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An Interview with Annette Gordon-Reed

Daniel Sutton

Over the summer, Annette Gordon-Reed was appointed as the Carl M. Loeb University Professor at Harvard. She is best-known for her pioneering research on the Hemings family, and won the Pulitzer Prize in History in 2009 for The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. Her work ranges widely in American legal history, biography and the history of slavery, while she also teaches criminal law and procedure at Harvard Law School. Moreover, she is a well-known commentator on current affairs, writing in the TLS, Wall Street Journal and TIME, amongst other publications. I first heard her speak in 2014, when she was the Vyvyan Harmsworth Visiting Professor of American History at the University of Oxford, and her work on Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson strongly influenced my undergraduate studies in the following three years. Recently, I spoke to her about her career, her research, and the role of historians in American society today.

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Why did you become a historian? And in particular, what sparked your interest in Sally Hemings’ story? 

I’ve always been interested in people in the past, even as a kid. I liked to look through old magazines, I newspapers, and books. I became interested in the Hemings story after reading Winthrop Jordan’s White Over Black one summer.

How did your legal training and your time practising as lawyer in New York shape you as a scholar?

I think it gave me a helpful approach to gathering and weighing evidence. I also think focusing intently on opposing views was important. You need to know the alternative explanations and arguments as well as your own views. That’s the only way to see weaknesses in your own arguments.

You’ve written about the great importance of telling history through biographies of individuals who were marginalised in their lifetimes, and are not well-known today. You’ve also written about the challenges which historians often face in telling these stories, particularly when these characters are less well-documented than other, better-known figures. How have you approached those challenges in your work? 

By being as wide-ranging in my investigation as I can be. I have to think of ways into the material; researching around my subjects to try to find tidbits about their lives and their times. I had one line in Jefferson’s records about paying to have Sally Hemings inoculated. I was able to get a chapter out of that by finding the place where she was inoculated, the doctor who performed it, and the specific method he was well-known for using.

How have approaches to the history of the early American Republic changed during your career? And how do you think they will change in the coming years? 

Well, the effort to bring marginalized people into the mix has continued apace. That is a good thing. I think bringing “great man history” together with “history from the bottom up” will be of enormous value.

What roles do you think historians have in American society today?

This is an amazing time. History has always been political, but we are in a moment when some of the legacies of our history have come to the fore in a big way after the killing of George Floyd. Historians have been in the public eye talking about how the legacy of slavery has shaped race relations in the United States.

How do you think that history teaching and scholarship will change at US universities in light of the recent, worldwide protests against racism? And how do you think higher education in the US will change in general? 

It’s very hard to answer that question. COVID-19 has really rocked the Academy. On one hand, it is a great time to take advantage of the new focus on questions about race and inequality. On the other hand, the pandemic has put us in a weird place. I really can’t predict how things are going to go, what the “new normal” will be after the crisis passes.

What are you planning to write about next? 

I have a short memoir, and Jefferson Reader on Race, and the second, and final, volume of the Hemings family saga.

What advice would you give to young historians today?

Keep the faith, though I know this is a tough time in the job market.

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Daniel Sutton is reading for a DPhil in Ancient History at St John’s College, and is an Editor-in-Chief of the Oxonian Review.