Women and Slavery and Monticello

Annette Gordon-Reed (Harvard University / Harold Vyvyan Harmsworth Visiting Professor of American History, Queen's College, Oxford University)
2 March 2015

Annette Gordon-Reed, Professor of American History at Harvard University, talks about the agency of female slaves at Monticello, the plantation home of Thomas Jefferson. She looks at a range of sexual relationships between female slaves and their owners, and especially focuses on the controversial relationship Thomas Jefferson had with his slave Sally Hemings. Annette also looks at other, less typical aspects of Jefferson’s relationships to his domestic slaves, including giving gratuities and keeping female slaves out of the fields.

The talk centres on Sally Hemings who mothered at least one and probably six of Jefferson’s children. Their relationship probably began in the late 1780s when the recently widowed Jefferson had Sally chaperone his daughter to Paris where he was acting as ambassador to France. Gordon-Reed considers in detail the anxiety Sally must have faced when crossing the ocean alone for three months on a ship full of male sailors, of being sent to live alone with a middle-aged man, and of living as an American slave in a foreign country where slavery was illegal. Gordon-Reed claims that while it is still unknown whether or not their relationship was consensual, it is important to remember that as a slave she would have had no legal right refuse sex.

Gordon-Reed then explores the nature of slave-master relationships by contrasting two case studies: One of a slave named Celia who murdered her master for years of sexual abuse, and another of a slave named Mary Hemings who Jefferson had leased to a Virginian man named Thomas Bell, with whom she then had a relationship in which she was treated as his wife, taking the name Mary Bell, mothering two children, and being left the house in Thomas’s will. Gordon-Reeds uses these examples to demonstrate the variation of female slave sexual agency generally and on Monticello specifically.

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