, how many children had Sally Hemings had?
In 1802 she had had five children. At the time, only two of them were alive.
You have any idea what she looked like?
No, except she was described by a slave, Isaac Jefferson, as being very fair-skinned, very pretty with--she said she had long, straight hair down her back. I mean, most descriptions of her are about--you know, they just say she's attractive, not anything more than that, but here's this-- fair-skinned with long hair.
She lived for how many years?
She lived to be 60 years old.
She lived how long after Thomas Jefferson died?
Nine years after Thomas Jefferson died.
And in those late years, what was their proximity?
In the late--after he died?
No, no, no, before he died. In other words, where did she live when he went back to Monticello after being president?
She lived--the best information we have, if you remember Monticello, there are rooms along the south pavilion outside of his bedroom, and that's where she lived, in the stone houses.
When was she freed?
She was never formally freed. She left Monticello after Jefferson died and lived with his son--lived with her sons in Charlottesville, and that would've been 1820--between 1826 and 1827. There's a census report in 1830 that has them all living in a house in Charlottesville. We just don't know the exact date they left.
Who was Dabney Carr? I know he's buried right there with Thomas Jefferson. I think he died at something like age 30 or something.
Yeah. He was a very close friend of Thomas Jefferson and he was actually married to Jefferson's sister, Martha.
But the Carr name plays a role in all this.
Yes. Yes. The sons of Dabney Carr and Martha Carr were identified by Thomas Jefferson Randolph and Ellen Randolph Coolidge, two grandchildren of Jefferson, as the father of Sally Hemings' children.
When did they do that?
They did that respectively 18--I guess Ellen's--I mean, Jefferson Randolph's conversation would've been about 1852, and Ellen wrote a letter to her husband in 1858. This is after everybody's dead. The principal characters were dead. They indicated that it was the Carr brothers who were the fathers of the kids, which is why Dr. Foster, in this DNA test...
In this current test--drew blood from descendants of Carr's to compare them to the Hemings family and determined that they're not in the same family at all, so the Jefferson family oral history about explaining why Sally Hemings' children look so much Jefferson was pretty much discredited by this test because this Eston Hemings descendant has Jefferson markers and no--the Carr family is utterly different.
Another one of your theories--I don't know if it's just yours, but you present it in the book--is that one of the reasons why you feel that there is a--you know, that these were Thomas Jefferson's children, that she never conceived one of her children without him being there.
How did you track that one?
Well, the first person to note this wasn't--was Winthrop Jordan in "White Over Black," but Dumas Malone has a set of chronologies of Jefferson's life, really month-to-month chronology of Jefferson's life from the time of his youth up until, you know, his death, and we know the birth date of Sally Hemings' children because Jefferson marked them in his farm book, which is his record of his activities on his farm. So you just count back from the date of birth to their probable dates of conception, and he's there for each one of them. And, you know, she never--we have no record of her having any children or, you know, conceiving any children that were born when he was not there. So he can be tied to--his presence is tied to her--to her conceptions of children--each of her children.
When did Madison Hemings--and explain again how he fits into this--write his memoirs?
He gave an interview to a man named S.F. Wetmore in 1873, out in Chillicothe, Ohio, talking about his life.
How did he get out there--how did he get to Ohio?
After Jefferson died, he and his brother, I think, stayed in Virginia with their mother. After Sally Hemings died, Madison Hemings left and went west, because people were--I mean, he was free, but people thought that they had more opportunities the further west that they went, to go out and get their own land and begin life anew. So he went out to Chillicothe. Eston Hemings, his younger brother, followed him and they lived in the black community there for a number of years until Eston decided to change his racial designation and then he went off to Wisconsin as a white man with his family.
And you--in the back, in your appendix, you have part of the...
...Madison Hemings memoir. Why did you put that in the book?
Because I wanted people to read it. As I said, when I read it as a young person, I wanted people--instead of having me describe what it's like, I would like for people to read it and then compare it to the letters of Henry Randall, giving the Jefferson family side, and to see which one seemed more plausible, given the other information that I talk about. So it was a way of getting a--to making him real--as a real person, as opposed to me sort of putting words in his mouth and characterizing what he had to say.
What do you think of Thomas Jefferson?
That's another interesting question. I still admire Jefferson. I've gotten into trouble about this from some people, because how can you admire a slave owner? That's because I'm able to separate out what I think are the good things about him, the real contributions that he's made to the country. As I said, this notion of someone who wants to find out everything, he's a modern person in a way, I mean, a person of the 18th century who's striving to--you know, to advance society in his own way. I do--I guess I like him in the interest--if interest can be equated with liking someone, I suppose in his place, I do like him and admire him, even though I think that there are tremendous faults. I've been accused of having reverence for him, which is not the case.
Who would accuse you of that?
Joseph Ellis accused me of looking at Jefferson with a sort of reverential attitude. In the last issue of The New Yorker, I believe, there's a letter to the editor there when he says I have sort of a reverential attitude towards him, which I don't--I think it's too strong. I don't have that for anyone or any politician that--I think.
Now along the way, since you've written this book, what has been the most interesting media thing you've done?
The most interesting media thing that I've done, I was on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" with descendants of Eston Hemings and Madison Hemings. And that was--everybody asked me, `What's Oprah like?' I was focusing on Oprah, but she was secondary to the descendants of people whose lives I've been tracking for all these years. That was--it was a very moving experience. They had the book and they were signing it and, you know, getting to know one another, not focusing so much on me, but I was sort of standing off watching this, thinking, you know, `This is not only--it's a literary thing, but it's a human thing as well.'
Had they ever met?
And that was quite--no, they had not.
Who did they look like?
The Eston Hemings descendants looked, for all practical purposes, white, as you would expect, because they have just been marrying white people. The Madison Hemings descendants, some of them looked white as well. They look like one another. One of them had a nose that looks very much like Jefferson's nose. I thought it was actually quite funny. I was sort of watching him in profile, thinking, `Gee, you know, interesting profile there.' It was--that was the most interesting thing that's happened to me so far, I think, or the most moving thing that's happened to me so far with this.
And what was their reaction to you?
Well, they seemed--they were very, very nice about it. And they seemed to be grateful that--you know, that someone had to take up their story in a way that was--that sort of moved it beyond just sort of, `These are my personal feelings,' but to actually have sort of a scholarly look at it, so they were very, very nice. It was marvelous.
One of the things that you mention in your book, kind of offhand at one point, is that there was a time when CBS was thinking about doing a miniseries on Sally Hemings. And you say that--well, you tell the story. What happened?
Well, I was going through the special collections of Virginius Dabney's letters at Alderman Library.
Who was that?
Virginius Dabney was a man who'd written a book called "The Jefferson Scandal," which was a--"Scandals"--which was intended as his rebuttal to Fawn Brody and Barbara Chase-Riboud, who had been writing about Jefferson and Sally Hemings. And in the papers there were a series of correspondence between Dabney and other historians who had been writing to CBS and NBC who had been thinking about doing a miniseries, buying a miniseries based upon Barbara Chase-Riboud's novels, "Sally Hemings." And it was their goal, I mean, to--and they were effective in doing it and getting the executives at CBS and NBC to decide not to run it because they thought that it was--saying that it was too irresponsible. And they weren't even willing to sort of have disclaimers, you know, `This is a fictionalized account.' There was every expectation that that book, which was very, very--which was almost sort of written, it seems, for filming, there was every expectation that it would be made and it was never made.
Do you have any sense of how you feel about the DNA test itself? Do you know much about it and how it works?
Yes. I made it my business to try to familiarize myself with it as much as I could, as any lay person could. Do you mean describing what happened?
How does it work? I mean, in other words, exactly what did they do in order to have a DNA test on the Jefferson-Sally Hemings connection?
Well, what he did was he--Dr. Foster--well, first you have to establish who are the likely--you know, be the punitive relatives. The male--the Y chromosome in the male passes down through the generations relatively intact because it doesn't recombine. Most DNA, with your mother and your father, mix together and they swap genes. The Y chromosome comes down intact. So what Dr. Foster had the idea of doing was taking the DNA--a Y chromosome from a male Jefferson descendant, and because Jefferson had no sons with his wife, they used an uncle. Now the assumption here is that Thomas Jefferson and his brothers were not illegitimate, that they were, in fact, both Jeffersons. So they took a descendant from his uncle Phil Jefferson, they took a Y chromosome from--Y chromosome--looked at the Y chromosome from an Eston Hemings descendant, straight-line male, descendants from--some samples from Carrs, to try to see what this Carr story was about, and they compared them and found that the Jefferson chromosome--Y chromosome had one thing that helped them, had a very, very distinctive mutation that they had not seen in any other Y chromosome. And it turned out that the Eston Hemings descendant had the exact same Y chromosome as the Jefferson, and the Carrs were a completely different family.
How did they get the chromosomes in the first place?
Blood. He drew blood from...
Where do they physically do this?
They did the test in--the people who oversaw it were in Oxford. I think he took it to three--the samples were divided between three separate labs, if I'm not mistaken, in Belgium and in England, and they didn't tell people what they were working on. And--so they got all the results and then compared the three separate tests, and they were all the same. The results were all the same in all three labs.
And what do you think it now proves?
I think it proves that Thomas Jefferson was the father of that--well, it proves that this Eston Hemings descendant was a Jefferson. That with the other information that we have, it proves that Thomas Jefferson was likely the father of all of Sally Hemings' children because, I mean, if you look at the test in terms of--if you ask the question, you know, `What does it prove scientifically?' as I said, it proves that he's a Jefferson. What does it prove historically? You look at Madison Hemings as a credible historical witness. This kind of information--I mean, I can't think of a historical witness whose story has been more resoundingly corroborated than his. It makes me believe that he was telling the truth when he said that he and his siblings were the sons of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings.
This is what the book looks like. Title is "Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy," by Annette Gordon-Reed, available in both hardback and softback. And we're out of time, and we thank you very much.
Thank you very much for having me.