annette gordon reed
2017 ALA Midwinter - Annette Gordon-Reed on Rediscovering Jefferson
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Annette Gordon-Reed gives a quick snapshot of what she rediscovered while researching Thomas Jefferson. 

Alright, Hamilton-fans

Let’s talk about the uncomfortable subject of race. If you’re like me and are whiter than All Lives Matter, then you were given a bad public education on the subject of race and slavery, especially in regards to pre-Civil War. So here’s a beginner’s reading list - by absolutely no means comprehensive - focusing roughly from the Revolution thru the Age of Jackson on white and black race relations, because some of you need it:

  • Slavery and the Founders - Paul Winkelman
  • Black Patriots and Loyalists -  Alan Gilbert
  • African Americans in the Revolutionary War - Michael Lee Lanning
  • American Taxation, American Slavery - Robin L. Einhorn
  • Negro President: Jefferson and the Slave Power - Garry Wills
  • The Hemingses of Monticello - Annette Gordon-Reed
  • Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy - Annette Gordon-Reed
  • A Proslavery Foreign Policy - Tim Matthewson
  • The Power of Blackness: Thomas Jefferson and the Revolution in St. Domingue - Michael Zuckerman
  • Encountering Revolution: Haiti and the Making of the Early Republic -  Ashli White
  • The Revolution of 1800: Democracy, Race, and the New Republic - James Horn, et al
  • Emancipating New York -  David Nathaniel Gellman
  • New York Burning - Jill Lepore
  • How the Irish Became White - Noel Ignatiev
  • The Invention of the White Race, Vols. I & II - Theodore W. Allen
  • The Wages of Whiteness - David R. Roediger
  • In Hope of Liberty - James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton
  • Between Freedom and Bondage - Christopher Malone
  • Black Puritan, Black Republican - John Saillant
  • Freedom’s Prophet - Richard Newman
  • The Slave Power - Leonard Richards
  • The African American Urban Experience - J. Trotter et al
  • In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City - Leslie M. Harris
Madison Hemings’s race and previous condition of servitude put him at a distinct disadvantage in a contest between his word and those of Jefferson’s grandchildren. His status gave historians license to attribute base motivations and bad character to him. [Jefferson’s grandchildren] were not slaves but slave-masters. There is no such thing as a “slave-master narrative” that triggers a response of automatic skepticism, although it is a strange turn of events when individuals who held other human beings in bondage are given presumptive moral superiority over their captives.
—  Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, by Annette Gordon-Reed (1997)
It is a safe bet that Martha Jefferson did not stir boiling pots of lye to make soap, or empty hops into containers to make beer…. although her household accounts during her marriage record how much soap she made, how much beer she brewed.  Isaac Jefferson remembered her standing with a cookbook reading instructions to his [enslaved] mother, who actually baked the cakes.
—  The Hemingses of Monticello, by Annette Gordon-Reed
That Sally Hemings is in anyone’s thoughts in this era is a testament to her singularity. Americans generally have not taken an interest in the lives of individual slaves unless they escaped slavery to become famous, as did Harriet Tubman or Frederick Douglass. For the most part it has been slaves as a group - and individuals who served as a metaphor for the group or as a type within the group - who have been the primary focus of any attention directed toward slaves. This focus has made it difficult to see a given slave as an individual who might possess the entire range of sensibilities, strengths, and weaknesses of other members of the human race. The person becomes totally lost within the system.
—  Annette Gordon-Reed, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy

We wanted to be, in the words of one of the musical’s songs, “in the room where it happens” to see whether it earns the raves it has received — and my ticket money as one who is too impatient to wait for the movie version.

I also wanted to see if the production is guilty, as some critics have charged, of “Founders chic,” the practice of over-glorifying our nation’s Founding Fathers (and thanks to modern DNA tests, we’re learning more about who some of them fathered), especially when judged by today’s standards of racism, sexism and other culture war issues.

Those are legitimate concerns, in my view, although they also call upon us to judge people by the standards of their day, as much as ours, which is not always comfortable.

For example, Harvard history and law professor Annette Gordon-Reed, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning author who has been credited with reopening debate over whether Thomas Jefferson had a sexual relationship with slave Sally Hemings, said she loves the musical yet has qualms.

“Imagine ‘Hamilton’ with white actors,” she wrote in a blog of the National Council on Public History. “Would the rosy view of the founding era grate?”

Good question. The show’s nontraditional casting of mostly nonwhites to portray white historical figures is timely, refreshing and enticingly ironic. It enables us to have a bit of emotional distance to see, for example, white slave owners portrayed by black or Hispanic actors.

But as a product and reflection of hip-hop culture, the play defies attempts to imagine it with a traditionally white cast. “Hamilton” sets out to be more than that. Its multiracial cast and Miranda’s lyrics seamlessly connect rap compositions with storytelling in a way that respects and renews the nation’s founding narratives.

This, in short, is a patriotic production that, among other messages, conveys the notion that U.S. history is not for whites only. It is U.S. history reimagined for an era in which people of color increasingly are taking more responsibility for a multiracial future — all the way up to the White House.

—  ‘Hamilton’ is even better than its hype (Chicago Tribune)

In articles, blog posts and Facebook threads, scholars have debated whether “Hamilton” over-glorifies the man, inflating his opposition to slavery while glossing over less attractive aspects of his politics, which were not necessarily as in tune with contemporary progressive values as audiences leaving the theater might assume.

The conversation has yet to erupt into a full-fledged historians’ rap battle. But some scholars are wondering if one is due to start.

“The show, for all its redemptive and smart aspects, is part of this ‘Founders Chic’ phenomenon,” said David Waldstreicher, a historian at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York who last September sounded an early note of skepticism on The Junto, a group blog about early American history.

Amid all the enthusiasm for “Hamilton” the musical, he added, Hamilton the man “has gotten a free pass.”

Annette Gordon-Reed, a professor of history and law at Harvard and the Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of “The Hemingses of Monticello,” put it more bluntly.

“One of the most interesting things about the ‘Hamilton’ phenomenon,” she wrote last week on the blog of the National Council on Public History, “is just how little serious criticism the play has received.”

Ms. Gordon-Reed was responding to a critical essay by Lyra D. Monteiro, in the journal The Public Historian, arguing that the show’s multiethnic casting obscures the almost complete lack of identifiable African-American characters, making the country’s founding seem like an all-white affair.

“It’s an amazing piece of theater, but it concerns me that people are seeing it as a piece of history,” Ms. Monteiro, an assistant professor of history at Rutgers University, Newark, said in an interview.

The founders, she added, “really didn’t want to create the country we actually live in today.”

Ms. Gordon-Reed — who is credited with breaking down the resistance among historians to the claim that Thomas Jefferson had a sexual relationship with Sally Hemings — wrote in her response that she shared some of Ms. Monteiro’s qualms, even as she loved the musical and listened to the cast album every day.

“Imagine ‘Hamilton’ with white actors,” she wrote. “Would the rosy view of the founding era grate?”

Historians are generally not reluctant to call out the supposed sins of popularizers. When Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” arrived in 2012, a number of prominent scholars blasted it for promoting a “great man” view of history and neglecting the role African-Americans played in their own emancipation.

While the most recent critiques of “Hamilton” have focused on race, some scholars have also noted that it’s an odd moment for the public to embrace an unabashed elitist who liked big banks, mistrusted the masses and at one point called for a monarchal presidency and a Senate that served for life.

Alexander Hamilton “was more a man for the 1 percent than the 99 percent,” said Sean Wilentz, a professor at Princeton and the author of “The Politicians and the Egalitarians,” to be published in May.


R.B. Bernstein, a historian at City College of New York who has written extensively about Jefferson, credited “Hamilton” with keeping the subject of slavery simmering underneath its jam-packed story. But race and slavery, he added, were not the only important, or timely, aspects of the show.

“It’s about how hard it is to do politics, about how people of fundamentally clashing political views tried to work together to create a shared constitutional enterprise,” he said. “And right now, that’s a message we really need.”

Pulitzer prize–winning author Annette Gordon Reed leads a discussion of emancipation, Lincoln, and the Civil War on Thursday, January 24, at 7 p.m.

Panelists include James McPherson, Pulitzer prize–winning historian and professor emeritus at Princeton University; Edward Ayers, Civil War historian and president of the University of Richmond; Eric Foner, author and professor of history, Columbia University; and James Oakes, professor of history, City University of New York and author of Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861–1865.

A book signing will follow the program. Presented in partnership with the National Archives Afro-American History Society.