Interview: Cynthia Kierner on the Life of Martha Jefferson Randolph

As the oldest and favorite daughter of Thomas Jefferson, Martha “Patsy” Jefferson Randolph (1772-1836) was extremely well educated, traveled in the circles of presidents and aristocrats, and was known on two continents for her particular grace and sincerity. Yet, as mistress of a large household, she was not spared the tedium, frustration, and great sorrow that most women of her time faced. Though Patsy’s name is familiar because of her famous father, Cynthia Kierner is the first historian to place Patsy at the center of her own story, taking readers into the largely ignored private spaces of the founding era. Randolph’s life story reveals the privileges and limits of celebrity and shows that women were able to venture beyond their domestic roles in surprising ways.

In the following interview, Kierner, author of Martha Jefferson Randolph, Daughter of Monticello: Her Life and Times, reflects on Martha’s relationship with her father, her family, and her place in the domestic sphere.

Note: Kierner will be speaking at the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C. on Thursday, May 31, at noon.

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Q: Until now, biographers of Martha Jefferson Randolph have approached her story from a perspective largely centered around her father, Thomas Jefferson. How does your treatment, which places Martha at the center of her own story, influence this biography?

A: Discarding the Jefferson-centered perspective changes the biography of Martha mostly by shifting the story away from Thomas Jefferson’s political career—and from using the succession of offices he held as the organizing structure of the story—toward a more domestic- and family-centered story, in the broadest sense.

From that perspective, arguably the most important story line is Martha’s life as a plantation mistress and a mother—concerns about children’s health, education, and marital prospects, along with domestic work and money problems—which profoundly shaped her life. In that sense, Martha was probably a typical upper-class Virginia woman of her era. What makes her story different, of course, is that her experiences with motherhood, finances, marriage, etc., also affected—and were affected by—her status as Jefferson’s daughter. In my book, I don’t ignore Jefferson, but I try to show that Martha’s relationship with him and her concern for his interests, though important, weren’t the only factors that shaped her world view and her daily life.

Q: Martha’s temperament comes up often in your book. How would you characterize it, and why is it so important to her story?

A: My book’s original title was A Perfect Temper: The Life and Times of Martha Jefferson Randolph—so, yes, the idea of temperament, and especially the performance of temperament (by which I mean how she presented herself to others) is central to my story. Virtually all descriptions of Martha emphasize her intelligence and her modesty, two qualities that might seem to be at odds with each other. (How did one recognize intelligence if one of the main objectives of modesty was to conceal it, and especially to preserve at least the fiction that men were more intelligent and more worldly than women?) Contemporaries also almost without exception described Martha as an excellent conversationalist, whose gracious manners put people at ease in any social setting. One of her nieces actually said that Martha had “a perfect temper.”

What this means to me is that Martha was learned, well-informed, and insightful—and that she also had exceptional people skills, which enabled these attributes to shine through without intimidating or offending anyone. In her time, the most important people skills for women were modesty and other self-effacing qualities that made other people (especially men) feel respected and comfortable. Savvy women, such as Martha, could sometimes use these prescribed feminine virtues to good effect. Admiration for Martha’s personal qualities, for instance, sometimes soothed her father’s political enemies or, later, secured political patronage for her children.

Q: Unlike other influential women of her era, such as her close friends Dolley Madison and Abigail Adams, Martha never achieved iconic status. Why is she not better known in her own right?

A: Abigail Adams and Dolley Madison are known, first and foremost, as political actors. Whatever else she thought or did, Adams has been known for decades for her famous letter to her husband, in which she advised him to “remember the ladies”—i.e., to consider women’s interests in whatever new laws the Continental Congress might consider adopting for the revolutionary republic. More recently, Madison’s reputation has soared as a result of her ability to use social life for political ends as the prototypical “first lady” (and even the iconic ice cream and cupcakes derive from her fame as a hostess in Washington, and not at the Madisons’ Orange County, Virginia, plantation).

I would attribute Martha’s never having achieved iconic status to the fact that, despite her occasional incursions into politics, hers is not mainly a political (or even a public) story, even if—as I argue—her actions sometimes had political significance.

Q: Many biographers blame Thomas Jefferson for dooming Martha’s marriage to Thomas Mann Randolph (also a politician who was governor of Virginia). However, you have a different take on this. What do you identify as the key factors that ultimately caused the marriage to fail?

A: When marriages fail, there’s almost always fault on both sides, so it’s important to look at the Randolphs’ marriage from the perspectives of both husband and wife. For both Tom and Martha, I think the main problems in their marriage came from money (or lack thereof) and from the resulting disappointments and difficulties their financial predicament caused.

I characterize Jefferson as meddlesome but well-meaning. Tom Randolph was often okay with his father-in-law’s meddling (and sometimes benefited from it). In other cases—such as, perhaps, when Jefferson counseled him against dueling and joining the army—he may have resented the interference, but the long-term impact of those resentments was minimal. Martha was even more well-disposed toward her father’s influence, though she sometimes found her father’s extravagance, even toward her own children, truly exasperating. Overall, I think that all three—Martha, Tom, and Jefferson—co-existed more or less peaceably for quite some time.

By the 1810s, however, money problems caused Tom Randolph to be increasingly self-loathing and Martha to be increasingly on edge. The timing was awful insofar as these problems coincided with the Randolphs’ decision to live with Jefferson at Monticello, a decision that I believe made sense, at least initially, to everyone including Tom Randolph. The family’s problems reached crisis proportions when both Jefferson and his son-in-law went essentially bankrupt (though Virginia had no bankruptcy laws at this time) and Thomas Jefferson Randolph, Martha and Tom’s eldest son, took over the management of the estates of both older men. Jefferson happily turned his affairs over to his grandson, which made his son-in-law bitterly resentful—which, in turn, forced Martha to choose sides.

Tom believed that in supporting her father and her son, Martha destroyed their marriage. Martha, by contrast, believed that Tom’s growing hatred toward both her father and her son was petty and groundless. She left Tom to live with her daughter in Boston once Jefferson died.

Q: What role did Martha play in the construction of Jefferson’s public image?

A: The performance of domesticity is a major theme of my book and the main means by which Martha helped construct her father’s public image as a virtuous republican family man while he was alive. Martha visited Washington twice during Jefferson’s presidency. Her presence, and that of her children, helped Jefferson to present himself to the public as a family man at the very time when his political enemies were spreading the scandal about him and Sally Hemings. Similarly, the presence of the entire Randolph family at Monticello after Jefferson retired in 1809 ensured that visitors would see Jefferson as part of a wholesome domestic tableau, even as he presumably continued his relationship with Hemings. Later, Martha and her children carefully edited Jefferson’s papers to publish two volumes that presented him in the most positive possible light. Many historians believe that they also destroyed papers that reflected poorly on the Sage of Monticello.

Q: You address the likelihood that Jefferson had an ongoing sexual relationship with Sally Hemings, a beautiful and light-skinned woman enslaved at Monticello who was also the half-sister of Jefferson’s wife (and Martha’s mother). How do you think readers will respond to your statement that from Martha’s perspective, “whether Jefferson was truly the father of Hemings’s children probably mattered less than the fact that so many people believed that he was”?

A: I have no idea how readers will respond to this different way of looking at the Jefferson/Hemings issue. So much has been written about whether they did, or didn’t. As I say elsewhere, I agree with the vast majority of historians who now believe that the best evidence overwhelmingly suggests that they did. But I hope that people on both sides of the issue can move beyond it here because my book is not about what Jefferson and Hemings did (or didn’t) do, but rather about what Martha thought and felt. The evidence suggests that the gossip and innuendo hurt her, and that she (and her children and grandchildren) felt compelled to defend Jefferson from it.

Q: You describe Martha’s relationship with her father as, “a source of both undeniable privilege and largely unspoken problems,” yet she remained loyal to him throughout her life. What do we need to understand about Martha’s situation and her times to put her response to her father’s financial situation and relationship with Sally Hemings into perspective?

A: Martha and her father forged a bond of mutual devotion in the dark days after her mother’s death in 1782. If anything, that bond grew stronger with the death of her only surviving sibling, Maria Jefferson Eppes, in 1804.

By the time Jefferson was on the brink of financial ruin in 1819, he was an old man. How exactly would an adult daughter, who lived in her father’s house and loved him deeply, sever her ties to him simply because he was financially ruined? That seems pretty implausible, especially since so very many of the Randolphs’ friends and relatives were also broke. Jefferson’s money problems were sad, but they weren’t scandalous, and Martha (with some justification) attributed her father’s troubled finances to his years of public service and his generosity toward others.

The impact of Jefferson’s relationship with Hemings on Martha is much more difficult to assess, in part because we don’t know exactly how much Martha knew. Did she know, for instance, that Hemings was her mother’s half-sister? Did she know that her mother, Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson, had elicited a deathbed promise from her husband that he would not remarry because she feared the consequences of her daughters being reared by a (presumably evil) stepmother? Did Martha, who generally shared her father’s views on health and illness, know that he believed that men (but not women) needed sexual activity in order to stay in good health? Martha certainly knew that if her father remarried her own role in his life and at Monticello would have diminished. A second family of younger half-siblings, moreover, would have created added claims on Jefferson’s decreasing resources (which, she knew, is exactly what happened in her husband’s family, the Randolphs of Tuckahoe). In sum, even if the gossip about her father and Hemings was profoundly painful to Martha, there were other reasons why she might have been deeply ambivalent about their relationship.

Q: Near the end of his life, Jefferson hoped to hold a lottery to raise cash in order to protect his family’s ownership of Monticello. Why did the plan for the Jefferson Lottery fail?

A: Jefferson died while his grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, was organizing the lottery. While many Americans might have purchased a lottery ticket to benefit the venerable statesman, once he died the lottery lost its appeal, resulting in its cancellation.

Q: What role, if any, did Martha and her family play in the management and disposition of her father’s books and papers after his death?

A: Tom Randolph was essentially propertyless even before Jefferson died in 1826, and Jefferson himself had sold his library for $23,950 in 1815 to the U.S. government. His books became the core collection of the Library of Congress. After Jefferson died, the family did not initially sell his papers—rather they hoped to raise money by editing, publishing, and selling a selection of them. The resulting volumes, which were published by a small-time Charlottesville press in 1829, did not sell well. After that, the family made Jefferson’s papers available exclusively to friendly historians and biographers, which helped create a favorable legacy, but in 1848 Thomas Jefferson Randolph sold his grandfather’s papers to the U.S. government for $20,000 and they were moved to the Library of Congress.

Q: It seems that Martha often contradicted herself on the topic of slavery. Can you speak to this?

A: It might be more accurate to say that Martha, like many white Virginians of her era, was deeply ambivalent about slavery. She was remarkably consistent in her ambivalence, which basically pitted her genuine hatred of slave auctions and the break-up of slave families against the perceived financial interests of her family.

On the one hand, Martha said that slavery was evil, that her family (and the country generally) would be better off without it, and that masters and mistresses should be benevolent toward their bondpeople. On the other hand, she also believed that slavery was perhaps even more harmful to white people than it was to blacks, that African Americans would have to leave the U.S. if slavery were abolished, and that the needs and interests of her own children would always (however regrettably) trump those of her enslaved work force.

Q: What influence, if any, do you think Martha had on women of her era, in both the political and domestic spheres?

A: Martha never really aspired to influence women politically. I do think she influenced the women in her family, particularly by impressing on them the importance and utility of education.

Q: You point out that Martha was a religious woman, yet she disliked both Protestant evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism, preferring more “rational” religions such as the Episcopal or Unitarian beliefs. How does this compare with other women of her era?

A: I don’t think that “religious” would be among the top adjectives I’d choose to describe Martha. She believed in a Supreme Being and in practical morality; she attended and enjoyed religious services when she was older and lived in cities because doing so was more convenient than in Albemarle and because the clergy (especially in Boston) were inspiring and educated. But as she herself noted occasionally, many of her contemporaries in Virginia at least perceived her and her family to be irreligious because they remained aloof from Protestant evangelicalism.

In rejecting evangelicalism, Martha was pretty conservative. In post-revolutionary Virginia, many people, especially women, even among the gentry, gravitated toward a more biblically based and emotionally laden version of Christianity. Following her father, Martha’s decorously rational approach to religion was more in keeping with that of eighteenth-century Virginia. It also in some ways resembled the Unitarianism of nineteenth-century New England, though I would say that Martha’s exposure to the Unitarian ministers of Boston confirmed, rather than changed, her own religious preferences.

As for her attitudes toward Roman Catholicism, they were probably typical of those of most American Protestants, who identified Catholicism with not only superstition but also tyranny, as a result of the Church’s historically close alliance with the absolutist monarchies of Continental Europe.

Q: What was your greatest challenge in telling Martha’s story?

A: How to narrate an essentially domestic family story was probably the biggest challenge, especially in the book’s middle chapters. Politics and wars have dates and story lines that are really useful for organizing historical narratives. Biographies are, by definition, narratives of lives. But Martha spent the overwhelming majority of her time during the years between 1789 (when she married) and 1826 (when Jefferson died) in Albemarle County raising children, doing domestic work, and worrying about the family finances. For her, as for many women of her era, her life was pretty much the same, year after year. So, how to make these years into some sort of a historical narrative—a story that people will want to read—and at the same time convey the essence of her daily life?

As it turns out, the fact that Martha was the daughter of Thomas Jefferson actually helped me to resolve this problem. In Chapter 4, “The President’s Daughter,” I use her brief visits to Washington to structure a chronological narrative spanning eight years which is really mostly about domestic work and childrearing. In Chapter 6, Lafayette’s visit to Monticello in 1825 serves a similar purpose, anchoring a seemingly timeless domestic routine in a specific time frame.

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Cynthia A. Kierner is professor of history at George Mason University and author of Martha Jefferson Randolph, Daughter of Monticello: Her Life and Times.

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