Martha Jefferson Randolph, Thomas Jefferson, Monticello, Virginia
As Cynthia Kierner makes clear in this marvelously rich, sensitive, and well-researched study, Martha Jefferson Randolph was much more than Thomas Jefferson’s daughter. A mother to twelve children, her roles also included those of sister, wife, plantation mistress, teacher, Executive Mansion hostess, and grandmother. After her father’s death in 1826, she served as a living and much sought-after representative of the founding father who continued to define her life. This finely detailed portrait—the first full biography of Randolph—reflects Kierner’s dual and sometimes dueling desires to spotlight a remarkably self-possessed individual while also presenting an accurate picture of how she nonetheless never quite emerged from the shadow of the man who, more than any other, provided her with identity, status, and sense of purpose. As Kierner admits, “Jefferson is omnipresent here, just as he was in Martha’s life.” Yet “this is Martha’s story,” and Kierner places it within “a broad historical context because the fact that she was a female member of the Virginia gentry [End Page 290] and the mother of many children shaped her life at least as much as her relationship to her famous father” (14).
By virtually any standard, Randolph was exceptional. She knew four languages. She had traveled to Europe. She formed friendships with first ladies such as Dolley Madison, who shared her social savvy, and first daughters such as Abigail “Nabby” Adams, who after meeting young Martha in France described her as a “sweet girl” notable for her “amiable and lovely manners” (51). Kierner points out that Randolph not only possessed a physical resemblance to her father but, in terms of mental aptitude and agility, an intellectual one as well. No doubt Jefferson felt proud to present her as his daughter in Washington, DC, where, in the absence of her late mother, at social occasions she sometimes served as his substitute wife. At times her presence proved invaluable. In 1802, after journalist James Thomson Callender committed to print rumors that Jefferson had fathered children through Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman at Monticello, Randolph’s presence helped to minimize the damage. “Jefferson must have hoped,” Kierner writes, that being accompanied by his daughter “at public worship and official dinners would tacitly discredit Callender’s charges” (119). This seems to have been the case. If nothing else, Randolph was in the right places at the right times to minimize gossip that might have otherwise done more to undermine Jefferson’s presidency.
But Kierner’s book examines more than Randolph’s participation in parlor politics. It also situates her within the plantation household. In this more ordinary environment Randolph appears much less extraordinary. Although she had misgivings about slavery and viewed herself as a benevolent plantation mistress, Kierner makes clear that Randolph “put the financial interests of herself and her children ahead of the happiness of her slaves” (252). Her marriage to Thomas Mann Randolph, who served as Virginia governor from 1819 to 1822, resulted in some happiness and no small amount of hardship. His persistent indebtedness combined with her divided loyalties to add stress to their marriage, which was marked by periods of extended separation. Her life was hardly a fairytale. It was not merely with her father and husband that she frequently found herself forced to make choices guaranteed to please one but alienate another. Sometimes she even revealed her own displeasure. When her son-in-law, Charles Bankhead, beat her daughter, Anne, Randolph suggested “that the best way to deal with her son-in-law would be ‘to hire a keeper for him to prevent him from doing mischief, and let him [End Page 291] finish him self at once’ by drinking himself to death” (168–69). No matter how charming she may have seemed in social settings, and no matter how charmed her life may have appeared to outsiders, the more private aspects of this public woman’s life call to mind...