Early Family Origins and Life
The Jefferson family migrated from England and likely had arrived in America by early in the seventeenth century; Jefferson’s great-grandfather was living in Virginia when he died in 1697. Although the Jeffersons were not among the elite landholding families of colonial Virginia, Thomas Jefferson’s grandfather and great-grandfather, both also named Thomas, were well respected, held various public offices, and married advantageously.
Jefferson’s father, Peter Jefferson, was born on February 29, 1707 (Old Style, or 1708, New Style), near present-day Richmond. According to Thomas Jefferson, his father’s education was “quite neglected,” but he also recalled that Peter Jefferson was “of a strong mind, sound judgment and eager after information,” and that “he read much and improved himself.” The elder Jefferson held several prominent public offices and gradually acquired large tracts of land. An experienced surveyor, he helped create what became known as the Fry-Jefferson map of 1753, the definitive eighteenth-century map of Virginia.
Jane Randolph was born in Shadwell parish, London, on February 9, 1721, the daughter of Isham Randolph and Jane Rogers Randolph. By October 1725, the Randolph family was in Williamsburg. Jane Randolph married Peter Jefferson on October 3, 1739, in Goochland County, and afterward managed the household, bore ten children, and raised eight of them to adulthood. Though Thomas Jefferson’s parents left few traces, recent scholarship has shown that they could read and write, counted clergymen, officeholders, mathematicians, and horticulturists among their acquaintances, and provided all of their children with educations that included music and dancing instruction.
Jefferson’s early life at Shadwell, the family’s Albemarle County plantation, was anything but rustic. The home contained books, musical instruments, silver, and imported household goods and textiles. Dozens of slaves were on hand to work the land, plant the gardens, and care for Jefferson and his siblings. Shadwell was modest compared with some Virginia plantations of the mid-eighteenth century, but the Jeffersons lived well and comfortably there. At the time of his death, in 1757, Peter Jefferson had become a man of property and standing, leaving a sizable unencumbered estate for the benefit of his large family, personal enslaved laborers to each of his children, and his books, desk, and bookcase to Jefferson. In addition to living at Shadwell, Jefferson spent seven years, from 1745 to 1752, at Tuckahoe, a plantation in Manakin managed by Jefferson’s father.
Jefferson’s parents and the nature of his relationship with them have perplexed historians for decades. He was only fourteen at the time of Peter Jefferson’s death, had spent several years away at school, and his father had also been away from home for much of that time. The two may have spent little time together. No correspondence between father and son is found in all of Jefferson’s copious papers. Nor do any letters remain extant between the son and his mother. Some historians have argued that this absence of documents indicates that there was a corresponding absence of affection as well. But it is at least as likely that such letters existed and were destroyed in the 1770 fire that burned Shadwell to the ground. Jefferson’s letters to his siblings, together with more recent scholarship, provide ample evidence of family feeling, loyalty, support, and love.
On New Year’s Day 1772 Jefferson married twenty-four-year-old Martha Wayles Skelton, the daughter of John Wayles and Martha Eppes Wayles and the widow of Bathurst Skelton. The couple met two years earlier and shared an affinity for music and literature and a family heritage that linked them both to the prestige and wealth of Virginia planter society. By all accounts they were well matched and deeply in love. Years later Jefferson described his wife as lively, good-natured, and wise, and encouraged his daughters and granddaughters to look to her example when shaping their own behavior.
His granddaughter Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge recalled that her grandfather would often speak of her grandmother, “whose memory he cherished with deep and tender affection,” and that “he often quoted to us her sayings and opinions, and would preface his own advice with ‘your grandmother would have told you’ ‘your grandmother always said.'” Coolidge also noted that her grandmother “had a vivacity of temper which might sometimes border on tartness,” but that “all the family traditions were greatly in her favour” and that “she made my grandfather’s home comfortable, cheerful, pleasant, just what a good man’s home should be.”
John Wayles was a lawyer, planter, and slave trader, and Martha Jefferson grew up surrounded by enslaved people both inside and outside of her father’s home. When her father died, she inherited vast stretches of land and more than 100 enslaved individuals, all of whom passed along to Thomas Jefferson under the common law of coverture. Among these enslaved people were Elizabeth Hemings and her ten children, six of whom, according to Hemings family tradition, had been fathered by John Wayles. These children—Robert, James, Thenia, Critta, Peter, and Sally—would thus have been half-siblings to Jefferson’s wife, Martha. (Some historians have suggested that Sally’s given name was Sarah).
Elizabeth Hemings was born early in the 1730s, the daughter of an English ship captain and a “full-blooded African” enslaved woman. She came to John Wayles, together with other enslaved people, when he married Martha Jefferson’s mother, Martha Eppes. For enslaved laborers, the Hemingses held comparatively privileged positions in Jefferson’s household. The Hemings women served as chambermaids and seamstresses, were clothed in Irish linen and calico rather than the usual slave attire of rough osnaburg, and were always exempted from field work. The men acted as butlers and personal manservants or became highly skilled craftsmen, and they were allowed to hire themselves out and keep their own wages when Jefferson was away for lengthy periods.
Monticello, though its buildings were not as large as they would later become, was nevertheless a sizable and busy plantation when Martha Jefferson lived there. Her days were filled with managing the household and directing the tasks of the enslaved laborers, while Jefferson’s public pursuits increased, often keeping him away from the home and wife he loved. Their first child, Martha, was born late in September 1772, and there were five more births (and possibly two miscarriages). But Martha Jefferson suffered severely in pregnancy, and with each successive one her health deteriorated. After the birth of their daughter Lucy Elizabeth in the spring of 1782, Martha languished until her death in September of that year.
Jefferson was inconsolable. Years later his daughter Martha Jefferson Randolph recalled that he was led away from his wife’s deathbed in a state of insensibility and kept to his room for weeks. In October, Jefferson wrote to his sister-in-law Elizabeth Eppes describing his life as miserable and wretched, adding that, were it not for his promise to care for his three surviving daughters, he would “not wish it’s continuance a moment.”
Of the Jeffersons’ six children—five daughters and one son—two died in infancy and only two daughters, Martha and Mary (called Patsy and Polly by the family), survived to adulthood. Their last child, Lucy Elizabeth, died of whooping cough in October 1784. Jefferson’s daughters, and their own children, became the focus of his domestic life from this point forward.
By December 1782 Jefferson was working once again, and he and his daughter Martha were living in Philadelphia, where she continued her education under the direction of tutors while he served in the Confederation Congress. In 1784, when Jefferson sailed to France, first to negotiate commercial treaties and then as minister plenipotentiary on behalf of the newly independent United States, twelve-year-old Martha Jefferson accompanied him. So, too, did Jefferson’s nineteen-year-old half-brother-in-law James Hemings, albeit as Jefferson’s slave, in order to study the art of French cookery and thereafter serve as chef in Jefferson’s household. Mary Jefferson remained where she had been since late 1782, with her aunt Elizabeth Eppes, finally, and very reluctantly, coming to Paris in 1787 in the company of Hemings’s younger sister Sally.
Whereas Martha enjoyed her voyage across the Atlantic, nine-year-old Mary had resisted her father’s efforts to have her sent to him. She was comfortable in her life with the Eppeses and looked upon her aunt, uncle, and cousins as her family, being far more familiar with them than with her own father and older sister. For her part, Martha had grown accustomed to having her father to herself, at least when he was not occupied with business or his own travels around Europe. Still, once Mary arrived in Paris, the Jeffersons renewed their ties and Mary joined Martha in the prestigious convent school at the Abbaye Royale de Panthémont. As they grew, Jefferson frequently urged his daughters to study diligently, to cultivate habits of activity, and always to strive to be “good,” thereby ensuring not only his love but that of others as well.
Sally Hemings may have had little to occupy herself while Martha and Mary studied at the Abbaye. Her primary duties likely included caring for the girls when they were home, maintaining their wardrobes, and attending to the friends who visited them from school. It was at about this time that Jefferson and Hemings began a sexual relationship, the nature of which continues to be a source of speculation and debate.
Jefferson, his daughters, and Sally and James Hemings returned to Monticello in December 1789, after five years in Paris. Though barely seventeen, Martha was now an accomplished young woman. Within two months she was married to her cousin Thomas Mann Randolph Jr. In 1797, Mary married another cousin, her childhood friend John Wayles Eppes. Sixteen-year-old Sally Hemings, who had been free while living in Paris and may have been pregnant with Jefferson’s child, was able to negotiate the terms of her return to Monticello, agreeing to accompany Jefferson back to America in return for what her son Madison Hemings termed “extraordinary privileges” for herself and freedom for any children born to her when they reached adulthood.
The Presidency and Retirement
Jefferson’s family then grew quickly, with new grandchildren coming every year or two. He enjoyed no greater comfort or delight than those he found amongst his family at Monticello. When Jefferson’s election to the presidency kept him in Washington for months at a time, he maintained those ties to home and family through the exchange of letters with his children and grandchildren, sending little tokens and gifts to them, asking for all the “small news” of home, and encouraging his grandchildren in their studies and habits in much the same way he had encouraged their mothers’ before them. “I wish to see you all,” he wrote, “the more I perceive that you are all advancing in your learning and improving in good dispositions the more I shall love you, and the more every body will love you.”
From the time of her return from Paris to Monticello, and throughout the years Jefferson served as president, Sally Hemings gave birth to six children, four of whom survived to adulthood. During Jefferson’s first run for the presidency in 1800, rumors of his relationship with Hemings began to surface in Virginia newspapers. While sexual relationships—forced, coerced, or otherwise—between masters and their slaves were not unusual, they were generally considered private matters. When the journalist James Callender publicly accused Jefferson in 1802 of keeping Hemings “as his concubine,” Jefferson never responded. Callender circulated the stories for several months, but by early 1803 few people were listening. Callender’s attempts to ruin Jefferson politically had failed and Jefferson easily won reelection, serving a second presidential term that ended on March 4, 1809.
No known letters or documents mention or provide details of Hemings’s life after her return from Paris. The births of her children, their provisioning with food and clothing, and their training and work duties were treated as no more or less worthy of record than those of any of the other enslaved people living at Monticello. Jefferson’s white family members followed his example and remained silent on the question until the 1850s, when the Jefferson biographer Henry S. Randall visited Jefferson’s grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph at Edgehill, his Albemarle County farm. There, Randolph informed Randall that the father of Hemings’s children was Jefferson’s nephew Peter Carr. A few years later, Randolph’s sister, Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge, repeated the story, but in her telling the father was Carr’s brother Samuel Carr. This discrepancy, combined with the fact that two of Hemings’s children were allowed to leave Monticello unhindered in 1822 and two others obtained their freedom after Jefferson’s death in 1826, had at one time complicated the historical debate.
In 2000, a research committee convened by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation concluded that based on available documentary evidence, the oral histories of descendants of Monticello’s African-American community, and recent DNA studies, there was a “high probability that Thomas Jefferson fathered Eston Hemings [the last child born to Sally Hemmings], and that he most likely was the father of all six of Sally Hemings’s children.”
With the death of Mary Jefferson Eppes in 1804, having the rest of his family close by became even more important to Jefferson. When he retired from public life in 1809, he urged the Randolph family to make its home with him at Monticello. “I look with infinite joy,” he wrote his daughter Martha, “to the moment when I shall be ultimately moored in the midst of my affections.”
Martha Jefferson Randolph and her family were likewise devoted to Jefferson. When he reached Monticello in March 1809, nine grandchildren were there to greet him—eight belonging to the Randolphs, and Francis Wayles Eppes, the only surviving child of Mary and John Wayles Eppes. In the years following, three more grandchildren were born at Monticello, and at the time of his death, Jefferson had twelve great-grandchildren.
On occasions, however, the family was left to itself, undisturbed by visitors and the pressing demands of hospitality. Jefferson’s granddaughter Virginia Jefferson Randolph Trist recalled evenings spent playing “several childish games” that he had taught them, and then, when the candles were brought in, following his example by taking up a book to read quietly. Often she saw her grandfather “raise his eyes from his own book and look round on the little circle of readers, and smile.”
But Jefferson’s last years were also disrupted by hardship and family strife. Petty jealousies emerged first between Jefferson’s two sons-in-law, Thomas Mann Randolph and John Wayles Eppes, and then between Randolph and his eldest son, Thomas Jefferson Randolph (called Jeff). The elder Randolph’s often-erratic behavior caused trouble for his wife, Martha, as well, and led to an estrangement that only ended when Thomas Mann Randolph was near death in 1828. Charles Lewis Bankhead, the husband of Jefferson’s eldest granddaughter, Ann Cary Randolph Bankhead, was an alcoholic who terrorized his wife and brawled with Jeff Randolph in Charlottesville, prompting the elderly Jefferson to ride hastily to the side of his severely wounded grandson early in 1819. Rapidly increasing debts made it difficult to support the education of grandsons and the social debuts of granddaughters—responsibilities that Jefferson assumed when his son-in-law’s own finances were in ruins. And, like other homes and families, sickness and death visited Monticello often.
Still, Jefferson was able to enjoy some of the “rest, peace, and good will” he had hoped for amongst his family at Monticello. He witnessed the courtships and marriages of three granddaughters and two grandsons, saw the birth of his first great-grandchildren, and died surrounded by an extended family devoted to him.