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Jefferson and Hemings In the Light of History

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August 11, 2020 3:32 p.m.

Last week we did our second Inside briefing since we came back from our COVID briefing hiatus. I spoke to Annette Gordon-Reed, one of the country’s preeminent Jefferson scholars and the author of two books about the Jefferson-Hemings family and the historical controversies surrounding it. Gordon-Reed is a professor at Harvard Law School and has a joint appointment in the History Department. Her 1997 book Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy was the first major scholarly work to take the existence of Jefferson’s mixed race family seriously. It came out only about a year before the matter was settled conclusively by DNA evidence. Before then it wasn’t universally rejected by historians but was treated as either unknowable or unlikely, an ancient calumny that played little part in the Jefferson biographical tradition. I was eager to discuss this until-recently hidden or denied part of America’s past with Gordon-Reed and get her perspective on how we should see Jefferson in this era of iconoclasm that has accelerated in the wake of the murder of George Floyd.

We’re publishing the discussion in its entirety for members. Watch after the jump.

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