Cynthia A. Kierner: The Third First Family

Today we welcome a guest post from Cynthia A. Kierner, author of Martha Jefferson Randolph, Daughter of Monticello: Her Life and Times. Although Thomas Jefferson’s oldest and favorite daughter is familiar because of her famous father, Kierner is the first historian to place her 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 this guest post, Kierner discusses how the contemporary custom of making candidates’ families visible for political gain goes all the way back to the Jeffersons.


Today, the families of presidents and presidential wannabes are under near-constant scrutiny. It’s inconceivable that any man could run for president without an admiring wife by his side, and preferably some attractive kids, too. The model for female candidates, though less well established, for better or worse, also includes a family angle. Who can forget the myriad attacks on Hillary Rodham Clinton for supposedly privileging her professional ambitions over her domestic duties? Or Michele Bachmann’s more recent assertion that parenting 5 biological offspring and 23 foster children is good preparation for the White House?

The founders would have found our fascination with presidential spouses and children perplexing and decidedly un-republican. In part because an acknowledged “first family” seemed so much like a royal family, no one in the United States used that term to refer to the president’s family until the late nineteenth century, and the “first family” didn’t become a campaign trail prop until the TV era. That said, at least some early presidents subtly deployed their families to improve their public images. Thomas Jefferson—arguably the most outspokenly anti-monarchical of all—pioneered the use of family and domesticity as political theater. His daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph, was the star of these shows.

Martha was the twenty-nine-year-old mother of four when her widowed father became president after a bitterly partisan election in 1800. She had four more children by the end of his eight-year presidency. Jefferson repeatedly asked Martha and her younger sister (and their children) to stay with him in Washington, but they delayed for nearly two years before they actually went to the capital in November 1802.

Martha left her husband and her domestic responsibilities as a plantation mistress back home in Virginia shortly after the story about her father’s affair with Sally Hemings appeared in a Richmond newspaper and became the talk of Washington society. Coincidence? Probably not. The presence of his devoted daughters with him at official dinners and public worship helped the president to project a public image that was at odds with the salacious rumors about him and Hemings. Martha’s second visit in 1805—this time with her entire family—served a similar purpose. As her father’s admiring and accomplished companion, Martha made a positive impression on visitors. Even Jefferson’s political enemies, it seems, had good things to say about her.

Most guests who observed Jefferson in this domestic setting saw him as a family man—and many inferred that, because he was a family man, he could never be the radical, atheistic, debauched, and dangerous character that his most vicious enemies condemned so heartily. Margaret Bayard Smith, one of the leading women in Washington, was utterly charmed by Jefferson’s family circle and challenged those “whose envenomed calumny has painted him as the slave of the vilest passions” to see him at home among his grandchildren where “his life is the best refutation of all the calumnies that have been heaped upon him.” She also included a rosy family portrait in both an essay and a novel. Admiring biographers and memoirists perpetuated this domestic tableau to vindicate—in the words of one—his “private character,” which had been “foully assailed . . . and . . . wantonly exposed to the public gaze.”

Martha Jefferson Randolph spent much of her adult life burnishing her father’s public image, both because she loved him and because she believed (with some justification) that his fame would be her and her children’s most valuable inheritance. (Jefferson was broke when he died, as was Thomas Mann Randolph, Martha’s husband.) Martha orchestrated family gatherings in which she and her children played starring roles. Later, she and her children fingered two cousins as possible fathers of Sally Hemings’s light-skinned children. They also edited and published a carefully selected two-volume collection of Jefferson’s papers, which showed him in the best possible light. Some historians believe that Martha and her children destroyed some of Jefferson’s papers, including some that contained potentially incriminating statements about Sally Hemings.

These were political acts, undertaken in an era when women were not supposed to be political. More subtle (and less fun) than the fabulous parties staged by her good friend Dolley Madison, Martha’s quasi-public appearances as a daughter, wife, and mother, like Madison’s parties, are examples of how women’s manners and morals influenced American public life not only before suffrage, but also before the advent of a quasi-official first family.


Cynthia A. Kierner is professor of history at George Mason University and author of Martha Jefferson Randolph, Daughter of Monticello: Her Life and Times; The Contrast: Manners, Morals, and Authority in the Early American Republic; and Scandal at Bizarre: Rumor and Reputation in Jefferson’s America.


  1. “Some historians believe that Martha and her children destroyed some of Jefferson’s papers, including some that contained potentially incriminating statements about Sally Hemings.”

    Ms. Kierner could not have written a sentence that more encapsulates all that is awry in Jefferson scholarship. Who are the “some historians,” and why is what they “believe” of any consequence. There is not a scintilla of evidence that “Martha and her children destroyed some of Jefferson’s papers.” This “gee, what if” musing passes for historical scholarship wherever the subject is Sally Hemings: make an unsupported assumption, and then let imagination fill in the details. Where is the historical evidence by testimony or documents that suggests any of Jefferson’s papers contained “incriminating statements about Sally Hemings”? Who would be the writers with these tidbits? Jefferson’s papers included thousands of letters from his family, from those who had visited Monticello, as well as from his political enemies, with no reference to Hemings. Present academia struggles to create a persona for Sally Hemings, but as an historical character, we know virtually nothing about her.

  2. Ms. Kierner suggests that Jefferson’s daughters delayed coming to Washington for almost two years, and then they came as damage control after the scandalmonger Callender published an allegation linking Jefferson to Sally Hemings. Ms. Kierner alleges the daughters were there to help the president project a public image of a family man and to squash the rumors initiated by Callender’s article. A family man? Wasn’t that what Jefferson was when he returned home to Monticello? His older daughter, Mrs. Randolph, and her many children always accompanied him to Monticello or she went ahead and opened the house for him. The Randolphs remained there until Jefferson returned to Washington. The delay in the daughters going to Washington had more to do with their convenience and their father’s schedule. You see, both daughters were pregnant when Jefferson took office, and they both delivered babies in late 1801. They were in no condition to travel to Washington in 1801. Jefferson came home in the spring of 1802 and from July until October 1802. It appears that both daughters were between pregnancies in November 1802, and it was their first opportunity to visit Washington when their father was there.

    As for the theory that “some historians believe that Martha and her children destroyed some of Jefferson’s papers” that contained incriminating statements, that’s just a theory. If they did indeed do that, the Randolphs certainly were sloppy and missed other family letters mentioning Sally.

  3. My reading of Martha’s visits to Washington after 7 years research for my play: Saturday’s Children produced at the Carrboro ArtsCenter in 1988, was that Jefferson needed a hostess for the White House and as he was a widower, Martha, his eldest daughter, was his choice. Prior to Jefferson the first two Presidents had spouses who could so serve. The claim that Martha destroyed letters alluding to Sally Hemings is complete conjecture. There’s no evidence of such letters or writings having existed and no mention of such burnings. If Jefferson was writing letters to Sally Hemings — why would she or her family not have kept them for posterity? In my work I tried to keep as close to prime resources as possible — including the book by Sara N. Randolph (Jefferson’s great granddaughter) The Domestic Life of Thomas Jefferson “compiled from family letters and reminiscences.” There is nothing in any prime source to indicate a relationship with Sally Hemings on the part of TJ other than as a member of the respected and well treated (considering that they were enslaved) Hemings family.

  4. For those who are interested in details — a thorough analysis of the Sally Hemings-Thomas Jefferson purported relationship is given in: The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy/ Report of the Scholars Commission, Edited by Robert F. Turner. Carolina Academic Press, Durham, North Carolina.

  5. Another correction is warranted. There is no known evidence that Martha Jefferson Randolph “fingered two cousins as possible fathers of Sally Hemings’ light-skinned children.” Decades after Martha’s death, her daughter, Ellen, wrote to her husband that she had just learned of her brother’s “general impression” that the Carr brothers were involved with Ms. Hemings. This, she implied, was based on their reputations for cohabiting with enslaved women and an overheard statement admitting guilt. Ellen admits in another letter that she and her mother frequently discussed the slanders about her grandfather. However, they must not have discussed the identity of the father or fathers of Hemings’ children, as Ellen never mentioned it until her brother told her his belief.

    On her deathbed, Martha allegedly called in her sons and reminded them to look at some of Jefferson’s account books, which proved that he and Sally Hemings were distant from one another for 15 months before the birth of the child most resembling him. Biographer Henry Randall claims to have seen the proof. Since we know Jefferson was at Monticello during parts of each conception window, this statement suggests that Sally was away from the mountaintop. Other Hemingses had hired out themselves, so it is a possibility Sally was hired out or visiting other family members.

    In Jan 1801, a month before he was elected president, Jefferson wrote to his daughter from Washington: “If I am fixed here, it will be but three easy days journey from you: so that I should hope you and the family could pay an annual visit here at least; which with mine to Monticello of the spring and fall, might enable us to be together 4. or 5. months of the year. On this subject however we may hereafter converse, lest we should be counting chickens before they are hatched.”

    The daughters were unable to travel until November 1802. There was no political agenda of improving his image behind Jefferson wanting to spend time with his children and grandchildren. He was afterall, “a family man.”

    I recommend THE FAMILY LETTERS OF THOMAS JEFFERSON by Betts and Bear for anyone who’s interested in the domestic life of Jefferson, his daughters, and his grandchildren.

  6. Much confusion has arisen about the Jefferson-Hemings DNA Study because Dr E.A. Foster, whom I personally assisted, would NOT inform Nature Journal that he was testing a direct descendant of Eston Hemings whose family had always claimed descent from “a Jefferson uncle or nephew” (reference to Randolph Jefferson, much younger TJ brother and his sons, but NEVER Thomas. If such a claim were true, and I believed it may be, I highly suggested to Dr Foster to inform Nature in order to clarify the story……….HE REFUSED and worked closely with them to perfect a false headline, “Jefferson fathers slave’s last child.” I complained to Nature and they had him write in a later issue (Jan 7, 1999), and in that article he admitted that I had told him this aand that DNA could never prove Thomas.

    In my opinion the public is being conned in the name of political correctness and historical revisionism. I found this out much earlier after Monticello MISHANDLED the facts of the study and that is why I founded the Thomas Jefferson Heriotage Society in opposition to false reporting by Monticello.

    Herb Barger

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