Martha Jefferson Randolph: Republican Daughter & Plantation Mistress
Thomas Jefferson’s liaisons with women have been used by historians Annette Gordon-Reed and Jon Kukla among others to penetrate and speculate on the emotional persona of this beguiling figure. From the time of her mother’s death in 1782 until her father’s in 1826, Martha Jefferson was her father’s closest companion and emotional support for his political ambitions. Billy Wayson’s Martha Jefferson Randolph: Republican Daughter & Plantation Mistress narrates the story of this daughter-father relationship amid the uncertainties and turmoil of the early National period.
Drawing from some 900 family letters, the book finally gives voice to his most intimate companion in a finely-textured narrative of sentiments they shared in an epistolary discourse spanning three decades. The work also elaborates topics that have been identified by family, social, and political historians, among them: emergence of the affectively-bonded family in late 18th century; complexity of the plantation households comprised of productive and reproductive activities; and a nuanced examination of how Martha Jefferson Randolph’s intimate domestic life was profoundly affected by intrusive political forces. Bridging these familiar topics are three themes specific to Martha’s life: Repeated separations from a loved one, emotional attachment to Monticello, and the disquieting burden of unrelenting debt.
Chapters 1-3 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).
Shortwood Press 2013