- - Friday, June 15, 2012

By Cynthia A. Kierner
University of North Carolina Press, $35, 360 pages, illustrated

Thomas Jefferson’s elder daughter and only long-surviving child, Martha, deserves a biography for two reasons, says historian Cynthia A. Kierner, the author of this prodigiously researched and beautifully written book. First, she had an extraordinary life among interesting people. (She knew all the presidents from John Adams to Martin Van Buren and was a close friend of Dolley Madison, among other notables.) Second, she shared the toil, tedium, marital tensions and financial woes of many a Virginia plantation wife and mother.

Universally admired for her learning, gentle temperament and social skills (the Spanish ambassador said she was “fitted to grace any court in Europe”) Martha reared 11 of her 12 children to adulthood, an unusual accomplishment in itself. But she also taught them, and untold others in her large household, much of what she had learned when her father took her with him for seven years, first to Philadelphia and then to Paris. (She was fluent in four languages, a skilled musician and a gifted manager.)

Martha’s mother died when she was 10, and because Jefferson never married again, Martha often was called on to serve as her father’s hostess from the time she left convent school in Paris. Almost immediately upon her return to Virginia, Martha married a third cousin, Thomas Mann Randolph. The author speculates that the fact that Sally Hemings, the slave who had lived in Paris with the Jeffersons, was pregnant on their return to Monticello may have speeded Martha’s departure from Monticello.

The dilemmas posed by slavery pervade this biography. Sally Hemings was the mixed-race daughter of Martha’s maternal grandfather, making her the half-sister of Jefferson’s wife (Martha’s mother). The author comes down clearly on the side of recognizing the Hemings children’s descent from Thomas Jefferson.

Martha, however, was “extremely sensitive to any criticism of her father’s character” both because they had such a close relationship and because she “grew to regard her father’s fame and reputation as her own and her children’s chief inheritance.” Hence, she worked hard to deflect the gossip about Sally Hemings and her father, which was rife throughout his presidency, by presenting a wholesome domestic tableau when she served as first lady at the White House and later as gatekeeper, household manager and hostess at Monticello.

The author marvels at how Martha managed to accommodate her father’s demands on her time along with the demands of her own family as her husband, Tom Randolph, tried to carve out his own political career in the U.S. House of Representatives and as governor of Virginia. Martha was pregnant with her fifth child when her father began pressing her to join him in the White House, and she bore four more children during Jefferson’s two terms. (Her last child was born when she was nearly 46 years old; the gap between the eldest and the youngest was 27 years.)

Ms. Kierner fully covers the multiple scandals associated with the large, fractious, intertwined Jefferson-Randolph families, particularly the accumulating debts on all sides that eventually necessitated the sale of both the Randolphs’ plantation at Edgehill and Jefferson’s own Monticello. In answer to a query from her daughter, Ellen Coolidge, about how her patriot grandfather could have owed more than $100,000 when he died, Martha said that Jefferson’s financial woes stemmed from four factors: “the assumption of debts incurred by others, his generosity and openhanded hospitality, Virginia’s economic problems and especially its reliance on enslaved labor, and the many years he devoted to public service, during which his personal financial interests necessarily suffered.”

Ms. Kierner continues, “While Martha had gently criticized her father’s extravagance while he lived, that was not part of the official story she told to explain his ultimate financial ruin.” In any case, the legislatures of two states, South Carolina and Louisiana, each allocated $10,000 in bank stock for Martha’s support as a tribute to her father’s service, but although she continued to be honored as a grande dame at the White House under Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren, her pecuniary embarrassment was such that she considered opening a school to support herself.

Instead, she spent extended periods among her married children up and down the East Coast. The longer she lived, the more she abhorred slavery. From daughter Ellen Coolidge’s home in Massachusetts, Ms. Kierner writes, Martha contrasted the “tedium and futility of life in economically troubled rural Virginia with the easy sociability of her current life in Boston.” To her son-in-law Nicholas Trist in Virginia, Martha wrote, “Land and Negroes in Virginia are to nine persons out of ten certain ruin, and to all certain expense, uncertain profit, and trouble, and vexation of the spirit, that wearies one of life.”

The slave insurrection in Southampton County led by Nat Turner in 1831 terrified many Virginians, but outright manumission of slaves was complicated by a legal requirement that freed slaves had to leave the state within a year, and most freed slaves had enslaved relatives from whom they would thus be separated.

Martha’s will directed that Sally Hemings and two other Monticello slaves should be given “their time,” which meant, Ms. Kierner says, that “though they would remain legally enslaved, they could come and go as they pleased, live where they wanted, and keep any wages they earned for themselves.” Martha thereby extended the arrangement her father originally had established for these slaves.

The author concludes that Martha’s “criticism of slavery and the slave trade, her support for Jacksonian democracy, her stoic willingness to let her children make their own way and find their own spouses, and her creative strategies for dealing with her own increasingly unhappy marriage reveal a woman who was sufficiently flexible to question the pieties of the past and cautiously fashion pragmatic solutions to vexing problems. … Neither she nor her relations freed their slaves en masse, but by preventing their dispersal to the cotton states, the Randolphs tried (at least in their own minds) to ameliorate the terms of their enslavement.”

• Priscilla S. Taylor is a writer and critic in McLean.

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