Book Reviews

From Annette Gordon-Reed, Professor, Harvard University  & Peter Onuf, Thomas Jefferson Professor of History Emeritus, University of Virginia

Billy Wayson’s Martha Jefferson Randolph is a penetrating account of the extraordinary relationship between a plantation mistress and her famous father.  Focusing on the world that Martha Randolph and Thomas Jefferson imagined and constructed through their correspondence, Wayson illuminates family life at and beyond Monticello.  Martha gives voice to a fascinating array of characters, enabling us to see the intimate connections between domestic relations and self-fashioning.

From Theodore Crackle, Editor Emeritus, The Papers of George Washington

At last we have a new and intricately woven tapestry of the shuttered family life that places Thomas Jefferson in a refreshing new light. The loss of his wife, Martha, Wayson writes, “would prove the most significant watershed in the life courses of both her eldest daughter and husband.” Following her mother’s death, the young Patsy Jefferson and her father separated themselves from family, friends, and environs to live in Paris. In the process they formed an emotional bond of affection and commitment that would never be breached by husband or children, friends or kinsfolk. To cope with extended periods of being apart, Patsy and her father created in their letters an imaginary family that was situated at a place called “Monticello” and contrasted sharply with lives they were living.

“Physical place and emotional space,” Wayson suggests, would be an inextricable bound for the remainder of their lives. Monticello became hallowed ground. She would remain at her father’s side —figuratively at least — despite nearly three decades of repeated, lonely separations, surrogate families, and longed for reunions. The imagined family Jefferson and daughter Martha created was bound by deep affection. Its members were dependent on each other for mutual happiness . They were accomplished, capable of overcoming difficulties, persistent, and most importantly, engaged in incessant activity to avoid “ennui,” that “canker of human happiness.”

Wayson , ever so cautiously turns “the kaleidoscope of Jefferson’s multi-faceted character” illuminating a most intimate familial relationship and positing a pattern of emotional expression very different from that so often presented today in the recounting of his relationships with Sally Hemings and Maria Cosway. We are greatly indebted to the author for this new rendering of Thomas Jefferson.

From Frank Cogliano, Professor of American History, University of Edinburgh

Billy Wayson has made an original and important contribution to the vast literature on Thomas Jefferson and his time with this profound study of Martha Jefferson Randolph. Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with his eldest daughter was the longest and most enduring personal liaison of his life. Wayson reconstructs their relationship and, crucially, recovers Martha’s voice in this fine book.

From Karen Robbins, review of Martha Jefferson Randolph: Republican Daughter and Plantation Mistress by Billy L. Wayson, Journal of Southern History, LXXXI, No. 2 (May 2015), 447-48.

Despite the title, Martha Jefferson Randolph: Republican Daughter and Plantation Mistress is not a biography, as author Billy L. Wayson makes clear in the introduction. It is instead, he says, “a story of a relationship” between Martha Jefferson Randolph and her father, Thomas Jefferson (p. 7).
Over the course of the book, it becomes apparent that the bonds between father and daughter connected the two more tightly than perhaps any other association in their lives. After his wife’s death in 1782, Thomas and ten year- old Martha became boon companions: the two rode horses sometimes for hours sharing their grief. Thomas’s need for familial love soon centered on his surviving daughters, Martha and Mary (Maria)… She and her sister received better training in the ornamental arts and would have shone in a wealthy urban context. But above all Martha became a “republican daughter,” one who understood that her father’s duties to the republic were paramount and that her most important role was to support him.

Book Review Excerpts from

“This extraordinary book gives the reader a glimpse at the extraordinary relationship between a father and daughter. A creation of, “a family of letters” designed to bind the “chosen” members of Thomas Jefferson’s family together in a spatial atmosphere. One will ask themselves was Thomas Jefferson manipulating for his own self gratification or out of a deep love and concern for his family.” – D. Mucha

“It was, to be sure, a complicated relationship and a complicated story but, given the great trove of letters and other writings Dr. Wayson had to work with, I think he did an admirable job of mining this vast collection and winnowed out the personal story of Martha Jefferson Randolph and her relationship with her father… It is a handsomely produced volume, well bound, neatly printed, and with striking cover art. It will make an attractive addition to any library.” – E. Stepp

“Wonderfully written, this book (a revision of the author’s doctoral dissertation) is a masterful work of scholarship, meticulously researched and full of astute analysis and insight into their lives. Part biography and historiography, part sociology and anthropology as well as politics and economics, the author traverses these disciplines with clarity and ease. While the book is a scholarly analysis of several major themes in Martha and Thomas Jefferson’s lives, it is written in a style that takes you back in time, to a genteel era–but also one full of scandal and political machinations.” – G.F.

“The strength of the book lies in the relationship Wayson illuminates between father and daughter. The emotional bond forged out of a motherless household is revealed in what Wayson calls the “family of letters” that they exchanged over the course of their lives. Jefferson emerges as a loving father with strong expectations of what his daughter should learn and become to merit being loved. His concern for her learning and her character spill forth across the book as its chapters chronicle key periods in Jefferson’s political and personal odyssey and its impact on their lives. Martha emerges as entirely devoted to her father, indeed more so than to her own husband, as she raises eleven children and learns what she must to provide the refuge Jefferson seeks.” – Terry T.N.