A posthumous portrait of Martha Jefferson Randolph
One consistent factor among those adult and married “First Daughters” who assumed all or several of the different roles carried out by a “First Lady,” when their mother was either unable or unwilling to do so or had died before the presidency, is how exceedingly close to the President they are in terms of both private, emotional support in private and public, political defense.
In the case of Martha Jefferson Randolph, she played a central role not only in her father’s presidency but throughout his entire life from the moment her mother died in 1782, when she was 33 years old. Among “First Daughters,” she may well have been the most important one.
Martha Jefferson Randolph, a portrait owned by the Monticello Foundation.
History has both overestimated and underestimated the importance of the daughter whom third President Thomas Jefferson always called “Patsy.”
Of the eight social seasons which ran from approximately October to May that her father spent in the White House, Patsy Randolph lived with him there for a period of only two social seasons.
It was through the letters they exchanged and the conversations they had during their time together at home in Virginia, however, which permitted Patsy Randolph to provide the President with emotional support and personal encouragement during his trials as President.
At the time of his inauguration on March 4, 1801 Jefferson had been a widower for two decades, his beloved wife, the former Martha Wayles, having died after the birth of their sixth child. Two of their children lived to adulthood but only one of these would outlive her father, the eldest of them all, Patsy, who was born on September 27, 1772.
A late 19th century drawing depicted young Martha Randolph serving as her father’s hostess at a dinner for George Washington.
The other daughter who lived to see him become President was Maria Eppes, who he always called Polly. She died at age 26, seven months before he was re-elected to a second term in 1804.
During Jefferson’s presidency, his adult daughters continued to live their lives as mothers and managers of Virginia plantations located near his estate Monticello, where they had both been born and raised.
Their husbands Thomas Mann Randolph and John Eppes did live in the White House with their father-in-law during the periods they represented Virginia, serving as members of Congress.
Jefferson never perceived the absence of a woman fulfilling an official capacity in his household as a deficit.
He had long been accustomed to serving as the lone host of private dinner parties during his diplomatic service in France, as Secretary of State under George Washington in New York and Philadelphia and as Vice President to John Adams in Philadelphia.
Martha Wayles Jefferson.
As President, he assumed full control of his public and private entertaining, tailoring the rules and protocol, the menus and wines, the guest lists and the ceremonial formalities to his specific ideals of democracy. When there were women guests in attendance at his dinners, President Jefferson did determine that a woman representing the Administration with some official rank should be present.
Dolley Madison, painted by George Catlin.
Since his Vice President Aaron Burr was also a widower, it was Dolley Madison, the wife of his close friend and highest-ranking Cabinet member Secretary of State James Madison, on whom he depended. Intermittently, she fulfilled two official roles in the Jefferson Administration: she was given the highest rank bestowed on an unelected figure and woman simply by the status of being the official escort of the President at formal dinners and she appeared to welcome women at the large, open-house events like New Year’s Day and Independence Day, where the public citizens were invited to meet the President.
Dolley Madison also served as a guide to life in the new and still developing capital city for Patsy Randolph when she made her first visit there, a year after her father’s 1801 Inauguration, which she did not attend. During her 1902 stay, she was accompanied by her sister Polly Eppes.
She also was absent from his second Inauguration, in March of 1805 but followed her pattern of coming to live with him in the White House a year later, during the 1806 social season.
Jefferson, Martha, his grandchildren and a woman slave depicted at Monticello by artist G B McIntosh on the Monticello website.
During that second visit, she gave birth on January 17, 1806 to her eight child, James Madison Randolph; thus he became the first child born in the White House.
Four of her children were born during the time her father served as President, from 1801 to 1809: Virginia, Mary, James and and Benjamin.
As a testament to the intensity of the bond between them, it was her father and not her husband who Martha Jefferson Randolph asked to name each of her one dozen children.
In fact, the one attribute which seemed to mark her otherwise uneventful time in the White House was the presence of her many children.
Superficially, the absence of women in the Jefferson White House might make as good an argument as any that a presidency can be entirely successful without the presence of a First Lady.
Anne Randolph, Patsy Randolph’s eldest child, born in 1791. (Monticello)
Such an argument, however, would fail to consider the more important role which Patsy Randolph played for the President in private, through personal correspondence.
Patsy Randolph spent almost his entire time in the White House at either Monticello or the Virginia plantation, “Edgehill” of her husband. Largely through their correspondence, but also during his lengthy visits home, Patsy Randolph became her father’s comfort and close adviser, perhaps the single most important personal factor that stabilized him during his presidency.
A colorized engraving of Martha Randolph.
When the newspaper story that Jefferson and his half-sister-in-law and Monticello slave Sally Hemings had children out of wedlock was first widely reprinted in the first weeks of 1802, Patsy Randolph may have served a political purpose: she immediately joined her troubled father in Washington, along with her children Ellen and Jeff, and her sister Polly, as a sign of family unity. The usually non-church going Jefferson also suddenly began publicly appearing at the Sunday religious services then held in the hall of Congress, always politically shielded by the presence of his two daughters and two grandchildren.
A minature of Martha Jefferson Randolph before her marriage, painted in France. (US State Department
During her father’s long stays home at his Monticello plantation, Patsy Randolph received his guests, both public and private, as his official hostess and helped to manage the family tableaux which she and her children provided for the President as a form of political appeal.
The intensity of the bond between Jefferson and his daughter had begun in the days following his wife’s death when young Patsy was the only family member with whom he would initially speak and spend time with alone.
Becoming constant companions, her emotional support to him continued when she went to live with him in France for his first diplomatic mission.
Patsy’s husband, Thomas Mann Randolph.
Although she was placed in the Abbye Royale de Panthemont Catholic convent school and taught by French nuns, he continued to focus on her development with exacting instructions by letter. When she considered converting to Catholicism, however, he moved her to his residence where she presided as a young hostess.
Upon returning to the United States, she wed Thomas Mann Randolph on February 23, 1790 and began a tumultuous marriage with a husband often given to irrational rages, heavy drinking and mental illness.
Martha Randolph depicted in a full-length portrait which appeared in work by collector Stephan Lorant.
Part of the problem may have been Patsy’s greater loyalty to her father. Her life at Monticello and admiration for her father, however, also had its complications.
As mistress of Monticello, she also directed the domestic staff of enslaved people which included Sally Hemings, who was the half-sister of Patsy’s mother.
While she never remarked openly on the claim that she had several half-siblings who were the children of Jefferson and Hemings, Patsy Randolph viewed slavery as evil for its horrific effect of breaking up families, but when her own family finances began to falter she felt she had no choice but to sell humans held as slaves.
Martha Randolph in later life. (Monticello)
Following the death of her father in 1826, Patsy Randolph had to sell Monticello to pay off his heavy debts.
Her husband died two years later and she went to initially live with her married daughter Ellen in Boston.
She later lived with another daughter in Washington, D.C. and was a frequent and honored guest of President Andrew Jackson at the White House. As a tribute to her father, the state legislatures of both South Carolina and Louisiana eventually awarded her gifts totaling $2,000, which she needed to live on.
Two years before her 1836 death, Martha Randolph added a special codicil to her will, ensuring that Sally Hemings be given her freedom from slavery, but she would remain a slave, dying a year before Jefferson’s daughter.