Upon the twilight of Thomas Jefferson’s life a bright glow was cast by his young grandchildren. Their presence was like the late afternoon sunshine that flashed on the long windows of Monticello and gilded the western portico. Soon he must bid “a long, long goodnight,” as he said, to his daughter Martha and her children. Night would fall on Monticello too. Yet for a few years more, under the Persian willows on the lawn, the shrill voices of little boys, the quick footsteps and laughter of young girls in short-waisted, ankle-length dresses, gave warmth and color to the mountaintop.
Surrounded by these children of Martha Jefferson and Thomas Mann Randolph, the master of Monticello felt like a patriarch of old. There were four young ladies, Ellen, Cornelia, Virginia, and Mary; a little sister, Septimia; and four small brothers, boys whose names sound like a roll call of American heroes: James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, Meriwether Lewis, and George Wythe. Anne and Jefferson, the two eldest, had married and left Monticello. Of the nine remaining, Ellen most resembled her grandfather; she had the fair Jefferson coloring, even temper, and intellectual tastes. But Virginia Randolph was, as Ellen herself said, “the darling of her family.”
A pencil sketch of Virginia made by a cousin in 1822, a portrait entitled “La Belle Ginilla,” shows her in profile at the age of twenty-one. Her dark hair is dressed in a high chignon, “a la Grecque,” with curls at the temples, and the collar of her Empire gown is finished with a stiff ruff. Above the round chin that rises from this ruff her small mouth is curved in a faintly satirical smile. The talent for satire that she reveals in her letters was a Randolph trait; but in the warmth and constancy of her affections she was Jefferson’s own granddaughter. She waited six years to marry Nicholas Philip Trist, a young Louisianan without money or prospects. His family were old friends of Thomas Jefferson’s, and Nicholas and his brother Browse stopped at Monticello in 1818 on their way north to get an education. Nicholas was handsome and spirited. Soon after he left to become a cadet at West Point, Browse wrote him that “Miss V. appeared somewhat affected the day after your departure.”
Browse Trist stayed on at Monticello, waiting for the University of Virginia to open. After a month or so he became discouraged and enrolled in Dr. Stack’s Classic School in the neighboring village of Charlottesville. He was still able, however, to send Nicholas news of Mr. Jefferson and the Randolphs. Every weekend five or six boys from the Classic School with their knapsacks trudged up the mountain to Monticello; every Saturday night, with Mr. Jefferson’s warm approval, they danced with the girls in the south pavilion to the music of a Negro fiddler.
Towards the end of the summer of 1819 an escapade by the boys offended their host. As Browse put it, they “performed a feat” at their boarding house in Charlottesville “which displeased the old patriarch very much.” Their landlord, “a thin mean looking frenchman” named LaPorte, was unfortunately a protege of Mr. Jefferson, “who had eaten some soup at his house and immediately concluded that he would be the very man to introduce the French way of living.” The boys did not share the old patriarch’s opinion of LaPorte’s cooking. To show their disapproval, seven of them, “after getting pretty toocy” on wine spiked with whiskey, stoned the Frenchman’s house. LaPorte “went prancing up to Monticello in his wrath” and Mr. Jefferson wrote notes to the students desiring not to be honored with their company. “We were all in the fidgets for two or three days, between the fear of being prosecuted and, what was a thousand times worse, Mr. J’s anger.” Mrs. Randolph, however, intervened on behalf of the boys and Mr. Jefferson relented.
The gay dances at Monticello continued, but at West Point Nicholas was unhappy. He anxiously inquired whether Virginia had changed in her feelings toward him. Browse assured him in the summer of 1820 that his chance for success was good; “but it passes my comprehension how you are to support a wife. Little assistance, I imagine, will flow from this quarter as the parties are considerably in debt, and as for your going into the army and marrying while only a lieutenant, it is summum ridiculum.”
Nevertheless, Nicholas obtained a furlough the following summer and returned to Monticello, resplendent in the black plume, high stock, and gray uniform of a cadet. When he proposed to Virginia and was accepted, the family offered no objection, although an early marriage was out of the question. Virginia’s father was hopelessly in debt and Thomas Jefferson had just lost twenty thousand dollars as security for a friend, a staggering loss to a man whose long years of public service had caused him to neglect his private fortunes. It was decided that Nicholas should abandon his army career and go to Louisiana to live with his mother and stepfather while he studied law. He left Monticello in the fall of 1821 and did not return until the summer of 1824. During this period Virginia wrote to him two or three times a month.
In her letters reporting on the everyday life of Thomas Jefferson and his family she complained that she was “moored on top of the mountain”; but Jefferson’s mountain-top was an excellent vantage point from which to observe the America of the 1820’s. The visitors, famous or obscure, reverent or merely curious, who ascended the mountain in carriages or gigs, on horseback or on foot, came from every section of the young nation. South American heroes arrived to pay tribute to “the gran Jefferson” and European scholars brought him the latest scientific news from abroad. As background to this varied procession there was always the solid provincial society of Albemarle County. With the quiet observation and demure humor of a Jane Austen, Virginia describes the scene, defying the conventions of the day by “saying exactly what I think even when writing to a gentleman (monstrous indecorum in itself).”
Virginia’s world revolved around her grandfather and her mother. The sweet, resolute face under the frilled cap of the tall, middle-aged woman resembled strikingly the serene countenance of the tall, spare old man whose graying sandy hair fell over his old-fashioned white stock; under the same reserve of manner were hidden their ever-young idealism and their tender hearts. Virginia was passionately attached to both of them. “In a separation of any length from Mama,” she wrote Nicholas, “I can scarcely trust myself to think of her without the tears coming into my eyes.” As to Mr. Jefferson, she could never describe “the feelings of veneration, admiration and love that existed in my heart towards him.”
Since her father, Thomas Mann Randolph, was eccentric and unstable, Mr. Jefferson took the place of a father to his granddaughters. Ellen’s gold watch came from him, Cornelia’s first silk dress, and Virginia’s Spanish guitar. Long after his death Virginia remembered a charming incident. “One day I was passing hastily through the glass door from the hall to the portico; there was a broken pane which caught my muslin dress and tore it sadly. Grandpapa was standing by and saw the disaster. A few days after, he came into mamma’s sitting-room with a bundle in his hand, and said to me, ‘I have been mending your dress for you.’ He had himself selected for me another beautiful dress.”
Concern for Grandpapa’s health is manifested throughout Virginia’s letters. For a man of his age Mr. Jefferson led an active and often hazardous life. Still a fearless horseman, he rode his fine bay horse, Eagle, every day, even when he was so old and weak that he had to mount from the portico or be helped into the saddle. In November, 1822, he fell down a flight of steps leading from the terrace and broke his arm. Disdaining an inactive life—”the life of a cabbage,” he called it—he continued to visit his plantation workshops and his garden and to ride to his farms and his mill dam.
Once this intrepidity nearly cost him his life. “We all had a dreadful shock,” wrote Virginia, “at an accident which was near proving fatal to my dear Grand-Father the other day in the river; and are more miserable than ever at his persisting in the practice of riding without a servant to attend him, while his arm is still in a sling and quite helpless. His horse mired in the river and fell, confining Grand-Papa’s legs under him, and although not hurt by that, he would inevitably have been drowned had not the rapidity of the current carried him down to a much shallower place, where by reaching the bottom of the river with his hand he was enabled to rise on his feet & get out.”
It was an accident that might well have been fatal to a man of eighty; yet the old statesman’s only remorse for his imprudence arose from his “decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” According to Virginia, he said that “it would have been thought by every one that visited the spot, if he had been drowned, that he had committed suicide.”
In cold weather he often made long journeys over mountain roads. His frequent trips to his beloved Natural Bridge —”so beautiful an arch, so elevated, so light, and springing as it were up to heaven”—meant five or six days in the saddle, and one winter day his family was distressed to learn that he had spent “two cold days at the Natural Bridge without the protection even of a great coat, for he had forgotten to take his with him.” A year later Virginia was alarmed because “he actually contemplates a journey to Bedford late in December.”
The visits several times a year to Poplar Forest, Mr.
Jefferson’s farm in Bedford County, were dreaded for more reasons than Grandfather’s health. Two or three of the girls were always “packed off,” as they expressed it, with him. Grandpapa wrapped them in his furs when they set off in the cool air of early morning and he sang as they journeyed along in the jolting carriage, but the three-day trip was tedious and Poplar Forest was dull, for Mr. Jefferson allowed no company there. One of his reasons for going was to get away from the crowd of tourists—”the curious and impertinent mob,” Virginia called it—who wandered about the grounds at Monticello for seven or eight months of the year, staring at the author of the Declaration of Independence as if he were a national monument. Once a woman broke a windowpane with her parasol in order to get a better view of him.
Yet the girls missed at Poplar Forest the society of the many interesting and agreeable men and women who came to Monticello. Nicholas’s jealousy was probably aroused when Virginia described the visit of a young hero of the Spanish-American Revolution, “a charming South American, who has been ingratiating himself in our hearts for several days past; Mr. Mirolla has that fine Spanish style of beauty.” Another “handsome and genteel” visitor was Mr. Dodge, the American consul at Marseilles, who seemed more like a Frenchman than an American—”french or italian words dropt so gracefully from between white teeth and rosy lips.” A young Virginian who had just returned from Europe was amusing, but “he talks incessantly, no doubt even in his sleep. ‘Good Gods! ‘tis like a rolling river, That murmuring flows, and flows forever!’ . . . I heard Grand-Papa and Sister Ellen agree that he would be more agreable when the gloss of Europe was a little worn off.”
Some of the visitors who most interested Mr. Jefferson bored the girls. “Mr. Coffin, a snuffling Englishman or Irishman, has lately stolen Grand-Papa’s affections by his profound learning, but really his dismal name, and the cold in his head hardened my heart completely.” Another savant who came to pay his respects to the great man was an English astronomer who was traveling about the country with five wagons of “astronomical apparatus.” The oddest of all was a geologist, Mr. Finch, a grandson of the famous Dr. Joseph Priestley. “Mr. Finch is making his tour of our country mostly on foot, with his wardrobe wrapt in a newspaper,” wrote Virginia. During his stay at Monticello “he was heard to articulate no sound that the ‘wild man of the woods’ could not have been taught to imitate, and . . . he resembled that species more than the human, in person and address.”
Virginia and her sisters were excited one spring by the prospect of a visit from Martin Van Buren, who had been very attentive to Sister Ellen when she spent a season in Washington. It was rumored that Senator Van Buren (unlike poor Mr. Finch) had “rank, fortune, talents, and math new; everything that the heart of man or woman can desire.” But in her next letter Virginia reported her disillusionment: “Mr. V. B. was disappointed in his intended visit to Grand-Papa, but Papa saw him in Richmond and from him we heard that this youth of 45, whom I wasted so much ink and paper upon in my last letter to you, has red whiskers! ! ! ! Ye Gods! and since that I find all that we hear’d of him was an exageration of this medling, talkative world.”
Sometimes the meetings of the Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia afforded the girls a great deal of amusement. At the October meeting in 1823, “one of the sage members of this little assembly had just married a comely widow on the wrong side of thirty, and such courting, and languishing, I am convinced,” wrote Virginia, “could not have been carried on between more unexperienced lovers. But he was a widower, and had all necessary oaths & looks by rote. We were all extremely amused, and Cornelia says that when they parted at the University, she to return here with the other ladies of the party and he to enter the conclave there, she threw herself back in the carriage, and with a deep sigh exclaimed ‘In a short time four miles will separate Mr. Loyall and myself, and it is the first time since our marriage! “
When the University Visitors met, Dolly Madison usually accompanied the little ex-President to Monticello. Although she did not sleep well in Mr. Jefferson’s ingenious built-in beds, once admitting that she preferred the four-posters at Mr. Monroe’s to “lodging in the recesses at Monticello,” the girls remarked on “the constant sunshine of mind which she seems to enjoy.” Less easy to entertain was Dolly’s son, Payne Todd. Arriving at Monticello with his stepfather, he was detained there three days by bad weather. “I really expect,” Virginia reported, “that poor Mr. Todd will hang himself if it rains again tomorrow . . . and we have not time to employ in vain endeavours to amuse this unhappy victim of ennui, and consequently he is left to his fate which appears to hang upon the weather-cock.”
Victims of ennui received little sympathy from the girls at Monticello, who were kept too busy to be infected by what Mr. Jefferson called “the most dangerous poison of life.” Aside from strangers who might stay overnight, or for a week, the house was generally full of relatives and friends, one of whom once observed that “with the family we seldom sit down to table fewer than twenty, beside those who eat at a side table.” Virginia and her three sisters each took over the housekeeping for a month, in rotation. She complained of “the hardships of keeping house” and described herself to Nicholas “seated upon my throne in the kitchen, with a cookery book in my hand.” At other times she made her own dresses, wrote letters for her grandfather, and tried to educate herself.
Mrs. Randolph, whose education had been carefully supervised by Mr. Jefferson, had little time to instruct her daughters. The course of studies prescribed for them by their grandfather was not easy: the histories of Greece and Rome; French, astronomy, and music. Virginia struggled alone through “Moliere’s provokingly difficult plays” and had to overcome “the drowsiness and stupor brought on by reading the ‘Macedonian wars’ in Livy.” As to the harpsichord, she wrote Nicholas that Grandpapa “has spoken to me until I believe he thinks his advice thrown away.” She practiced “Auld Lang Syne” and “The Haunted Tower” because they were Nicholas’s favorite pieces, but she despaired of attaining a “bold touch” on Mama’s “old rattle trap” of a harpsichord.
She was often tempted from her lessons by the arrival at Monticello of the latest novel of James Fenimore Cooper or Sir Walter Scott or the tales of Maria Edgeworth, and it was hard to study in a house full of guests and noisy children. Grandpapa’s library was sacred to him. There was always some member of the family or a visitor in the drawing room or the great hall whose walls, lined with mounted animal heads and Indian curiosities, gave it the air of a museum. At one time the boys were saying their Latin to Grandpapa and learning French with Mama, and Virginia wrote, “You may imagine the degree of quiet reigning during the time in the house.” From this confusion she at last found a refuge. “Do you recollect,” she asked Nicholas, “the place over the parlour Portico into which the dome room opened? Since the columns to the portico have been completed, Grand-Papa has had the great work bench removed from it and a floor layed.” Furnishing it with a sofa, chairs, and tables, “I have taken possession with the dirt daubers, wasps & bumble bees; and do not intend to give it up to anything but the formidable rats which have not yet found out this fairy palace.”
In this “nice little cuddy” she had leisure to reflect on the disadvantages of being a woman in the year 1823. Nicholas could not deny, she wrote, that men had more independence than women “and that to devote your lives, from the time you are capable of learning, to the cultivation of your talents, is more agreahle than sewing or keeping house, and carrying on a few studies unassisted and constantly liable to interruption.” She felt more than ever rebellious when she watched, through Grandpapa’s telescope, the building, down below, of the University of Virginia. Grandpapa as usual was “thinking & hoping on the subject of the University.” But because Virginia was a girl its doors were closed to her.
She speculated whether the difference in their education accounted for the apparent superiority of men to women in intellect and talents. “With regard to rights” wrote this young feminist, “you know might makes them.” Once she received unexpected support from a visitor to Monticello, a gentleman “whose extraordinary sentiments on the subject of the female sex, render him an eighth wonder of the world. He says that he learnt at school to esteem their talents greatly above that of his own sex; that he thinks they would be more eminent as lawyers and statesmen. . . . I asked him if he would like to see a lady President of the United States, and he said ‘Yes’l” Virginia was honest enough to add: “I should have been in extacies with this Phenue, but I was a little annoyed by the fumes of wine”
When she took “the well trodden field, in behalf of the well worn and fought for cause of the merits & demeritsrights and privileges &c. of the sexes,” she cited the “sad life” of the few girls she knew who were self-supporting. They were all schoolteachers. “It is one of the disadvantages of being a woman,” she wrote, “there is no profession open for them, and those who have not affectionate friends to burthen, or rich ones to depend upon, are thrown in the wide world without choice to take in work or keep school.”
To all of this Nicholas returned flowery compliments upon the ladies, but in his heart he no more believed in the equality of the sexes than did any other Southern boy of his generation. Several instances of female folly were given him by Virginia herself. Mrs. Tobias Watkins, the wife of the family physician at Monticello, was jealous of her husband’s patients and at one time “fancied the Doctor had the keeping of her breath, and that if he left her side for a moment she should suffocate.” The vaporings and fainting fits so fashionable in that romantic age were ridiculed by the “modern” girls of Monticello. Once when Ellen wrote that she had been suffering from “one of those ‘maladies de langueur’ so common in our country & climate,” she added, “I would not have you suppose from this that I am giving myself any fine lady airs, I will assure you that there are no shrieks, nor fits, nor tears, nor tremblings in the case, I have ‘executed no elegant outrages’ nor excited one spark of ‘tender admiration’ by my ‘fascinating weaknesses,’ “
Such “sensibility” seems to have been carried to an extreme by Miss Mary Terrell, who lived near Charlottesville. One day Virginia, driving down the highway in a carriage, saw Mary standing by the side of the road apparently weeping into her handkerchief. A few days later she asked the reason for this “very sentimental occurence.” In reply “Mary vowed she only hid her face with her handkerchief because she thought the passengers were strangers.” Virginia’s comment was “Dear sensibility, 0 la!”
Capricious Mrs. Watkins induced her husband to emigrate to Tennessee, and his practice was taken over by Dr. Kean of Louisa County, who had some difficulty in persuading his wife to move to Albemarle. She had “conceived so formidable an idea of the fashion & splendour of Albemarle, that being herself rather homespun in her tastes,” she would not at first consent. Mrs. Kean’s backwoods ideas seemed ridiculous to Virginia, who had spent a winter or two in Richmond. At a Washington’s Birthday Ball in Charlottesville to which “Mama packed off Cornelia, Mary and myself, in spite of our entreaties not to be sent to such a ‘rowdy’ party,” the “squeaking and scraping of the fiddles and deafening clink of the triangle” seemed noisy after the flutes and violins of Richmond, and in a boisterous reel one of the village beaux “was very near pushing me over.”
The Randolph girls, accustomed to the society of such cosmopolitans as Mr. Mirolla and Mr. Dodge, were amused by the euphemisms of some of the country squires of the neighborhood. When Virginia wrote Nicholas that her sister-in-law had been suffering from a pain in her hip, she added “dear! I ought to have said foot like Col. Carr.” Another colonel who was traveling in Louisiana wrote back that he had seen Nicholas and Browse, that they were “the finest young men he had ever known” and that their young sister “was the most perfectly beautiful & graceful little creature in the world.” Virginia slyly remarked, “I hope you will both ‘scratch his head’ a little in recompence for this. Do not be affronted, the simile of the ass was only intended for him.”
She wrote Nicholas very frankly that she had “no particu-lar penchant for any of our neighbours, although I would gladly do anything in my power to remove the prejudices that many of them entertain against us.” Prejudices were perhaps naturally felt against these young ladies of the mountain, who were thought to look down, figuratively as well as literally, on the little village below. In the June following the Washington’s Birthday Ball, Virginia wrote that the Monticello girls had become “outcasts in society” because they had refused invitations to several parties.
The more pious members of the community were offended because Mr. Jefferson’s family did not appear in Charlottesville more regularly on winter Sundays at the Episcopal services in the Court House. The rector, Mr. Hatch, “has become excessively solicitous about the salvation of us all, which I suppose he thinks endanger’d by the bad roads and weather that have prevented our attending public worship. . . . Poor Mama will certainly be damned for we intend to exert the remnant of our authority to keep her from sitting several hours in that ‘cold and pitiless Labrador’ the Court House.”
Enforced absence from the Reverend Mr. Hatch’s sermons was borne philosophically. But the cold weather that prevented Virginia from being present at the exhibition of a ventriloquist in Charlottesville on Christmas Day of 1823 caused some disappointment. “To hear him I think I would have run any risk,” she wrote, “but it was decided that the day was too cold for ladies to venture out.” She added wistfully, “I am told that Mr. N. is the only ventriloquist in the United States.”
The monotony of the winter was broken only by occasional visits to her cousins at Ashton or her brother Jeffs family at Tufton. There could be no more trips to Richmond. Early in 1824 Virginia wrote Nicholas that the state of her father’s finances threatened the family with ruin and that Grandpapa’s were “not at all flourishing.” Mr. Jefferson’s once fine landau was now referred to as “that dreadful carriage.” When it became likely in the spring of 1824 that Nicholas was soon to return to Monticello, Virginia could promise him for a riding horse only “old Blucher, that time has deprived of his sight almost entirely, without improving his gait.”
Although she lamented “the possibility of being a burthen” on Nicholas, she promised to marry him as soon as he returned, and managed to regain the light tone of her earlier letters. Charlottesville was lively that spring, she wrote; the professors had begun to arrive at the University. It was scheduled to open the next February and “we shall have as much gaiety in our neighbourhood as we have hitherto had moping. I dare say the young ladies begin already to prepare for execution, and aspire to the bellehood which want of beaux has deprived them of heretofore.” She reported on the progress of the University buildings, describing the beautiful figures and vases in alabaster brought from Italy. “There are among these things two elegant vases of marble intended for a portico. . . . I thought how much they would embellish our portico’s which Grand-Papa is just completing.”
Thomas Jefferson was still building at Monticello, fifty-four years after he had begun. He seemed as active as ever; his cheerful and affectionate interest in all that concerned his grandchildren was unchanged. He planned to give Nicholas one of the pavilions for a study and to help him with his reading of law. The young couple were to remain at Monticello until Nicholas was ready to practice in Charlottesville and then, wrote Virginia, “you could attend the courts laced in a Cossack jacket or russian belt, and be as much of a dandy as my heart can wish!!”
Virginia and Nicholas were married in the summer of 1824. They lived at Monticello, and Nicholas studied law, but he never became the carefree dandy that Virginia had envisioned. The misfortunes of her family bore heavily upon him. Ellen, by her departure for Boston after her marriage in 1825, was spared the sad evidences of Grandpapa’s financial worries and declining health, but the young Trists saw how oppressed he was and how feeble he was becoming. When he slowly paced the Roundabout walk that encircled the lawn at Monticello he leaned on the arm of Nicholas or one of the girls.
During the long spring evenings of the year 1826 Thomas Jefferson sorrowfully contemplated, as he wrote Virginia’s brother Jeff, the “comfortless situation” in which his death would leave his “beloved daughter . . . and her children, rendered as dear to me as if my own from having lived with me from their cradle.” No dependence could be placed upon the father of these children, for Thomas Mann Randolph’s mind had become unbalanced. Mr. Jefferson acknowledged that his financial difficulties were due partly to his own unskilful management, but there were greater causes—his long service to his country, and the depression that followed the panic of 1819. With characteristic philosophy and lack of bitterness, however, he ended his letter to Jeff by saying that he had no complaint against the world; and in summing up the good things of his life he counted as the best “a family which has blessed me by their affections, and never by their conduct given me a moment’s pain.”
As a member of this family Nicholas lightened the old man’s burdens as well as he could. He acted as Mr. Jefferson’s secretary and helped to nurse him in his last illness. After Mr. Jefferson’s death on July 4, 1826, it was found that Nicholas was named in the will as one of the administrators of the estate left to Mrs. Randolph. The estate was worthless. Mr. Jefferson’s debts exceeded the value of his property by forty thousand dollars. Nothing could be done to save Monticello: it was put up for sale in 1828.
Thomas Jefferson’s family was penniless. Brave plans were made by Mrs. Randolph to open a school, assisted by Cornelia and Virginia. This was a “hard duty,” wrote Virginia to Ellen; but fortunately they were spared it. Aid came from those who still loved Jefferson. Henry Clay, who was then Secretary of State, gave Nicholas a job in the State Department. The legislatures of South Carolina and Louisiana each voted Mrs. Randolph a grant of ten thousand dollars. The family’s gratitude was touching: Cornelia wrote that they resolved “to call the first daughter that is born in the family Carolina.”
“I look towards Monticello as to an object that I doat on & have lost forever,” Virginia wrote Ellen. But “the pain that it will cost us to go from this dear place” was borne with the quiet courage that Grandpapa would have approved. Taking a few treasured possessions, Virginia, with Mama, Cornelia, Mary, Septimia, and the boys, left to join Nicholas in Washington.
Monticello, lost forever to Jefferson’s family, stood empty and desolate. The great hall and the elegant drawing room no longer echoed young laughter or the sweet thin notes of the harpsichord. The pavilion where Browse danced with the girls fell into ruin; on the lawn the Italian vases lay mouldering in the deep grass, and weeds choked the exotic plants of Mr. Jefferson’s gardens. When evening came, the people of Charlottesville could no longer see lights twinkling on top of the mountain. Night enfolded Monticello in utter darkness.