Thursday, 10 December 2009

The Hemingses of Monticello

I've submitted another reader review to History Today's books blog, on The Hemingses of Monticello by Annette Gordon-Reed. My text as submitted was overlength, but it has been carefully edited by History Today's web editor, Kathryn Hadley.

I write in the review that in referring to his household of free relations and slaves as his 'family' Thomas Jefferson was employing the same terminology an eighteenth-century Englishman would have used of his spouse and their offspring and free servants and others living under his roof. Likewise Jefferson preferred to refer to his slaves as his 'servants', obscuring the fact that the control which he exercised over them as his property was different from his authority over free employees.

The fact that Sally Hemings, her siblings and her mother were enslaved is unavoidable to the early twenty-first century reader and is the foremost consideration when assessing their careers. While legally and socially degraded from the status of free people in Virginia, this was not a status which late eighteenth-century Virginians took entirely for granted; Jefferson's use of the term 'servant' echoes the classification of African plantation workers in early seventeenth-century Virginia as indentured labourers; only in mid-century were moves successfully made in the courts to deny them their freedom and convert them into human property, a controlled population both guaranteeing a source of cheap labour and protecting what was probably thought of as the English character of the colony from apprehensions of Africanization.

Jefferson was not alone in playing the ideal white landed Virginian patriarch, with Sally Hemings as lower-status mother of his 'private' family; but he may have been aware of parallels in England too, where high-status males, whether unmarried, married or widowed, enjoyed second families of lower social status than enjoyed by their official property-inheriting children. Jefferson's setting up his male Hemings in-laws and children as artisans not only suggests that Jefferson was flattering his political ideals, experimenting with the Hemingses as the foundations of a new free Virginian society, but also echoes a greater English male of the earlier century. Charles II is said to have been reluctant to ennoble either his children with Nell Gwyn or Nell Gwyn herself, and I have long wondered whether the king was entertained by the idea of having recognised descendants somehow placed among the 'middling sort'.

Situations emerging from these second families could be found among the eighteenth-century English nobility, which might suggest to a white ascendancy in Virginia, holding tightly to race privilege, just how a Sally Hemings who had simply been Jefferson's 'servant' might have threatened it. On the death of Edmund Sheffield, second duke of Buckingham and Normanby, in 1735, he left the Sheffield estates to his mother. Katherine, duchess of Buckingham and Normanby, had been the third wife of John Sheffield, first duke of Buckingham and Normanby, who was himself her second husband. On her death in 1743 she bequeathed the estates to her grandson Constantine Phipps, the son of her daughter from her first marriage, Lady Catherine Annesley. The estates were alienated from the Sheffield line of descent, but kept within a legitimate kinship network which included several peers of the realm. Phipps's inheritance of the entire estate was challenged by one Charles Herbert, who turned out to be an illegitimate son of the first duke of Buckingham and Normanby by a woman described in The Complete Peerage as 'Frances, "Mrs. Lambert"'. After lengthy judicial proceedings the Sheffield inheritance was divided between Charles Herbert and Constantine Phipps. Herbert, brought up outside the property-owning elite, became a landed gentleman, took the surname of Sheffield and was in due course admitted to the foothills of the hereditary titled nobility with a baronetcy, though neither he nor his male-line descendants (unlike those of Phipps) reached the House of Lords. (The most famous member of the family in 2009 is Samantha Cameron, nee Sheffield, wife of the leader of the Conservative Party.) While the Phippses did better in terms of status the core of the Sheffield estate in Lincolnshire was lost to them. There was a slight irony that Duchess Katherine, who had attempted to engineer the painless succession of the Phipps family to the Sheffield estate, was herself an illegitimate daughter of King James II, but had she seen Charles Herbert's case she could with some force have replied that she had not made any attempt to become queen.

The landowning class and titled nobility of Great Britain were sufficiently complex and enduring groups to withstand such challenges to caste; but the planter society of Virginia was newer and its pretensions to gentle status more fragile. A caste which clung to whiteness of skin and unambiguous European pedigree as the marks of the right to liberty and the right to own other people allowed itself to ignore a very small number of members of the elite who were possibly African descent - Gordon-Reed notes one possible case, that of Frances Bland Randolph Tucker, on page 537 of The Hemingses of Monticello - but anything more would have raised too many questions destructive to the Virginian status quo. Virginia had no peerage but property, and Jefferson supported and promoted efforts to dilute the concentration of Virginian land ownership in a few white hands; but self-preservation prevented the emergence of an African-American Charles Herbert, or (to give two examples among near-contemporaries of Jefferson where the sons of servant mothers inherited the estates of British peers) a George Finch of Burley-on-the-Hill, Rutland, or a John Bowes of Streatlam, Co. Durham. The Hemingses, freed, either forsook their heritage, left Virginia, or both, before white-dominated slave society collapsed under economic realities, war and the brutal consequences of its own self-deception.

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