To answer the question as to whether history should be viewed from the top-down or from the bottom-up, the Hemingses would have quite an interesting view. A top-down view would be from a more upper class perspective who may have had a more visible impact on the Revolution, while a bottom-up view focuses on the experiences of the average person on the streets. Being slaves, they were at the very bottom, so they would indeed support viewing history from the bottom up. In fact, they would not even be that well known had it not been for the families they worked for. This goes for all slaves, who would not even be considered a “man on the street,” but who probably worked for such a man. If one were to view history from the top-down, the lives of the slaves might not even be reached.
In terms of the imperial crisis, the Hemingses family was likely to be in support of Jefferson’s view because of their very close, in fact genetic, connections to him. Jefferson’s views were in favor of independence, and therefore not in favor of the way the British Empire was treating the American colonists. “As a farmer in the ‘wilderness’ of Virginia, he knew that people could govern themselves” (classroom.monticello.org). Thomas Jefferson voluntarily spoke out and acted against the British Empire, and that is how a “man on the street” would make his voice heard. Those are the voices that would be heard in bottom-up perspectives of history. It is also important to note that slaves would have supported the rise against the British Empire because they too were affected by British taxes. They bought paper and other goods the same way their white masters bought these items, therefore they would have to pay the new taxes as well. Then, slaves may have also realized that the more the colonists fought for their rights and eventually their freedom, the closer they got to realizing how wrong slavery was. When the colonists felt that they were being enslaved by the British, the slaves hoped that they would begin seeing their own slaves in a new light (teachighistory.org). In that sense, slaves were in favor of supporting the “man on the street” in their rise against British taxes and the British rule in general. Slaves on the other hands did not make their voices heard in the same way. Generally speaking, the slaves were not the ones writing pamphlets, speaking up at town meetings, or keeping journals or accounts of their lives, (Young, xi).
Yet, the Hemingses were not just regular slaves, some would say they were “privileged slaves.” In fact being an interracial family made them more valuable to their owners, and people often thought of interracial American slaves as more intelligent than slaves of full African heritage. It also helped that the “white parts” of the Hemingses family came from their masters (slate.com). That fact made their situation in the Jefferson household a bit complicated. The Hemings were “slaves in a household where they were genetically related both to one another and to those who held them in bondage” (slate.com). They were not treated as equals to the other slaves, in fact eventually Jefferson actually freed some of Betty Hemings’ children. He also let some of them buy themselves out of his ownership, and still keep their regular wages (slate.com). Then Sally had several children with Thomas Jefferson, and he arranged for their family to be free. This is how Sally and her family did affect history.
Most women of color were not necessarily speaking out to get their voices heard, but one
can gain some interesting insight from the Hemings’ story because of how they did become subject to the public eye. The Hemings family was drug into the spotlight by journalists and enemies of Thomas Jefferson. Sally specifically, quickly became a topic of national gossip (slate.com). She was an interracial slave whose master, Thomas Jefferson, was having children with her. Of course this would attract some negative publicity that was in no way what the Hemings family wanted, yet this is how they affected history without even trying to do so. Thomas Jefferson was keeping Sally as his “concubine,” but he was also freeing her and her children, and allowing her family to buy their way out of slavery. Sally’s sister, Mary, “was the first to maneuver her way out of slavery” (slate.com). Mary was then able to send goods and money to her family, that was still in slavery (slate.com). The stories of the Hemings family, who became more and more free, may have served as examples to other slaves wishing to free themselves, or to slave owners who knew that slavery was wrong. The Hemings broke into history through no fault of their own and not at all like most “men on the street” would do, yet it is a story that could only be told from the bottom-up view of history.
(accessed January 29, 2017)
(by Annette Gordon-Reed, accessed January 29, 2017).
(accessed January 29, 2017)
Young, Alfred F. The Shoemaker and the Tea Party. (Boston, 1999)