Patsy Jefferson


Patsy Jefferson Randolph

Mr. Jefferson’s Ladies, by Gordon Langley Hall

American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson , by Joseph Ellis

Patsy(Martha) Jefferson Randolph, was the eldest surviving daughter of Thomas Jefferson, gave birth to twelve children, and was married to a possibly mentally ill/alcoholic husband. She infrequently played hostess during Jefferson’s two terms as President in the early 1800’s. Her mother, Martha Jefferson, had passed away not too long after giving birth to her third surviving child in 1782.

Jefferson biographer Joseph J. Ellis describes Patsy at 13 as an “uncommonly tall and long limbed girl with her father’s bright eyes and angular bone structure.” Both Patsy and her sister Polly accompanied Jefferson to Paris, France where he was serving as a diplomat. Jefferson placed both girls in a convent; however, he removed them promptly when he learned of Patsy’s intention to become a nun.

Like Martha Washington, Patsy was mistress of a southern plantation; at her father’s Monticello. She never spent much time at the White House: she had eleven kids! Of course, being a plantation mistress was no easy task and her duties including being a midwife at times.

As for Sally Hemings, Jefferson’s girlfriend for many years, it is difficult to claim Patsy’s ignorance: she lived with her father throughout the duration of his affair with Sally. Yet, according to Ellis, Patsy went to the grave defending her father against accusations of having a slave lover. Yes, before the revelation of this relationship in 1998, there was much speculation and gossip mongering in Jefferson’s time over it.

Like many mistresses of plantations, Patsy had to notice the physical similarities between young slave children and the white masters. It’s pretty much common knowledge the white men of plantations often took advantage of slave women; often fathering many mulatto children. There was nothing for her to do but turn her head the other way.

After her beloved father’s death in 1826, Patsy was a pauper. She was estranged from her husband. All furniture and valuables from Monticello were sold to pay off debts; later Monticello itself was sold. Two years after her father’s death her husband died.

At one point Patsy was given $10,000 by the states of South Carolina and Louisiana, in honor of her father’s memory, in lieu of starting a girl’s school in Charlottesville, Va. She invested these funds into  the Uni. of Va., a source of a modest income, but until her death in 1836 Patsy lived in straightened circumstances.


Audacious Abigail


Two things struck me about Abigail Adams’ complex personality and contradictory life: her long separations from John  and her teaching an indentured black servant.

John and Abigail gave up a stable married life so he could focus on being a public servant for their fledging country. John spent years away in Philadelphia, then later Europe, working on the foundation of our country along with other Founding Fathers. Abigail should be credited along with a handful of other women as  Founding Mothers. She sacrificed a family life – but there were other gains. After a five-year separation from John (five years!), they reunited in France where John was serving in an Ambassador type role during the War. So Abigail was uncommon compared to many others in her day in traveling across sea to Europe, meeting royalty, observing different cultures and visiting grand 1700’s capitals such as Paris and London. Still I cannot imagine the longing she must have felt for her husband during their long separations.

My favorite anecdote about Abigail was her reaction to a white man’s confrontation over an indentured servant boy of hers. The boy’s name was James and Abigail had taught him to read and write; however, she didn’t believe in racial equality. Nevertheless, Abigail was a big advocate of educating women and blacks. Women were barely educated and blacks received none. When a night school opened, James expressed interest in attending and Abigail gave her blessing. A neighbor confronted Abigail over the matter, stating all the white boys were leaving school because a black boy was attending. She told the man if they didn’t have a problem with blacks sitting in church with whites or James playing the fiddle at their dances then they shouldn’t complain about his attending school. “Tell them I hope we all go to heaven together.”

Book cover for Brady’s bio showing a young Martha.

Martha Washington: An American Life by Patricia Brady

As the first “First Lady,” Martha Dandridge Custis Washington set the template for the President’s wife; she was the perfect hostess. One of any future First Lady’s major duties would be welcoming and receiving guests at dinners and balls.

Martha was a reluctant First Lady, however. She only performed her role out of devotion and duty to her beloved husband, George.

From a modest farming family, Martha was married first to Daniel Parke Custis when she was almost 19. A descendent of one the Virginia colony’s most prominent families, Daniel Custis was twenty years Martha’s senior. She went from living in a crowded house full of siblings,  her mother bore seven children, to living in the “White House,” the Dandridge plantation home, and a house in Williamsburg, the colonial capital of Virginia.

After having four children, two would survive, Daniel suddenly passed away leaving Martha dispenser of largesse. Raised to perform household duties required of women in her day, Martha nonetheless was more than capable of assuming responsibility of handling the day-to-day operation of her deceased husband’s estate.

However, it would be odd for her never to marry again, especially in the 1700’s. She was young and wealthy. A catch. In steps George Washington, who made a strategic move in courting Martha, to become her second husband. He knew that love would develop once they were married despite of his then infatuation with the married Sally Fairfax.

There has been speculation George only married Martha because she was rich, but as biographer Patricia Brady points out, “After they married, there is not a sign that  George was a bored or unhappy husband.”

During the Revolutionary War he was bereft without Martha by his side; she was his support. They were soul mates. At least, this is what I gathered from Brady’s biography.

Martha definitely did not want to live a public life after the war, but Washington was selected to be President, and he served two terms, 1789-1797. I won’t discuss his Presidency beyond that building a nation together was no easy task, especially with the bickering of the Federalists and Jeffersonians in those early days.

Martha made do, and was always commented on how kind, self-effacing, gentle and modest she seemed by visitors during and after the Presidential years. Never called the “First Lady,” she was given the moniker “Lady Washington” instead.

One aspect of Martha I admired was her devotion to family. Both George and Martha raised their grandchildren, her surviving children from the Custis marriage died young, and also sheltered and helped  support various nieces, nephews, cousins etc. The Washington’s were very generous and loving towards their family members. They took care of their own.

That’s pretty much all there is to tell; Martha pretty much stayed by George’s side until he died in 1799. No outspokenness from her .. Abigail Adams on the other hand ..

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