Her Life and Times
Cynthia A. Kierner
Julia Cherry Spruill Prize Southern Association of Women Historians
Books on the founding fathers abound, but there are few opportunities to see the early history of the US through the eyes of a woman of their times. The life of Martha Jefferson Randolph, the oldest child of Thomas and Martha Wayles Jefferson and the only one to survive to adulthood, offers that perspective and it sheds new light on the otherwise familiar history of the times.
Martha “Patsy” Jefferson was left completely in her father’s care after her mother died in 1782. She was welll educated under his guidance and was his hostess during his service in Paris as Minister to France and would serve as the lady of the President’s House in the winter of 1802-1803. Yet, as mistress of a large household, she was not spared the tedium, frustration, and great sorrow that most women of her time faced. Though Patsy’s name is familiar because of her famous father, Kierner is the first historian to place Patsy at the center of her own story, taking readers into the largely ignored private spaces of the founding era. Randolph’s life story reveals the privileges and limits of celebrity and shows that women were able to venture beyond their domestic roles in surprising ways.
Her marriage to Thomas Mann Randolph, a member of Congress and governor of Virginia, was often troubled. She and her eleven children lived mostly at Monticello, greeting famous guests and debating issues ranging from a woman’s place to slavery, religion, and democracy. And later, after her family’s financial ruin, Patsy became a fixture in Washington society during Andrew Jackson’s presidency.
In Martha Jefferson Randolph, Daughter of Monticello, historian Cynthia A. Kierner seeks to draw Martha Jefferson Randolph out of the shadow of her remarkable father. Randolph’s story offers the opportunity to re-examine the well-known history of America’s founding era from the perspective of an unusally well suited observer.