Martha Jefferson was born at Monticello in Albemarle County on September 27, 1772, the first of five children (and one of only two who survived to adulthood) of Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson and Thomas Jefferson. She received her earliest education from her parents at Monticello, where the Jeffersons liveddespite the deepening imperial crisis and the resulting American war for independence. In June 1779 Jefferson became of Virginia and moved his family with him to the capital, Williamsburg, where Patsy, as she was known in childhood, took , and then to Richmond when the government moved there in 1780. In May 1781, the family fled advancing enemy armies, ultimately escaping to , Jefferson’s Bedford County estate.
Patsy’s childhood effectively ended on September 6, 1782, when her mother died from complications due to childbirth. She became her father’s “constant companion,” she recalled years later, “a solitary witness to many a violent burst of grief.” When Jefferson accepted a diplomatic post in Paris later that year, there was never any doubt that Patsy would accompany him. Her younger sisters, Mary (known as Polly, and later as Maria) and the infant Lucy Elizabeth, stayed with relatives in Virginia.
In December 1782, father and daughter went to Philadelphia, where Patsy boarded with a local family and continued her education while Jefferson attended to politics. She passed more than a year in this comparatively cosmopolitan city, studying music, drawing, dancing, and French with private tutors. Jeffersonfor her a daily schedule of virtually nonstop reading, writing, and lessons and instructed Patsy to “take care that you never spell a word wrong” because “it produces great praise to a lady to spell well.” He also cautioned his sometimes-untidy daughter to have her clothes “clean, whole, and properly put on” because sartorial propriety signified moral character and “nothing is so disgusting to our sex as a want of cleanliness and delicacy in yours.”
A Virginian in ParisOn July 5, 1784, Patsy and her father finally left for Europe, accompanied by James Hemings, a Monticello slave and likely the mixed-race son of Patsy’s maternal grandfather. Arriving in Paris in August, Patsy soon entered the Abbaye Royale de Panthemont, a prestigious convent boarding school that educated mainly daughters of Catholic aristocrats. Largely because of her schooldays at the Panthemont, Martha considered the years she spent in Paris the “brightest part” of her life. A gregarious adolescent who liked jokes, mixed readily with others, and relished her limited independence, she quickly became fluent in French and popular among her classmates. She also received a first-rate education, studying arithmetic, geography, history, Latin, and four modern languages, along with music and drawing—making her arguably the most highly educated Virginia woman of her generation.
After the youngest Jefferson child, Lucy,in Virginia in October 1784, were made for Polly to travel to Paris, accompanied by the enslaved house servant . Polly joined Patsy at the Panthemont in July 1787. They spent much of the winter of 1788–1789 in their father’s house battling typhus, and concluded their studies at the Panthemont the following spring. That summer the seventeen-year-old Patsy attended balls, concerts, and other social gatherings. During these final months in Paris, she also witnessed the dramatic early events of the French Revolution, wearing a tricolor cockade to show support for the reformist party. In September, the Jeffersons and the Hemingses left Paris. Within two months, their ship docked in Norfolk and they began the last leg of their journey home to Monticello.
Wife, Mother, Plantation Mistress
En route to Monticello the travelers stopped at Tuckahoe, the home of Jefferson’s boyhood friend Thomas Mann Randolph, where Patsy became reacquainted with his twenty-one-year-old son, also named Thomas Mann Randolph. Educated at the university in Edinburgh and presumptive heir to his father’s vast Goochland County estate, Tom Randolph was seemingly an ideal suitor. Both fathers approved of the match, and the couple married at Monticello on February 23, 1790. She was seventeen years old.
Martha Randolph, as she became known, enjoyed close relationships with several of her husband’s sisters, but the Randolphs were a difficult and troubled family. In 1792 and 1793, scandal ensued when Richard Randolph, of the Cumberland County plantation Bizarre and the husband of Tom Randolph’s sister Judith Randolph, was accused of having helped another sister, Nancy Randolph, who also lived at Bizarre, to commit infanticide. Widely presumed to be the father of the allegedly murdered infant, Richard Randolph defended himself in court at a hearing at which Martha Randolph appeared as a witness. Although he was acquitted, he and the two sisters remained tainted by scandal, and Martha Randolph feared that the situation might have a negative impact on her own family’s reputation. Meanwhile, Tom Randolph’s father, a widower, had taken a teenaged bride in September 1790; their son, born in 1792 and also named Thomas Mann Randolph, supplanted Martha Randolph’s husband as heir to Tuckahoe. When the elder Thomas Mann Randolph died in 1793, he made Tom Randolph his executor, but left him and his nine siblings less property than debt.
As a young wife, Randolph learned the basics of household management. Having lost her mother at a young age and come of age in an urban environment, she was by her own account ill-prepared for life as a plantation mistress. She mastered the “arts of housewifery with pain & difficulty, by untiring perseverance,” her daughter Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge related, “so soon as she was placed in a situation which rendered a knowledge of them essential for the comfort of others.” In the 1790s, she presided over households at Monticello and Varina, her husband’s plantation in Henrico County. In 1800, the Randolphs settled full-time in Albemarle, building a small house at Edgehill, a plantation that her husband had purchased from his father so that she could live closer to Monticello.
Randolph endured thirteen pregnancies between 1790 and 1818, which was roughly typical for white southern women of her era. Her pregnancies, however, were unusually successful, resulting in the birth of twelve healthy children (of whom one died young) and only one miscarriage. Unlike her mother, sister, and oldest daughter—who all suffered miserably in childbirth and ultimately died as a result of it—Randolph was generally in robust health. From the birth of her first child, Anne Cary Randolph, in January 1791, she was a self-consciously devoted mother who took special pride in her children’s education.
The President’s Daughter
On March 4, 1801, Thomas Jefferson became president after a bitterly contested election. Although Randolph clearly supported her father and his Republican party—whom shethe “friends of Liberty”—Jefferson’s victory gave her no special status: Americans rejected the idea of an unelected first family, which seemed to smack of royalty. Randolph spent most of her father’s presidency in Albemarle, tending her children and managing the Edgehill and Monticello households. Her oversight of the family’s affairs, especially after her husband’s election to Congress in 1803, made the men’s absence less onerous. However, Jefferson repeatedly asked Randolph and her sister to join him in the capital. In two carefully timed visits, her forays into public life helped Jefferson to manage his public image and Washington’s official social life.
In November 1802, Randolph traveled with two of her children and her sister to Washington, where they stayed through early January. The sisters socialized with influential Washington women, attended religious services, dined with diplomats and members of Congress, and appeared with their father at his well-attended New Year’s reception. Randolph impressed people with her good manners, obvious intelligence, and easy sociability. Her presence enabled Jefferson to project a public image that stood in marked contrast to pervasive rumors about his sexual relations with the enslaved woman Sally Hemings, which hadfor the first time that September.
Beginning in December 1805, Randolph and her entire family spent five months in Washington, where she gave birth to her eighth child that January. Resentful of “the most cruel slanders” of her father’s critics, she became a calming influence at official dinners and other social functions. Her company gave Jefferson a respite from politics, while allowing him to present himself to visitors in a wholesome domestic context. As one shrewd but sympathetic visitor noted, such domestic tableaux were for Jefferson “the best refutation of all the calumnies that have been heaped upon him.”
Randolph protected her famous father’s image for the rest of her life. She, along with her son Thomas Jefferson Randolph and her daughters Cornelia Jefferson Randolph and Mary Jefferson Randolph, compiled and edited the first collection of Jefferson’s writings for publication, taking special care to select the manuscripts that presented him in the most flattering light. Randolph also defended her father against criticism regarding his poor finances and rumors that Jefferson was the father of Hemings’s light-skinned children. The oft-repeated argument that Jefferson was not at Monticello when at least one of Hemings’s children was conceived originated with Randolph, though subsequent research has proven that claim untrue. Her efforts to construct and burnish her father’s reputation were unique, but overall her political activities, like those of the best-informed Virginia women of her era, were intermittent and circumspect.
Mistress of Monticello
When Jefferson retired from politics in March 1809, Randolph and her family moved to Monticello. Although the vastness of the house and its fineprobably influenced the Randolphs’ choice of residence, her utter devotion to her father proved decisive. At Monticello, she oversaw various household and plantation operations, including the production of cloth during the stoppage of trade with Britain preceding the War of 1812. Randolph also offered hospitality to a steady stream of familiar and sometimes famous guests, increasingly mediating visitors’ access to her aging father.
Approaching middle age in a hectic and crowded household, Randolph also worried about her family’s deteriorating finances. Both her father and her husband were debt-ridden planters whose failed crops, needy relatives, risky investments, and declining land values thwarted their efforts to regain solvency. Though she supported war with Britain in 1812, she fretted that her husband’s acceptance of a military commission would worsen their financial situation, so she persuaded Presidentto give him a temporary tax collectorship, a safer and more lucrative post. When Tom Randolph served three years as governor (1819–1822), she remained in Albemarle, in part to save money, with the exception of one brief visit to Richmond, where she was popular in society and relished appearing “fashionably drest and looking like a lady.”
Financial ruin was imminent, however, with profound consequences for Randolph and her children. Forced to liquidate his estate and resentful of the solvency of his oldest son, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, who purchased Edgehill at auction in 1826, a penniless Tom Randolph became estranged from his family at Monticello. After Jefferson died in July 1826, most of his property, too, was sold for debt. While the loss of her father was emotionally devastating, a broken marriage and the expected sale of Monticello forced Randolph to assess her options.
In October 1826 Randolph and her two youngest children visited her daughter Ellen Coolidge and her husband, Joseph Coolidge, a Boston merchant. Although Randolph and her two elder unmarried daughters, Cornelia Randolph and Mary Randolph, planned to open a school in Albemarle to generate income, she delayed her return until May 1828. She was at Tom Randolph’s bedside when he died that June and stayed with her son’s family at Edgehill until November 1829, when she joined her daughter Virginia Trist and son-in-law Nicholas Philip Trist in Washington. Essentially homeless, Randolph would spend her remaining years living with her married children in Washington, Boston, and Albemarle.
In Washington, Randolph benefited from her connection to President Andrew Jackson, who valued the friendship of Jefferson’s daughter for the legitimacy it conferred on his newly installedadministration. Her willingness to attend official dinners with Margaret O’Neal Timberlake Eaton (a cabinet wife whose allegedly sordid past caused the ladies of Washington to shun any functions she attended) earned her the gratitude of both Jackson and Martin Van Buren, his secretary of state. Nicholas Trist, who obtained his initial government clerkship from Secretary of State Henry Clay, retained his post under Van Buren and eventually became consul to Havana and, under James K. Polk, the commissioner charged with negotiating an end to the Mexcian-American War. Randolph’s youngest child, , received a naval berth. Another son became secretary to the governor of the Arkansas Territory.
Randolph received modest stipends from her father’s estate and from bank stock donated by the states of South Carolina and Louisiana in tribute to Jefferson, but her most valuable assets were her remaining slaves, whom she hired out to generate income. Like many white Virginians, Randolph claimed to hate slavery but consistently placed her family’s financial interests ahead of the happiness of her bondspeople, separating black families as needed to make profits. After Nat Turner’s Rebellion in 1831, she and her family considered moving to a free state, and she applauded the efforts of her son Thomas Jefferson Randolph to promote ato abolish slavery gradually and colonize former slaves in Africa, though he was ultimately unsuccessful. She emancipated several enslaved people in both of her , but for her entire life she depended on and profited from slave labor.
In May 1836, Randolph left Boston, bound for Virginia, with many stops along the way, arriving at Edgehill two months later. On October 10, 1836, she died suddenly at Edgehill, surrounded by her family. She was buried two days later in the Jefferson graveyard at Monticello. A two-sentence obituary in the Charlottesville Jeffersonian Republican reported the death of “Mrs. Martha Randolph, the widow of the late Thomas Mann Randolph, and the daughter of Thomas Jefferson,” declaring simply, “The character of this distinguished lady must be drawn by an abler hand than ours.”