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.