by Katy Gehred
The little “about me” blurb at the end of all my posts says that if you have any questions
about Thomas Jefferson, I’m the one to ask.
Well, this is 100% true. As anybody who knows me for more than three minutes finds
out, I used to work as a tour guide at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. (Don’t know what
that is? Look at the back of a nickel. That’s right. I worked THERE.)
I love the Teej as much as the next history nerd. In fact, on my list of “crush-worthy
Founding Fathers” he is second only to historical dreamboat John Adams.
Look at that handsome, non slave-holding, loyal to his wife son of a gun. SWOON.
HOWEVER. My bizarre personal fondness for the Founding Fathers aside, I am, first and
foremost, a women’s historian. After delivering five 40 minute tours of Monticello every
day for a few months I got sick of talking about the 6’2” amateur scientist president. Just
to switch things up I started to build up an arsenal of knowledge about his daughter,
Martha Jefferson Randolph.
MJR has played a largely anecdotal role in history, she’s TJ’s eldest daughter, and
historians love quoting Jefferson’s letters to her as a examples of how much of a big
softie the Teej was when it came to his kids.
But MJR herself has some of the most fascinating letters I’ve ever read, and as the
mother of ELEVEN CHILDREN, I thought that she fit the bill pretty nicely for this month’s
TJ was a prolific letter writer, and he demanded that his children and grandchildren write him on a steady basis. This was partially because he was interested in their lives,
and also because he was something of a worrier. He told his daughter he didn’t care
if she had no time to write, she just needed to scribble down “All is well” and he’d be
So Martha wrote him. A lot. And she went into a lot of detail about her family, detail
that is usually ignored by TJ historians because it doesn’t exactly say a lot about his
But I’m a women’s historian and I say sucks to your political life, lets take a look at early
18th century motherhood, shall we?
There are some things about which MJR writes that make early 18th century motherhood
seem pretty similar to modern motherhood. For instance, kids were and are adorable.
Take this letter from Martha to TJ, writing about her five-year-old Ellen and two year old
“Ellen counts the weeks and continues storing up complaints against Cornelia whom
she is perpetually threatening with your displeasure. Long is the list of misdemeanors
which is to be communicated to you, amongst which the stealing of 2 potatoes carefully
preserved 2 whole days for you but at last stolen by Cornelia forms a weighty article.”
MJR to TJ January 31, 1801
Jefferson loved these little family tidbits and demanded more of them in her letters,
particularly when they were about Ellen, who Martha called her father’s “little seet
MJR was slightly embarrassed by her oldest son Thomas Jefferson Randolph (she
calls him Jefferson) because he just refused to wear shoes for the vast majority of his
childhood. The historian in me ventures that this might have been partially influenced
by his playmates–mostly the enslaved boys on the plantation–who didn’t have the same
societal pressure to wear shoes that the little white master had. Just a thought.
Her seventh daughter, named Septimia in honor of that fact, went through a phase
where she called any animal a cat. “she calls every thing cat, sheep, horses, the dove
and even the landau, she distinguishes but between two things, men, & cats…” Cornelia
to Virginia Randolph Trist Nov. 7, 1814
But MJR’s life wasn’t just a heartwarming family sitcom set in the early 1800s. Some of
her parenting techniques come across as pretty callous to a modern reader, particularly
with regards to education. She worries constantly over her two eldest children, Jefferson and Anne.
“My 2 eldest are uncommonly backward in every thing much more so than many others,
who have not had half the pains taken with them.” MJR to TJ January 31, 1801
Her oldest son, Jefferson, she writes, is “quicker than I had ever thought him possible
to be,” but she is afraid he’s too far behind to ever catch up. Although he received an
education outside of the home, she was “seriously uneasy at his not going to school.”
MJR to TJ, April 16, 1802
Even Thomas Jefferson, who loved his grandchildren so much that he spoiled them
constantly and was always bringing them cake when he came home, figured that the
most his eldest grandson had in him intellectually was to be “an industrious farmer.” TJ
to MJR Feb. 5, 1801
Poor Anne, described by her mother in the same letter where she calls
her “backward”, “does not want memory but she does not improve. She appears to
learn absolutely without profit.” Ouch.
MJR eventually admits that her constant worries about the intelligence of her two
oldest children are “unreasonable”, “for surely if they turn out well with regard to
morals I ought to be satisfied, tho I feel that I never can sit down quietly under the idea
of their being blockheads.” MJR to TJ April 16, 1802
But the disconcerting honesty with which MJR treats her children’s strengths and
weaknesses is just one of many differences between parenting in the early 1800s and
parenting today. While MJR certainly took an active role in the raising of her children,
she had a “Mammy” do quite a bit of her work for her. At Monticello the enslaved
woman whom the children all knew as Mammy was named Priscilla Hemings. She took
care of the kids and even had sole responsibility for switching (hitting) them when they
deserved it. The children mentioned her in letters to one another after they were all old
enough to read and write. Once Septimia started to crawl, for example, Cornelia wrote
to her younger sister, “Mammy don’t like her to do that because she says that it makes
her too dirty.” Cornelia to Virginia Nov. 7, 1814
Modern comparisons might be made to having a live-in sitter or nanny, but Priscilla
couldn’t choose the family for whom she worked, or her hours, and she had no wages.
Her dedication to raising Martha’s children was taken for granted, as an enslaved
woman was meant to be grateful to her owners for their paternalistic care of her.
References to slavery in MJR’s letter’s can be jarring for one looking for charming family
The early 18th century was also a scary time for mothers, as medical science was pretty
much guesswork and bleeding was considered a go-to cure for just about everything.
It was incredibly common for a mother to lose her child, and infancy and childhood
were particularly dangerous times. Losing a child was always a horrifying experience,
but due to its great frequency it was treated with a little bit more emotional distance.
In modern times it might seem strange, but when MJR’s third daughter, Ellen, died at a
year old, they just named the next daughter Ellen again.
MJR had 12 children total, 11 of whom survived to adulthood, which was astonishingly
lucky. She was not without her scares, though. In 1801 both Cornelia and Ellen came
down with a bad fever, which MJR thought might be caused by worms. She described it
to her father:
“It was a terrible moment. Ellen and Cornelia were particularly ill both delirious one
singing and laughing the other (Ellen) gloomy and terrified equally unconscious of the objects around them. My God what a moment for a Parent. The agonies of Mr.
Randolph’s mind seemed to call forth every energy of mine. I had to act in the double
capacity of nurse to my children and comforter to their Father.” MJR November 18,
By the next time Ellen was delirious with fever, MJR was capable of making a joke about
it. Apparently whenever Ellen wasn’t lost in feverish delirium, she was reading one
of the texts her grandfather had sent her. “Judge of my feelings My Dearest Father
at seeing her escaping me so rapidly and often when hanging over her in agonies
indescribable to have some question of natural history which she was reading at the
time addressed to me by the little sufferer the activity of whose mind even the most
acute bodily pain was never capable of subduing.” MJR to TJ July 12 1803
Flippancy aside however, MJR closes that particular letter by saying “I reflect with
horror upon that week that no language can paint.”
And so you can see how MJR’s letters paint a picture of what motherhood
was like back at the turn of the century. It’s tempting, as an historian, to focus on all
the things that make MJR’s experience similar to a modern one, but it’s important to
remember that she lived in an extremely different time. Parenting was a bit more gritty
back then, accompanied by the constant knowledge that your child could be taken
from you by illness at any time. If you were an enslaved mother, your child could be
taken from you by death, or at the whim of your owner, a daily reality for thousands of
parents at the time that is now unthinkable to a modern reader.
It’s wildly arrogant to pretend that the past is something that a modern person can ever
truly understand. But thanks to alternative ways of looking at history (looking at letters
that are ignored for their mundane nature, for instance) we can at the very least gain a
That said, I’m going to close with a common refrain at the end of MJR’s letters, which
has to sound familiar to some modern mothers out there.
“I must beg you to recollect that I write amidst the noises and confusion of six children
interrupted every moment by their questions, and so much disturbed by [their] pratling
around me that I catch my self repeatedly writing [their words] instead of my own
thoughts.” MJR to TJ Jan. 14, 1804
Darn noisy kids.
Katy Gehred is a pop-culture obsessed feminist who is too enthusiastic about too many things. Hobbies include co-editing this blog, knitting, smashing the patriarchy with a hammer, and nerdfighting. She is currently working on her master’s degree in Women’s History at Sarah Lawrence College, and if you have any questions at all about Thomas Jefferson, she is the person to contact.