The America Begotten by Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings
Publication Year: 2008
The debate over the affair between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings rarely rises above the question of "Did they or didn’t they?" But lost in the argument over the existence of such a relationship are equally urgent questions about a history that is more complex, both sexually and culturally, than most of us realize. Mongrel Nation seeks to uncover this complexity, as well as the reasons it is so often obscured.
Clarence Walker contends that the relationship between Jefferson and Hemings must be seen not in isolation but in the broader context of interracial affairs within the plantation complex. Viewed from this perspective, the relationship was not unusual or aberrant but was fairly typical. For many, this is a disturbing realization, because it forces us to abandon the idea of American exceptionalism and re-examine slavery in America as part of a long, global history of slaveholders frequently crossing the color line.
More than many other societies--and despite our obvious mixed-race population--our nation has displayed particular reluctance to acknowledge this dynamic. In a country where, as early as 1662, interracial sex was already punishable by law, an understanding of the Hemings-Jefferson relationship has consistently met with resistance. From Jefferson’s time to our own, the general public denied--or remained oblivious to--the possibility of the affair. Historians, too, dismissed the idea, even when confronted with compelling arguments by fellow scholars. It took the DNA findings of 1998 to persuade many (although, to this day, doubters remain).
The refusal to admit the likelihood of this union between master and slave stems, of course, from Jefferson’s symbolic significance as a Founding Father. The president’s apologists, both before and after the DNA findings, have constructed an iconic Jefferson that tells us more about their own beliefs--and the often alarming demands of those beliefs--than it does about the interaction between slave owners and slaves. Much more than a search for the facts about two individuals, the debate over Jefferson and Hemings is emblematic of tensions in our society between competing conceptions of race and of our nation.
Published by: University of Virginia Press
Table of Contents
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Writing is always a lonely and difficult process, and the task is even more stressful when one is in pain. From 2003 to 2005, as I was working on early drafts of this book, I suffered from extreme arthritis in both hips. I have now had two hip replacements and feel like I am nineteen from...
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The Thomas Jefferson–Sally Hemings aff air has been an issue in American political, social, cultural, and racial life since 1802, when James Thompson Callender, a transplanted Scottish newspaperman living in Virginia...
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My purpose in this chapter is to place the affair of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings in the broader context of what Philip D. Curtin terms the “plantation complex.”1 When viewed from this perspective, the relationship was neither unusual nor aberrant, but normative. Sex between men of the master class or race...
Two Characterand History, or “Chloroformin Print”
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In this chapter I focus on how the pre- and post-DNA discussions of Jefferson and Hemings have shaped and been shaped by our understanding of the racial origins and national identity of the American republic. I comment on and critique what both the pre- and...
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Page Count: 144
Publication Year: 2008