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A "Good" Plantation Mistress:
Martha Jefferson Randolph and Slavery at Monticello
By Kathryn Gehred MA '13
Hundreds of different historians have described Martha Jefferson Randolph, Thomas Jefferson’s oldest daughter. Like many women, historians tend to pay her only cursory attention, and she is frequently described solely in terms of her appearance. Physical descriptions are not always complimentary. Dumas Malone, whose six-volume Jefferson and His Time is still considered one of the standard biographies of Jefferson, wrote that “descriptions emphasized the beauty of her character, not her person…” and called her “homely.”1 Family friend, Peachy R. Gilmer, described her as “tall, large, loosely made, and awkward; but her actions and manners are graceful, easy, and engaging; her face is not what would be esteemed beautiful, but her features are flexible and playful, and agreeable.”2
But what was Martha Jefferson Randolph actually like, aside from Thomas Jefferson’s homely but agreeable daughter? A description from Isaac Jefferson, an enslaved man who belonged to Thomas Jefferson and who Martha knew her entire life, is more illuminating. Martha, Isaac recalled, was “a mighty peaceable woman: never holler for servant: make no fuss nor racket: pity she ever died!”3 This description defines Martha Jefferson Randolph not by her physical appearance but by a different standard of femininity: her capability as a plantation mistress, and master of slaves.
Martha Jefferson Randolph was responsible for the housekeeping and management of her father’s famous Monticello home. Her position as plantation mistress kept her in daily contact with her father’s enslaved servants, while her status as a member of the Virginia gentry and daughter to one of the nation’s most famous statesmen kept her in the public eye. Rather than focus my thesis on Thomas Jefferson, whose feelings toward slavery have been closely discussed by hundreds of different historians, I have chosen to examine slavery from the perspective of his daughter. Jefferson’s awkward position as a public defender of liberty and a master of slaves was problematic even in his lifetime, and his daughter’s treatment of the enslaved servants under her authority at Monticello was critical to his (and her) reputation.4 Like her father, Martha Jefferson Randolph believed that slavery was a moral evil. Even so, like many slaveholders of her time, she placed the reputation and well-being of her white family above the needs of the enslaved. Examining how Martha Jefferson Randolph’s moral position on slavery changed and adjusted over the course of her life helps reveal the complexities and injustices of the institution of slavery, and early American history.
Martha Jefferson Randolph has been an anecdotal part of history for the same reason many women are marginalized; her work did not take place in the political sphere. Certainly, compared to her father’s political impact, her toil as mistress of a large plantation seems less significant. However, partially due to her father’s political stature, a huge number of Martha Jefferson Randolph’s letters and documents survive. They reveal a complex, intelligent, cleverly funny woman whose life would be worthy of historical comment regardless of the identity of her father. As a woman who lived and worked alongside enslaved people her entire life, her thoughts and musings on the institution of slavery are particularly illuminating.
In recent years, histories of Thomas Jefferson have begun to focus less on his political policies and more on his position as a slaveholder, although few of them have used Martha Jefferson Randolph as a prominent source. Ever since historian Fawn Brodie concluded that Jefferson had a sexual relationship with his enslaved servant Sally Hemings, historians have heatedly argued each side of the debate. Jefferson’s privileged status as a symbol of the United States made the question of his relationship with Sally Hemings particularly sensitive. As James Parton wrote in his 1874 biography of Thomas Jefferson, “If Jefferson is wrong, America is wrong. If America is right, Jefferson was right.”5 A number of Jefferson scholars began to pore through his personal papers and family letters, not for humanizing anecdotes, but for information on his relationship with his enslaved servants. DNA evidence published in 1997 that genetically linked a descendant of Sally Hemings to a Jefferson male brought the debate to a peak.6
The books and articles published in hot debate over Thomas Jefferson’s personal life have been polarizing, and most keep Martha Jefferson Randolph as a marginal figure. Books such as William G. Hyland’s 2009 In Defense of Thomas Jefferson: The Sally Hemings Sex Scandal argue that Thomas Jefferson was of too strong a moral character to have children with an enslaved woman. Clarence Earl Walker’s 2009 Mongrel Nation: The America Begotten by Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings painted Jefferson as a racist, a rapist, and emblem of the most shameful aspects of United States history. The 2012 Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves by Henry Weincek was highly critical of Jefferson when it came to slavery. He argued “Jefferson skillfully played both sides of the slavery question, maintaining his reputation as a liberal while doing nothing.”7 John Meachum’s book of the same year was more lenient. He wrote, “He was not all he could be. But no politician—no human being—ever is.”8
The contradictions within Jefferson’s writings add fuel to the fire. If one was to pick and choose only certain quotations from Thomas Jefferson regarding slavery, one can make him look like a deplorable racist or as an enlightened thinker, far ahead of his time. I have chosen two quotes, which, while lengthy, reveal the frustrating inconsistency of Jefferson’s writings. In his first draft of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson wrote of King George:
[He] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce.9
Describing African people as deserving the “sacred rights of life & liberty” would seem to imply an understanding of racial equality. However, about five years later in his Notes on the State of Virginia,Jefferson pondered at length on the differences between the races.
And is this difference [black skin] of no importance? Is it not the foundation of a greater or less share of beauty in the two races? Are not the fine mixtures of red and white, the expressions of every passion by greater or less suffusions of colour in the one, preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immoveable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race? Add to these, flowing hair, a more elegant symmetry of form, their own judgment in favour of the whites, declared by their preference of them, as uniformly as is the preference of the Oranootan for the black women over those of his own species. The circumstance of superior beauty, is thought worthy attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs, and other domestic animals; why not in that of man?10
Jefferson’s opinions on slavery shift too frequently for him to be the only trusted source on slavery at Monticello. Many scholars have moved away from what Jefferson wrote on the subject and studied the lives of individual enslaved people at Monticello, over whom Martha Jefferson Randolph had direct authority. Annette Gordon-Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family drew from underutilized sources from enslaved people and accepted Jefferson’s paternity of Hemings’ children as an established fact. She took the spotlight off Thomas Jefferson and placed it on the Hemings family, and by doing so revealed a more detailed and complex picture of life at Monticello than nearly any other source.11 Lucia Stanton’s close work with Thomas Jefferson’s memorandum books explained the realities of enslaved people’s lives, such as who was sold and when, which enslaved families received a salary and which did not, how much food people received, and so on. I argue that this body of work can be expanded on by a close examination of Martha Jefferson Randolph. She was the closest thing to a bridge between the daily life of the enslaved population of Monticello and the rarely seen master of the mountain.
Thomas Jefferson’s idealistic view of the world tended to create a distance between the reality of his life and his writings on the way the world should be. Martha Jefferson Randolph, his daughter, was in charge of the household of Monticello in a more “hands-on” capacity. Jefferson’s wife died quite young, and Jefferson never remarried, so his daughter was left in charge of his plantation as well as her husband’s lands. Jefferson’s granddaughter Ellen recollected that Martha’s “Sundays then were chiefly occupied with receiving colored visitors from all grandpapa’s other plantations that were within walking distance. They came sometimes, to ask small favors, or complain of small grievances, to see and talk to Mistress. ...”12 Thomas Jefferson wrote a great deal about slavery, but he was not the man to whom enslaved people came with their questions and grievances. An examination of Martha’s changing views and attitudes about slavery, as well as her treatment of the people “in her care” show how slavery actually operated at Monticello, rather than how Thomas Jefferson felt it ought to operate.
The running of the plantation was a very visible element of what was, at the time, “white woman’s work.” According to Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, “convention declared that the household responsibilities of slaveholding women were natural extensions of their personal relations as wives, mothers, and daughters, all of whom answered to a master who was husband or father.”13 In his 1892 book Plantation Life Before Emancipation,R.Q. Mallard wrote that “over the house-servants, the mistress had co-ordinate authority; indeed, the master seldom interfered in the domestic rule, save when called upon to assist.”14 This responsibility was a source of pride for white plantation mistresses, but also created the opportunity for public humiliation if they proved to be an incapable manager of enslaved people.
I am not the first author to look at Martha Jefferson Randolph as someone of historical significance. In recent years, Cynthia Kierner has made wonderful advances in the women’s history at Monticello, publishing the microhistory Scandal at Bizarre: Rumor and Reputation in Jefferson’s America in 2004, and the first full-length biography of Martha Jefferson Randolph, Martha Jefferson Randolph, Daughter of Monticello: Her Life and Times in 2012. Both of Kierner’s works provide an excellent analysis of the code of honor of the Virginia gentry. However, while both works discuss the subject of slavery, it is the sole topic of neither. Virginia Scharff’s The Women Jefferson Loved provided a brief discussion of many of the women in Jefferson’s life, including both of Thomas Jefferson’s daughters, but Martha Jefferson Randolph receives only a chapter of analysis.
Using these works along with the phenomenally useful Papers of Thomas Jefferson and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation’s Family Letters Digital Archive has provided a strong basis for a work on the intricacies of slavery at Monticello, as perceived and shaped by Martha Jefferson Randolph. A close examination of Martha Jefferson Randolph’s life, as revealed by letters written not only to her father but to the rest of her family as well, show that while Martha was morally opposed to slavery in theory, deeply set racism and the grim realities of the institution flavored almost every interaction between Martha and her enslaved servants. …
Martha Jefferson Randolph was capable of both kindness and cruelty when it came to the enslaved people in her care. Like her father, she understood that slavery was a moral evil. However, in practice, steeped in debt, within a deeply racist culture, and with limited power over her own circumstances, Martha Jefferson Randolph eventually accepted the institution of slavery as a problem beyond her solving. Like a plantation mistress wrote in 1860, Martha Jefferson Randolph’s problems “beset many a well-intentioned mistress who, like me, does nothing because she cannot do what she feels she ought.”15 The slow process of how Martha came to this final resignation reveals the moral ambiguities that affected even the most seemingly conscientious white slaveholders. Martha Jefferson Randolph’s life shows these complexities with unique clarity.
Dumas Malone, Jefferson and the Rights of Man, vol. 2 of Jefferson and His Time (Boston: Little, Brown, 1948), 251.
2 Francis Walker Gilmer, in Correspondence of Thomas Jefferson and Francis Walker Gilmer, 1814-1826, ed. Richard Beale Davis(Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1946), 373.
3 Isaac Jefferson, Memoirs of A Monticello Slave, The Thomas Jefferson Papers, Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA.
4 As overuse of the word “slaves” can be generalizing and dehumanizing to the people it describes, I choose to alternate between the words “slaves,” “enslaved servants,” and “enslaved people.”
6 Eric S. Lander, and Joseph J. Ellis, “Founding Father,” Nature 396, no. 6706: 13
7 Henry Wiencek, Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2012) Conclusion, Kindle Edition.
8 John Meachum, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power (New York: Random House, 2012), Epilogue, Kindle edition.
9 Thomas Jefferson, Jefferson’s “original Rough draught” of the Declaration of Independence, Julian P. Boyd ed., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950), 1:426.
10 Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, in Thomas Jefferson: Writings, ed. Merrill D. Peterson (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 1984), 265.
11 Annette Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company, 2008), 32.
12 Lucia Stanton, “Those Who Labor for My Happiness” Slavery at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, (Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2012), 113.
13 Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Within the Plantation Household (Chapel Hill & London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1988), 192.
14 R. Q. Mallard, Plantation Life Before Emancipation (Richmond VA.: Whittet and Shepperson, 1892), 39, http://docsouth.unc.edu/fpn/mallard/mallard.html#Mallard38, accessed February 25, 2013.
15 Eugene D. Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York: Pantheon Books, 1974), 564.