My God, what a pain!

Autumn leaves had blanketed the drooping grass around Martha’s former home overseen by the remnants of Monticello’s plantation.  Edgehill, the nearby farm Father had so desperately sought for her in 1790, had fallen to the auctioneers gavel a few years before her final goodbye on October 10, 1836.  Whether family honor, memories of Grandpapa, or the comfort of familiar spaces motivated Thomas Jefferson Randolph to purchase his father’s heavily mortgaged property, we can never know.  However, the piece of land did preserve for a time a fleeting peace of mind his mother felt in the shadow of the Mountain.  As she had copied in Father’s Commonplace Book: “Every feature of that landscape has its own spell upon my heart, can bring back the living, breathing presence of those long mingled with the clods of the valley, can renew (for a moment) youth itself.”  Martha felt the spring of 1836 had dragged with it “the winter season of life, with all its infirmities, so greatly encreased by the absence of warm weather. . . .  I feel that the days of my strength and usefulness are gone.”  Yet, the perseverance her father had encouraged while young Patsy struggled with translating Livy, itself was steadfast:  “There are pleasures even for age.  My dear children that first and greatest of blessings, fine weather, books, flowers . . . and oh if I should ever again . . . have a home . . . .”  It was in her lost home at Edgehill in the fall of 1836 that Martha cried from her son’s arms: “My god, what a pain!”

A Cynic’s Guide to the History Profession

A moment of satire in the khronos.  Humor is so frequently nearer truth that droning lectures before somnambulant spectators. So, just what is “history,” not the word but the endeavor? It may be just a state of mind, a psychological phantasmagoria, serving to equilibrate a pressing, sometimes overwhelming present.  It is the Other against which we live today, thinking it is real, genuine, more solid because it seems to be back there somewhere.  The practice of History may be a sort of meaning-making of now.

The Social Historian


History is the most deeply dishonourable profession there is, at least outside the Square Mile.

The basic premise is that people die, and then you denounce them. It’s a bit like being a reverse version of Kim Jong-Un, but with worse hair.

For the uninitiated, though, it’s also a minefield of complexity. So here, for your immense benefit, I’ve cast my jaundiced eye over the intellectual world I call home, hoping to help you tell your RHS from your EEBO.

(Note to my employers. This is satire. Many of our History students have obviously had happy experiences of their studies and have since gone on to fulfilling lives as management consultants.

If I’ve been rude about your kind of history and you’re upset about it, get over yourself. If I’ve not, then you’re clearly just not interesting enough. Sorry.)

Historian – professional inspector of finished works, who makes a living…

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A life in service to the United States

Chapters 1-3  of Martha Jefferson Randolph: Republican Daughter & Plantation Mistress set the background of Martha’s disrupted childhood that led to emotional co-dependency with her father.  Life-changing events  include: a home life upset by political revolution and death of a young mother; Martha’s isolation from family and friends as she matured to young adulthood in unfamiliar cultures of Philadelphia and Paris.  Struggling in 1790 at age seventeen to become reacquainted with her Virginia heritage and accommodated to marriage, Martha gradually assumes a central role in reconfiguring an expanded Monticello household to serve as infrastructure for Thomas Jefferson’s political aspirations (Chapters 4-6).

The Presidential years (Chapters 7-9) brim with the emotional pangs of extended separations and uncertain reunions occasioned by her father’s exercise of republican civic virtue. His pleas for her presence in the Nation’s new Capital are muted by the demands of Martha’s rapidly growing family and husband Thomas Mann Randolph’s brooding temperament, financial decline, and crippling self-doubt that merged into his self-image of a “silly bird” among more gifted “swans” in a triangulated family structure.  Martha honored her pledge to create a “harbor from the cares and storms of life” for her father’s retirement years (1809-26) but could not arrest their painful decline to penury.

Martha Jefferson Randolph’s last decade was spent without the person she cherished most and the place she valued above all others but nonetheless living in “honorable poverty” (Chapters 10-11).

“Never ashamed of an honorable poverty”

"various other articles curious and useful"

“various other articles curious and useful”

The cold of a wintry January day only accentuated the chilling sense of foreboding in the hearts of every family member.  Already, the last library had left Monticello; the auctioneer’s cry had blown chairs, china, and silver from their familiar places into the world of historical artifacts with the provenance “Jeffersonian.”  An anxious granddaughter pined: “I wonder where we will go.”   Broken in spirit and bereft of material resources, Martha however resolutely confided the family’s condition “is the fruits, and the price we have paid, for a long an useful life devoted to the service of his country.”

To learn more about Jefferson’s financial management, view this CSpan panel presentation at the International Center for Jefferson Studies.

Interview: Real Life with Jennifer Till

My interview on September 11th with radio hostess Jennifer Till is at WINA 1070 AM.  Jennifer’s program airs each Saturday at 8:00 in the morning is for women and about women (and an occasional man who writes about women!)  Martha’s intense emotional relationship with her father, the imaginary family they created in their letters, and the critical role Martha played in emotionally sustaining her father’s political career were among the topics Jennifer and I explored.  Hope you enjoy it.

Next on Monday September 16 at about 5:45 PM, Coy Barefoot will interview me on WCHV 107.5 FM during his “Inside Charlottesville” program – just follow the “Shows” menu.  Hope you tune in!

Click on podcast to hear the on-air conversation about Martha’s children, Grand Papa’s role in their education, and late years of her life spent in “honorable poverty” — the topic of my next post.

“Considerably different for her sex”

Ten-year old Patsy’s reading would be “considerably different . . . for her sex in any other country than America,” Congressman Jefferson declared. What did he mean by “considerably different,” and why was her “sex” a criterion for what she read? What was “America” in 1783, anyway?

Unanswered questions like these, launched me on a long journey wending through hundreds of letters between daughter, father, husband, children, and more. Signposts along the way disclosed Thomas Jefferson’s elaborate notions of education but, more critically, it revealed that love and affection lit the way, not just for learning but also for their lives together. “If you love me then, strive…to acquire those accomplishments…which will go far towards ensuring you the warmest love of your affectionate father,” he admonished the youngster (TJ to MJ, 28 November 1783). By age fourteen, Patsy had learned this lesson well: “You say your expectations for me are high, yet not higher than I can attain. Then be assured, my dear papa, that you shall be satisfied in that, as well as in anything else that lies in my power; for what I hold most precious is your satisfaction…” (MJ to TJ, 9 April 1787).

Just how these experiences figured in Martha’s adult identity and Jefferson’s political life are described in Martha Jefferson Randolph: Republican Daughter & Plantation Mistress (Palmyra, VA: Shortwood Press) available from Amazon and CreateSpace

Related articles

Reading as a means of female education is described artfully & thoroughly in Catherine Kerrison’s Claiming the Pen: Women and Intellectual Life in the Early American South (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006)

The emergence in the 19th Century of formal female academies and women’s civic associations are chronicled in Mary Kelley, Learning to Stand and Speak: Women, Education, and Public Life in America’s Republic (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2006)