Dartmouth trustee Annette Gordon-Reed has been fascinated by Thomas Jefferson since her student days. As a history major she wanted to write a senior paper examining the evidence for Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings, the enslaved woman who was his dead wife’s half-sister. Her professor nixed the idea, but it became the basis of her groundbreaking 1997 book, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. The following year DNA testing showed that Jefferson was almost certainly the father of one of Hemings’ sons, upsetting the longstanding historical consensus.
Gordon-Reed, 57, is currently the Carol K. Pforzheimer Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, the Charles Warren Professor of American Legal History at Harvard Law School and a history professor at Harvard. She received the 2008 National Book Award and the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in History for The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family and is the recipient of a MacArthur fellowship, among other honors.
Her latest book (coauthored with Peter Onuf, an emeritus professor at the University of Virginia) is “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs”: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination—an intellectual history that serves as a prologue to her planned two-volume Jefferson biography. Her next project is a history of the Hemings family tracing the descendants of two of Jefferson’s sons, Madison and Eston Hemings, up to World War I.
She recently made news with her dissenting views on a Harvard Law School controversy involving race, slavery and the preservation of history.
Why this particular Jefferson book now?
My friend Peter Onuf and I have been talking about Jefferson since about 1995, and I got the idea that we could take what we’d been talking about and put it down. He had been an intellectual historian and I’m mainly a social and political historian. Neither of us finds [Jefferson] completely mysterious—that posture that people take generally about him: “Oh, he’s this contradictory figure, he’s incoherent, you can’t understand him.” And our position is that he’s no more non-understandable than any other intelligent person.
Where do you break new ground?
In Jefferson’s writing about religion. We do believe that he considered himself to be a Christian. A lot of people did not take him seriously because he did not believe in the divinity of Christ and he did not believe in the Trinity. I had been a skeptic about that. He actually did go on a religious quest during his final retirement. He was against organized religion that tried to control people and be a part of the political scene. He thought of [religion] as more about personal ethics.
What else is new?
We think we broke new ground on his understanding of slavery, and when it changed and why. We think, in fact, what he saw in France wedded him to the institution. He’s radicalized in his ideas about equality.
Then how does he reconcile himself more to slavery?
He still thought slavery should end. Before, he was thinking of slavery as a state of war between blacks and whites. When he gets to France he begins to think about amelioration—until the end of slavery, what you should do is make the condition of the enslaved person better. Of course, the problem with that is you have to keep doing it. You get comfortable in that role.
One of the challenges of a Jefferson biographer is to incorporate the new consensus that he had a decades-long relationship and several children with Sally Hemings.
What we tried to do is talk about how he constructed family with these people who could not really be acknowledged family, legal family. With his sons he did it by giving them a trade, spending time with them, and with the daughter [Harriet], essentially training her to be a wife and a mother. He brings [the Hemings family] into the household. He tries to treat them in a different way. They have more freedom than other [enslaved] people at Monticello.
It’s a condition that reflects their heritage.
But it’s not freedom.
You wrote that Jefferson “became totally comfortable in an institution that discomfited him” and that he “lived a paradox.” How?
He lived comfortably in it because the Hemingses became the face of slavery for him.
So he uses his better treatment of his family as a way of rationalizing slavery.
What is happening with Jefferson’s grandchildren’s generation is that family is the exact way they construct slavery: “These people are my family.” And Jefferson is doing that even before that because these people really are his family.
You call Jefferson a “progressive patriarch” within a “retrogressive” system—but not a hypocrite.
He’s a patriarch who is planning for his way of life to go away. His idea is that as things progressed, plantation slavery would fall away and there would be these self-governing family farms across the United States. He is progressive in that he is willing to contemplate the demise of his class [and a world] where there would be greater freedom for larger numbers of people.
How exactly did Jefferson think slavery would end?
He thought that one day the citizens of the states would become so enlightened that they would decide to use legislation to end slavery. The thought of a war over slavery repelled him.
Slavery is once again being discussed on college campuses. You were one of the dissenters in a Harvard Law School committee’s 10-2 vote to recommend dropping the school’s controversial shield. [The shield incorporates the coat of arms of the slaveholding Royall family, one of whose members endowed the school’s first law professorship. In March the Harvard Corporation accepted the recommendation.]
I did not think the shield should be retired. I thought that it should be reinterpreted to make clear that we were connecting ourselves to the enslaved people at the Royall plantation, not Isaac Royall. I argued further that in the years after the shield was adopted, many Harvard graduates have gone on to do wonderful things under the auspices of the shield. Those associations matter.
What are your general thoughts on the current campus protest movement?
I think it was spurred by the very visible and famous instances of police-citizen encounters—all of these cases where people have felt that police have not acted in a fair fashion with black suspects. For young people, it brings home the sense of vulnerability….[They’re] looking to their own communities to things that are remnants of or indicative of racial problems. All this stuff has been going on forever, but everything’s on camera now, so you can actually see it.
There was a lot of bitter pushback after the “Black Lives Matter” library protest at Dartmouth last fall. What should each side understand about the other that might lead to more productive dialogue?
I think both sides want the Dartmouth experience to be as good as it can be. That common ground should serve as a basis for starting a conversation.
Were you involved in protests when you were a student?
We demonstrated for equal access for women at Dartmouth. We wanted to make sure black studies courses weren’t threatened. I was on a committee about how to attract more black faculty to Dartmouth. I was not a great activist, but I participated when the occasion arose.
Do you see Dartmouth as a more racially inclusive place now?
I get the feeling that, despite some of the tensions, there’s a greater comfort with one another. When I walk around the campus now I see people together, black students and white students, more than I remember.
As a trustee, do you feel frustrated that more progress hasn’t been made in hiring black faculty?
There are many creative things that can be done now, and Dartmouth is committed to doing them. But the solution in the long term is to encourage more students of color to become professors in a wider range of fields.
Julia M. Klein, a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia, is a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review and a contributing book critic for The Forward.