Author: Lisa A. Francavilla

managing editor of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Retirement Series at the International Center for Jefferson Studies

Nicholas Philip Trist (1800–1874)

Nicholas Philip Trist was a diplomat who served as American consul to Cuba and helped to negotiate the end of the Mexican War (1846–1848). Born in Charlottesville to a family with a long acquaintance with Thomas Jefferson, Trist attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point without taking a degree and soon after married Jefferson’s granddaughter, Virginia Jefferson Randolph. He served as clerk to the University of Virginia board of visitors, owned a newspaper in Charlottesville, and served briefly as President Andrew Jackson’s private secretary. In 1833 Trist was appointed American consult to Cuba and he survived calls for his removal in 1839. Six years later President James K. Polk made Trist the State Department’s chief clerk, and in 1847 dispatched him to Mexico with instructions to discreetly negotiate an end to the war. He did that, but not without confrontations with both the president and General Winfield Scott. After his return, Trist practiced law in New York, supported the Union during the American Civil War (1861–1865), and later moved to Alexandria. He died there in 1874.


Thomas Jefferson and His Family

Thomas Jefferson regularly commented on the importance of family. In 1789 he wrote to his brother Randolph that “no society is so precious as that of one’s own family” and—in another letter, to Francis Willis—that he longed for domestic tranquility within the “bosom” of his family. Jefferson was raised at Shadwell, his father’s Albemarle County plantation, with nine siblings. The absence of extant letters between Jefferson and his parents has led some historians to suggest a frosty relationship, but his letters to siblings suggest that the family was, in fact, close and loving. Jefferson married Martha Wayles Skelton in 1772, and by all accounts the two were very much in love. Of their six children, only two—Martha and Mary (later Maria)—survived to adulthood. The elder Martha Jefferson died a few months after giving birth in 1782, and Jefferson’s daughters, and later his grandchildren, became the focus of his domestic life. While president in 1802, his family life attracted public attention when the Richmond journalist James Thomson Callender accused him of fathering children with his slave—and his wife’s likely half-sister—Sally Hemings. Historians now accept that Jefferson fathered Hemings’s six children. His later years were marked by family strife, including a feud between his two sons-in-law and alcohol-fueled violence perpetrated by the husband of one of his granddaughters. Debts also accumulated, but Jefferson maintained his home at Monticello as a refuge for family, and they surrounded him there on his death in 1826.


John Patten Emmet (1796–1842)

John Patten Emmet was a chemistry professor at the University of Virginia from 1825 until his death in 1842. Born in Ireland, he was the nephew of the Irish nationalist Robert Emmet. He came to the United States with his family in 1805 and attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. After studying medicine and developing an interest in chemistry, Emmet accepted a faculty position at the University of Virginia as chair of the School of Natural History. He appeared to thrive in Charlottesville, even in the midst of student unrest that forced a pair of colleagues to resign, and purchased land on which he built a house, Morea, of his own design. There he planted gardens and experimented with silkworm cultivation. Emmet’s health had always been frail, however, dating back to childhood bouts with smallpox, measles, and whooping cough. In 1842, ill health forced him to take a leave of absence from which he never returned. He died that year at the New York home of one of his brothers.