Martha was born on September 27, 1772 in a tiny, two-story brick structure atop Monticello Mountain. Named after her mother, Martha Wayles Skelton, baby Patsy would soon launch her life course in the arms of parents responding to the uncertainties and occasional deprivations of political turmoil. She accompanied them to Williamsburg, when Father served in the Colonial House of Burgesses, and a few years later on a blustery winter night, fled with them from Richmond before an invading army of British troops. By the end of the Revolution in 1782, ten-year old Patsy Jefferson had been hauled from pillar to post; witnessed a mother suffering mightily with four pregnancies; wept when three little babies passed; and joyfully welcomed her sister Maria in 1774.
It was Mother’s sixth pregnancy in the first and final decade of marriage to Thomas Jefferson that would cast Patsy even further afield into Philadelphia’s diverse, urban culture and across the Atlantic to the unrivaled gaiety and opulence of Paris in the ancien regime of Louis XVI. Ensconced in a Catholic boarding school and convent with children of Europe’s aristocracy, Patsy nonetheless vicariously experienced Parisian society through the eyes and wagging tongues of widows, spinsters, and divorcees who boarded at Panthemont.
Faraway from friends and loved ones from 1784-89 grieving the loss of a mother and wife, the Jefferson’s developed a bond of deep affection that would never be equaled by husband or children. Two decades later — married to Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr., with six children — Martha pledged to her father: “If my other duties could possibly interfere with my devotion to you I should not feel a scruple in sacrificing them to a sentiment which has literally ‘grown with my growth and strengthened with my strength’.”
From their return to America in 1789 until her father’s retirement from political office in 1809, Martha was a dutiful “republican daughter,” learning the intricacies of a plantation household; arranging Father’s homecomings and departures; seeing to the arrangements for political conclaves at Monticello; worrying over her children’s illnesses, mental abilities, and the discomforts of frequent childbearing.
Soon after Jefferson’s death in 1826, the families personal effects were auctioned to partially settle the debt-ridden Monticello estate; the Randolph home at the foot of the Mountain shortly thereafter; in five years, the house atop and acreage were sold. “I have to learn the art of supporting a large family in genteel society, upon a very limited means,” she informed a friend. Martha lived an itinerate life until 1836 on six percent interest from $20,000 donated by two states, with her daughters in Boston and Washington City, and finally with son Jeff in her looking upward to the plantation mansion she had loved so well. “I never had, and never shall have, the folly to be ashamed of an honorable poverty. It is the fruits, and the price we have paid, for a long and useful life devoted to the service of his country.”