Adapted from THE HEMINGSES OF MONTICELLO by Annette Gordon-Reed. Copyright © 2008 by Annette Gordon-Reed. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Elizabeth Hemings began life when America was still a colonial possession. She lived through the Revolution in the home of one of the men who helped make it and died during the formative years of the American Republic, an unknown person in the midst of pivotal events in national and world history. Hemings lived at a time when chattel slavery existed in every American colony, but was dramatically expanding and thriving in the Virginia that was her home. She was, by law, an item of property—a nonwhite, female slave, whose life was bounded by eighteenth-century attitudes about how such persons fit into society. Those attitudes, years in the making by the time Hemings was born, fascinate because they are at once utterly familiar and totally alien. Most Americans today admit the existence of racism and sexism, even as we often disagree about examples of them. We also know that hierarchies, based on any number of factors, exist in every society, enriching the lives of some and blighting the lives of others.
Yet, slavery is a different matter altogether. There are workers all over the world who live desperate lives with little hope of advancement for themselves or their children. There are women who are held in bondage and forced to work as prostitutes or to clean others’ homes and care for others’ families while their own families go unattended. None of these conditions approach the systematic degradation and violence of American slavery sanctioned by state and church.
To say to an American that Elizabeth Hemings was “born a slave” is to call forth a particular image of who she was, how she lived her life, and even how she spoke and carried herself. That is because slavery lives in the minds of most Americans as a series of iconic images: a slave ship packed tight with human cargo, a whip, the auction block, slaves speaking one universal and timeless dialect, black figures toiling in cotton fields. That last image—the cotton field—has most strongly influenced our view, freezing the institution in its antebellum period when cotton was “king” and when slavery had, in the view of one influential historian, been thoroughly domesticated. By the time “King Cotton” arrived in the nineteenth century, enslaved Virginians of African origin, and those of English extraction whose ancestors introduced slavery into the Old Dominion, had long since become Americans, and the institution that defined their existence together had adapted itself, it seemed, for the long haul.
What had gone before, the process that brought those two groups into their “Americanness,” is largely the province of scholars of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. There are many reasons for this, but several immediately come to mind. First, American slavery at its beginnings—obscure, distant, and tragic—is probably for most people a less attractive point of focus than the story of the discovery and political founding of the American nation. If you like your history heroic—and many people seem to—the story of slavery in the early American period is simply not the place to go looking for heroes, at least not among the people most commonly written about.
Second, with the exception of periodic bouts of “founders chic,” in which the men credited with drawing up the blueprint for the United States are pitted against one another—Hamilton was really better than Jefferson, Madison was better than Adams, and Franklin was better than all of them—the colonial and Revolutionary period in America has so far failed to capture the cultural imagination the way the Civil War era has. There is no Gone with the Wind for the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, no literature wallowing in the romance of defeat, no passionate attachments to divisive symbols that live on to poison contemporary race relations and threaten the American future. The Civil War is over, but the politics that fueled it and helped design its aftermath are still very much with us, playing out in various racially charged and seemingly intractable disputes about desegregation, affirmative action, even the continued use in the public sphere of a Confederate battle flag that once flew against the United States of America.
It is not as if no heroism or romance were to be found in the colonial period. Schoolchildren are told an uplifting story about English men and women escaping religious persecution to build their own cities upon the hill in what would become New England. Elizabeth Hemings’s Virginia, however, presents a real problem. It is hard to associate the earliest Virginians who controlled society with any aspiration loftier than that of making a killing. The colony was, after all, founded by the Virginia Company. Voracious land grabbing and land speculation, aided and abetted by the manipulation of public offices, made a relative handful of people wealthy.Unless one is willing and able to overlook extremely important details about the fundamental nature of this society, the story of Virginia’s origins does not lend itself to romanticizing. This is probably why for most Americans the national narrative begins at Plymouth Rock instead of Jamestown, even though the Virginia fortune seekers arrived more than a decade before the Pilgrims.