Martha Jefferson Randoph, Daughter of Monticello: Her Life and Times by Cynthia A. Kierner (review)
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Martha Jefferson Randoph, Daughter of Monticello: Her Life and Times. By Cynthia A. Kierner. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012. Pp. x, 360. $35.00 cloth)

Martha Jefferson Randolph's father loomed large not only in her life but also in the way history has remembered her. Primarily discussed as Thomas Jefferson's daughter, Randolph's connection to her father seems to be her only historical relevance. But what if we put Randolph herself at the center of the story, no longer seeing her as just another way to learn more about Jefferson? In this wonderfully researched biography, Cynthia Kierner makes Randolph an important figure in her own right and reveals a woman who deftly handled both her demanding public roles as the hostess of the president's mansion and Monticello and a governor's wife, as well as her more domestic role of mistress of an enormous and complicated household that consisted of her own eleven children, her illustrious father, her troubled husband, a handful of relatives, and numerous slaves. As Kierner effectively demonstrates, while Randolph's life as the daughter of a president and the wife of a governor was extraordinary, her life as a plantation mistress and female head of a large household also made her very ordinary. Indeed, as Kierner convincingly argues, despite the title of the book, the day-to-day demands and challenges of Randolph's domestic life defined her more than her more famous role as Jefferson's daughter.

Though well-educated, intelligent, and extremely skillful in social [End Page 89] circles, Randolph did not wield a sharp wit nor was she given to fashionable display. Her reputation—even adoration—rested on her modesty, grace, and ability to put guests at ease. Yet, like so many other women of this era, none of these attributes saved her from a life of dependency on a volatile husband. While her marriage to Thomas Mann Randolph started as a loving one and did not fail solely because of Randolph's devotion to her father, as Kierner makes clear, Randolph had no real option (especially if she wanted to keep her children) other than doing the best she could to hold her marriage together, even if that meant living apart from her husband at times. Being a wife may have become difficult for Randolph, but she excelled at being a mother. Randolph relished her role as caregiver, teacher, and advisor to her many young children—a role that lasted her entire lifetime since she had her first at nineteen and the last at forty-six (another way Randolph was ordinary). In turn, her children made her—not their father or grandfather, as we may think—the center of their lives. The tender, yet strong bonds between this amazingly resilient mother and her adoring children emerge beautifully from Kierner's sources.

But even Kierner cannot make the details of Randolph's domestic life that fascinating, no matter how representative she was of plantation women of this era. The sections on births, illnesses, parenting, household arrangements, declining finances, and travel itineraries drag a bit. Ordinariness, even at Monticello, can be rather boring. It is instead the chapters on Randolph at her most extraordinary—mainly the time she spent in Paris in her teens and then in Washington, D.C., during her father's presidency and, later, Andrew Jackson's—that are the most interesting. Here, Kierner superbly shows how focusing on Randolph tells us much about the early republic. Randolph's years in Paris taught her to be "at ease and gracious with all sorts of people" and those skills would serve her incredibly well at home, too (p. 49). More importantly, Kierner persuasively shows how Randolph's actions, reputation, and mere presence in the capital helped Jefferson "manage his public image," especially during the Hemings scandal and the political tensions of his second administration, and also [End Page 90] "reshap[ed] Washington's official social life" (p. 110). Similarly, both Jackson and Martin Van Buren turned to their warm relationships with Randolph to link their administration with her father's and in order to serve "as the new standard-bearers...