When we visited Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s plantation in Virginia, much of the attention was focussed on the great man and his ideas. At the same time, I was reading a book about Jefferson’s daughters by Catherine Kerrison and so I was interested in the story of his family as well. For someone who was an enthusiastic proponent of the ideas of liberty and justice, the facts on Thomas Jefferson and his family that we can glean from the records didn’t really align. His relationship with his three daughters sheds light on many aspects of Southern plantation life.
Thomas Jefferson’s Childhood
BFF’s Thomas Jefferson and James Madison had many things in common but coming from money was not one of them. Unlike Madison, Jefferson was not born to inherit Monticello, the plantation that would later become synonymous with his name.
Very little is known about Thomas Jefferson’s childhood except that he was extraordinarily proud of his dad and his dad’s rise in society. Jefferson’s father job as a surveyor gave him first dibs on picking the best of the new lands as Virginia expanded westward. By the time he died, dear old dad was the proud owner of 7500 acres and more than 60 slaves.
Jefferson’s mother came from a family that was prominent both in Virginia and England. Her father as a wealthy slave trader and tobacco planter. Thanks to his society maven mother, during Thomas Jefferson’s childhood, he would have developed a taste for the finer things in life.
Thomas Jefferson’s Family Life
Thomas Jefferson had 10 happy years with his wife which produced two daughters who lived to adulthood – Martha Jefferson Randolph and Mary Jefferson Eppes. Although he never remarried, he had another long-term relationship after his wife’s death with his wife’s half-sister, an enslaved woman by whom he had one surviving daughter, Harriet Hemings Jefferson.
Martha Wayles Jefferson
When Jefferson married his wife. Martha Wayles in 1772, he brought her home to the plantation he was building, Monticello. Their honeymoon house at the time was a small building which still stands at the end of the south terrace fo Monticello today.
Martha Wayles’ father, John, was a slave trader. On his death, he left her 11,000 acres, 130 slaves and a whole lot of debt.
More specifically, because married women couldn’t own anything, Thomas Jefferson was the beneficiary of Martha’s inheritance. Jefferson inherited the property and the debt.
Among the slaves was Elizabeth Hemings and her family. Elizabeth Hemings had been John’s baby mama and had 6 children by him, including the youngest, Sally Hemings. The Hemings arrived in Monticello in 1775.
An Unsettled Marriage
Jefferson and his wife would have lived on a construction site because Monticello was very much a work in progress. Jefferson would have been away doing ‘important things’ and Martha would not have wanted to stay by herself in a construction zone by herself.
Martha probably only stayed at Monticello intermittently because she would have preferred staying at the home she inherited from her first husband or with her family.
The Kerrison book also mentioned that Martha Wayles Jefferson and her kids had to flee from the advancing British during the American Revolution. Hanging out in the family home at Monticello would have been a good way to get captured!
Martha seemed to be in a constant state of pregnancy which took a heavy toll on her body. During her 10 years of marriage, she had 6 children of which only 2 survived into adulthood, Martha Jefferson Randolph and Mary Jefferson Eppes.
Thomas Jefferson and Slaves
Jefferson wanted the views from his grand house at Monticello but the fact that the mountain top wasn’t a great building site didn’t stop him. Starting in 1768, slaves levelled the top of the mountain and dug a through 65 feet of rock to get to a water source. As far as he was concerned, slavery was a fact of life on Southern plantation life.
Southern plantation life meant that both his slaves and Thomas Jefferson’s family acknowledged the dominance of his will. For example, one of Thomas Jefferson’s ideas was to build beds into alcoves into the bedrooms. It took his daughter, Martha Washington Randolph, years to convince her father that she should have a non-alcove bed.
Thomas Jefferson was the grandson of a slave trader and the son-in-law of another slave trader. He was surrounded by slaves in the Antebellum South and did he think it was anything other than the way it should be? Probably not.
Jefferson’s own mistress was (i) the half-sister of his late wife (ii) a daughter of a slave-trader and his concubine. You get a vague icky feeling that these were incestuous relationships but then again in 19th century Virginia, people married their cousins regularly.
Martha Jefferson Randolph would have been about the same age as her father’s mistress, Sally Hemings. Like all good Southern women in the Antebellum period she would have been trained to look away when the menfolk dallied with their enslaved.
Besides, as Martha Jefferson Randolph learned from her own situation when her husband’s father remarried and had more heirs which cut down on Martha’s own inheritance, dalliances with the enslaved didn’t leave you poorer.
Women in the Antebellum Period
Both the female enslaved in the Antebellum South and free women during the Antebellum period seem to accept that their role in life was to produce babies. There were high infant and maternal mortality rates.
By all accounts, Thomas Jefferson adored his wife Martha Wayles Jefferson. In today’s day and age, it’s astonishing that they didn’t try for birth control because of her weak constitution. In those days though, not only was there very little knowledge about conception and pregnancy but also birth control was not something practiced by white women in the antebellum South.
Among the women’s roles in the Antebellum south was educating their children and teaching them to be good little future wives. They would need to know the basics of cooking, housekeeping, sewing etc. Of course, if you were at the higher end of Southern plantation life (and white) you would only need to know enough to supervise others doing the work for you!
Martha Jefferson Randolph
With her mother dying so young, Martha Jefferson Randolph, Thomas Jefferson’s oldest daughter, went with him to Paris. She had a brilliant education in Paris attending a private school for the elite and the nobility. Even though she was exposed to the brilliant minds and Enlightenment principles of the day, at the age of 17 she found herself back in Virginia and married to a cousin, Thomas Mann Randolph.
Wife and Mother
Jefferson wanted his family nearby so he convince his son in law to buy Edgehill, an estate on the borders of Monticello. Edgehill is now known as The Clifton (a luxury boutique hotel) in close proximity to Charlottesville. The Randolphs settled into Edgehill with its 1500 acres and 38 enslaved workers.
Martha Jefferson Randolph, just like her mother, seemed to live in a perpetual sate of pregnancy. Unlike her mother, Martha’s constitution was stronger and she recovered from her pregnancies well. Her babies were also healthier and 11 of her 13 children survived into adulthood.
In the tradition of the time Martha Jefferson Randolph home educated her children. Thanks to her excellent education they too received a fine education, including the girls. In fact, Martha educated her daughters along the lines of what Jefferson recommended for education boys with subjects such as Latin, philosophy and science! Jefferson, himself, didn’t think it was useful for girls to be taught these subjects because woman would never become professionals.
Prisoner of Circumstance
By all accounts, Martha Jefferson Randolph was an intelligent and capable woman. She, however, was stuck with the decisions of her menfolk especially as it came to money.
Thomas Mann Randolph was not so good with money. By 1809, the family had to move into Monticello and were dependent on Jefferson’s financial support.
Of course, like many of the upper crust at the time, Thomas Jefferson may have appreciated the good life but he couldn’t pay for them. In addition to the expenses incurred in connection with building Monticello, his love of fine furniture, imported French wine and books meant he died with a mountain of debt.
Thomas Jefferson’s scheme to pay off his debt failed. Martha Washington Randolph inherited his bills and had to sell Monticello to pay off the debt. She eventually died back in her first marital home, Edgehill.
Mary Jefferson Eppes
Mary Jefferson Eppes (occasionally also called Maria Jefferson Eppes) was the second of Thomas Jefferson’s acknowledged daughters to survive into adulthood. She had a very different upbringing and education from her sister Martha.
When Jefferson took Martha to Paris, Mary Jefferson Eppes was left with her later mother’s sister’s family. Mary was pampered and loved but her education would have only been enough to make sure she would be a good and dutiful future planter’s wife.
Marriage and Death
Mary likewise married her cousin, John Wayles Eppes in a short but happy marriage. Jefferson agreed to her marriage when his future son-in-law said that he could have the last word on where they lived.
Like Martha, Jefferson wanted his family living nearby. Like Martha, Mary Jefferson Eppes was married in the salon at Monticello.
For their wedding, Jefferson gave his daughter and her husband an estate near Monticello with about 800 acres and 31 enslaved workers.
Unfortunately, Maria Jefferson entered a cycle of pregnancy and birth that weakened her health. She had one child, Francis, that lived until adulthood. Mary Jefferson Eppes died at the age of 25 in Monticello after another ill-fated pregnancy and childbirth.
Sally Hemings bore Thomas Jefferson four living children – three sons and one daughter, Harriet Hemings.
Harriet Hemings Jefferson was in a no-man’s land. Unlike other slave children, she was allowed to stay with her mother, Sally Hemings, thanks to her mother’s special relationship with the plantation owner.
The extended Hemings family held a privileged position at Monticello which was the envy of the other enslaved peoples at the plantation. They would have been a tight-knit family just because of their position betwixt and between.
Harriet Hemings, too, was educated by her mother who had lived an exceptional life in both Virginia and France. She was probably able to provide more guidance to Harriet Hemings than the usual enslaved woman which would have been invaluable to Harriet later in life when she slipped into anonymity as a free woman.
Harriet would have played with the Randolph children, two of whom were about her age. To a passerby, there wouldn’t have been much difference between Harriet Heming (who was 7/8 white) and the Randolph girls. Yet, she wasn’t a Randolph as would have been shown by her clothes, living quarters, food etc.
Around the age of 14, Jefferson sent Harriet to work in his textile factory because he felt she needed a trade to maker her way in life. She’d never be a lady of leisure like her Randolph cousins.
Jefferson’s affair with Sally became public knowledge in 1802. Despite being playmates, the Randolph children would have put Harriet in her place firmly beneath them. As it was, there are letters indicating that they were embarrassed of the talk of “yellow” children at Monticello.
Flight To Freedom
Around her 21st birthday, Jefferson arranged for Harriet Hemings to be given money and to take a stagecoach to Philadelphia. Harriet decided to exercise her own agency and went to Washington, D.C. instead. There is nothing known about her life after 1822 because she would have left her past behind and “passed for white” .
If anyone had any inkling she had been a former enslaved person at Monticello, Harriet Hemings descendants would have become enslaved as well. For Harriet Hemings, it would have been too dangerous to dwell on her Southern plantation life even if it included fond memories of her own mother and siblings.
Thomas Jefferson’s Daughters
The book Jefferson’s Daughters: Three Sisters, White and Black, in a Young America by Catherine Kerrison, a professor of American history looks at Thomas Jefferson’s family from a women’s history point.
It filled in many of the gaps that the tour guide at Monticello did not have time to explain. There’s plenty of detail about Martha Jefferson Randolph’s life and children. There’s also lots of detail about Mary Jefferson Eppes even though it was a fairly short life. What’s known about Harriet Hemings seems to be very little. The biographical information about Harriet Hemings seems to be mostly conjecture based on what was known about women in her position at the time.
What struck me most is that all three of Jefferson’s daughters were subject to the will of their father. His two legitimate daughters, Martha Jefferson Randolph and Mary Jefferson Eppes, towed the line and lived as was expected of them.
Harriet Hemings, his natural daughter, was the only one who showed a bit of her father’s renowned free-thinking and rebellious spirit and set out to create a life for herself. In doing so, however, Harriet Hemings had to discard her old Southern plantation life at Monticello permanently.