Cynthia A. Kierner: Taking the Kid to Europe

As summer approaches, our thoughts turn to vacations and travel. Today we welcome a guest post from Cynthia A. Kierner, author of Martha Jefferson Randolph, Daughter of Monticello: Her Life and Times. Here, Kierner tells us about the life-changing travels abroad of young Patsy Jefferson, who accompanied her father Thomas Jefferson on a diplomatic trip to France.


Travel abroad almost inevitably leads to comparisons between us and them—what scholars call “othering”—which, in turn, causes travelers to think more seriously about their place in the larger world. Americans who bring their kids to Europe or other foreign places either want them to celebrate the wonderful diversity of human cultures and experiences or to develop a keen sense of their own superiority (though most of these probably opt for Disney or other resorts far removed from the natives, if they have a choice).

Revolution and independence transformed the meaning of European travel for eighteenth-century Americans. Before 1776, affluent colonists went to Europe—and to London especially—to study cosmopolitan manners and fashions so that they could return and impress their homebound neighbors. Citizens of an independent United States, by contrast, however much they enjoyed Old World pleasures, strove to distinguish themselves from Europeans—like Benjamin Franklin, who famously sported a rustic fur hat even as he wooed the women of Paris. In 1784, when the widowed Thomas Jefferson took his twelve-year-old daughter to France, where he held a diplomatic post, his foremost concern was to protect her from the bad influences of French society.

Patsy Jefferson had spent most of her life atop her father’s mountain in rural central Virginia. The grandest buildings she had ever seen were the public buildings in Williamsburg. Small wonder then that she was wowed by what she saw in France, even before she reached Paris. One gothic cathedral she described breathlessly as having “as many steps to go to the top as there are days in the year,” with windows of “died glass of the most beautiful colours that form all kinds of figures.” In the five years she spent in France, mostly in Paris, Patsy Jefferson learned to appreciate the fine buildings and cultural amenities that abounded in Europe’s largest and most fashionable metropolis.

At the same time, at least partly due to her father’s efforts, Patsy developed a strong sense of herself as both a Virginian and an American. She attended school in a French convent, a decidedly un-American environment that Jefferson nonetheless chose in hopes of shielding her from vice and especially from promiscuous and pushy French women. He also made sure that she socialized with her own “country-women” whenever any admirable Americans passed through Paris. Jefferson taught Patsy that domesticity, thrift, and industry were specifically American virtues that Europeans generally lacked. She apparently accepted that distinction—at least up to a point—sharing an occasional joke about the marital infidelities of the French, refusing to wear the bizarrely big hairstyles Parisian women favored, and lamenting that the only kind of needlework she could learn in Paris was fancy embroidery, which would not be terribly useful in America.

That said, Patsy Jefferson found much in Paris that led her to question—however gently—the supposed superiority of American ways and values. At the age of fifteen, she mustered up the courage to question one of Virginia’s basic social institutions: chattel slavery. “I wish with all my soul that the poor negroes were all freed,” she wrote to her father in 1787, adding, “It grieves my heart when I think that these our fellow creatures should be treated so terribly as they are by many of our country men.” In Paris, Patsy also developed a genuine appreciation for cities and the social opportunities they afforded, despite her father’s well-known preference for rural life.

Although she returned to Virginia and lived the vast bulk of her life as a plantation mistress in rural Albemarle County, as a widow Patsy chose to spend most of her time in Boston or Washington, D.C. And she often recalled her time in Paris as “the brightest part” of her life.

Cynthia A. Kierner is professor of history at George Mason University and author of Martha Jefferson Randolph, Daughter of Monticello: Her Life and Times. To learn more, check out our interview with Kierner or read her previous guest post, “The Third First Family.” Upcoming author events are listed on her author page on the UNC Press website.