By Chris Wallace
The annual Allan Martin Lecture is the big date on the History Department’s calendar at ANU each year, and Professor Annette Gordon-Reed did the honours this week with aplomb.
Gordon-Reed holds not one but three chairs at Harvard – a chair in History, a chair at Harvard Law School where she teaches legal history and property, and the Carol K Pforzheimer Chair at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.
Last year Gordon-Reed was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, known in the US as the “Genius Award”. You can’t apply. You get anonymously nominated and, if successful, the first you hear about it is the congratulatory phone call telling you the MacArthur Foundation will pay you $US500,000 in quarterly instalments for the next five years. The money isn’t for any particular purpose but rather as an investment by the MacArthur Foundation in a person’s “originality, insight and potential”. It doesn’t even ask for a report at the end.
Oh, and did I mention the Pulitzer Prize and the National Humanities Medal?
The reason for banging on about Gordon-Reed’s gongs (a much longer list than presented here) is that she’s a lawyer who made good as an historian. People who just want to study history but get steered into law by well meaning, guilt-inducing parents because it’s more “practical” are legion. I love the Annette Gordon-Reed story because it worked the other way round. Gordon-Reed had a solid record as a lawyer and legal academic, but it was when she turned to history that her career went from admirable to stratospherically successful. Memo to kids: Yes, you can make a career in history!
It is true that it was a particularly strategic piece of historical research that fuelled her rise but Gordon-Reed couldn’t have predicted that at the outset of her extraordinary journeying into the fraught field of colonial inter-racial relations. Fascinated from childhood by the family of Thomas Jefferson, Gordon-Reed brought a lawyerly mind to her research on Jefferson and the Hemings family – enslaved people owned by Jefferson’s wife Martha Wayles who were also her siblings (the offspring of her father John Wayle’s relationship with one of his slaves, Elizabeth Hemings).
When Thomas Jefferson and Martha Wayles married, Martha brought her Hemings siblings with her to live at Jefferson’s plantation, Monticello. Martha’s half-brother Robert Hemings became Jefferson’s enslaved manservant. Martha eventually died in childbirth and made a deathbed plea that Jefferson never remarry so that her children with him would not have to live under a stepmother. Talk in Jefferson’s own era posited a relationship between him and Martha’s half-sister, the enslaved Sally Hemings, a proposition of historical controversy for two centuries intensified by claims that Jefferson and Hemings may have had children together.
It was to this that Gordon-Reed turned her mind and re-examined the evidence, bringing a lawyerly approach to the historical research task applying “context and reasonable interpretation” of evidence. Historians had treated the voices of enslaved people and free people differently, she concluded, underweighting the voices of the enslaved and privileging the voices of the free. More baldly, the argument was that history had been biased by racist assumptions that slaves lie and black people lie but slave owners and white people tell the truth.
Gordon-Reed reviewed the evidence dispassionately, cross-checking data from documents, oral histories and agricultural records to resolve the question. The resulting book Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (1997) found that Jefferson and Hemings had indeed been sexually involved.
This may have been just more grist for the mill had it not been for a DNA study released the following year which showed beyond doubt a genetic link between Jefferson and Hemings descendants. Warring interpretations of the DNA evidence then broke out. A review commissioned by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation found a high probability that Jefferson was the father of Sally’s son Eston and quite possibly her other five children too. Another review commissioned by the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society said the reverse, and pointed to Jefferson’s younger brother Randolph as a potential source of Jefferson DNA in the Hemings line.
Annette Gordon-Reed’s later book The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (2008), for which she won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, leaves one in little doubt about the ongoing attachment of Thomas Jefferson for Sally Hemings and vice versa, confirming the oral tradition within the Hemings family that Thomas was not only a Founding Father but also a founding father of the contemporary Hemings line.
Gordon-Reed said at ANU this week that further DNA research points to around 75% of African-Americans having white ancestors, suggesting a pattern of relations that historians just seemed to have missed. There is more work, much more work, to be done.
This article first appeared in the Canberra Times, 14 May, 2011
Listen to the 2011 Allan Martin Lecture podcast