Martha Randolph: Jefferson’s One Slender Thread

Martha Jefferson Randolph had many advantages as Thomas Jefferson’s daughter, but her life was far from happy.

Patsy: The Early Years

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) was twenty-seven when he married Martha Wayles Skelton, a twenty-three year old widow with a toddler who would soon die. It was an instant attraction, and a true love-match. They would have six children together, but three died in infancy. The tragedy was that Martha Jefferson had a delicate constitution, and child bearing was difficult for her. She died at thirty-three, after a brief ten year marriage.

Purported to be Martha Wayles Jefferson. TJ’s wife, and Patsy Jefferson’s mother.

Martha Jefferson (1772-1836), named for her mother and called Patsy from birth, was their eldest daughter, eight years old when her mother died. Her sister Maria (called Polly) was three; baby Lucy had just been born when Martha Jefferson succumbed. Thomas Jefferson was totally distraught for weeks, unable to sleep or eat. Only riding horseback for hours on end helped him to work out his grief. Little Patsy was his sole companion and comfort.

Patsy was the only witness to her father’s profound grief, and they would be close from that time forward. But it would be an odd relationship. Thomas Jefferson was inclined by disposition to give and withhold his affections in return for obedience. It would be a lesson that Patsy learned early; she would always be his obedient daughter.

Patsy: The Paris Years

In 1783, Thomas Jefferson was appointed Minister to France by the new-United States. It was an assignment that would propel him out of his mourning, and open his great mind to life on a completely different level.   He took twelve-year-old Patsy with him, having left his two younger daughters in care of relatives.

He quickly arranged for Patsy to be educated at a convent-school not far from his residence in Paris. Despite the fact that Jefferson was not favorably inclined toward brilliant women, he wanted his daughter to be well educated, “in case she winds up marrying a fool.” Convent schools were the crème of female education. Patsy lived at the school during the week, and stayed with her father on weekends. By fourteen or fifteen, she was already serving as her father’s “hostess and escort” as he entertained the best and the brightest Paris had to offer.

At sixteen, Patsy concluded that she wanted to become a nun. The convent sisters were graceful, gentle women whose influence was not lost on their American (and non-Catholic) student. They were delighted with her aspirations, and encouraged her to write to her father announcing her desires.

Jefferson immediately showed up at the school and kindly but firmly withdrew Patsy. He commented that he “wanted her to see something of the world before she renounced it forever.” If Patsy objected or resented the interference, it was short-lived. There was definitely life to be lived in her future.

A year later, they returned to Virginia permanently.

Patsy: The Randolph Connection

Image result for martha jefferson randolph

Martha Jefferson Randolph, the only one of Thomas Jefferson’s children to survive him.

The Randolphs were one of the “First Families of Virginia,” and kin to Jefferson via his mother, Jane Randolph. Patsy, now of marriageable age, drew the attention of Thomas Mann Randolph, a cousin five years her senior. They married, with Thomas Jefferson’s blessing.

Randolph was well placed in Virginia’s social and political hierarchy, and once the United States had its Constitution adopted, he entered Virginia state politics, became a State senator, and when his father-in-law was President, a two-term congressman. He later served as Virginia’s Governor.

Thomas Mann Randolph, Martha’s husband. Despite eleven children, the marriage was not happy.

While Randolph’s political resume is certainly laudable, his resume as husband and father is not. He fathered twelve children with Patsy, eleven reaching maturity. (Obviously Patsy did not inherit her mother’s limitations regarding child bearing!) But Randolph was an alcoholic, and brutal under its influence. Some historians conclude that he likely had some psychotic tendencies. Then again, Randolph was always a distant second in his wife’s affections; she devoted herself entirely to her father.

Patsy Randolph: Mistress of Monticello

Patsy Jefferson Randolph, tall, slim and red-haired, was not a woman given to whining or complaining. She bore her many children and raised them according to the confines of woman-ness of the eighteenth century. If she had troubles in her marriage, she was inclined to keep them to herself.

thomas jefferson

Thomas Jefferson was deeply devoted to his daughter and was a loving grandpa to her eleven children.

If Jefferson was aware of the troubles caused by his son-in-law it was not recorded in any of his writings. However he insisted that his daughter live close by and visit Monticello for long periods of time. After his younger daughter Polly died in childbirth at only twenty-five (Lucy had died at three), Patsy was now his only his only comfort.  He would notably comment, “my evening prospects now hang only by the slender thread of a single life.”

As her own marriage deteriorated, Patsy and the children began spending more and more time at Monticello. During Jefferson’s presidency, he encouraged her to come to Washington and serve as his de-facto hostess, and she did periodically, but the needs of her large family made it difficult. She was also happier as the quintessential mistress of Monticello, overseeing its comforts, entertaining its many guests, and making it the great home of a great man.

Patsy Randolph: Heir to Monticello


Jefferson was deeply in debt for most of his life, but he left his magnificent Monticello plantation to his daughter. She would be forced to sell it.

If Patsy kept her marital woes from her father, so her father kept his financial woes from Patsy. Both had serious woes.

By the late eighteen-teens, Randolph’s alcoholism and abusiveness had become too much for Patsy to bear, and the couple separated in essence if not in legality.   Meanwhile Jefferson’s financial obligations had so deteriorated that he even planned to auction off his beloved Monticello in a lottery. It failed

It would fall to Thomas Jefferson Randolph, Patsy’s eldest son, to try to make some sense out of the monetary muddle, rein in the expenditures, and keep the house from creditors. He did a yeoman job, hanging on by its own slender thread. When Jefferson died in his bed in 1826, with his beloved daughter at his side, he murmured “the last pang of life was parting with her.”

Patsy Jefferson Randolph inherited Monticello, but it would be a precious burden that she could not afford to keep. The house was sold for debts, and Patsy went to live periodically with her children. She survived her father by only ten years, and is buried at Monticello.


Malone, Dumas – Jefferson & His Time: The Sage of Monticello – Little Brown, 1981

Randolph, Sarah –  The Domestic Life of Thomas Jefferson – Thomas Jefferson Foundation, 1947

Scharff, Virginia – The Women Jefferson Loved – Harper Perennial, 2010

About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
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5 Responses to Martha Randolph: Jefferson’s One Slender Thread

  1. Sounds like Jefferson certainly got the “marrying a fool” bit right, but with twelve children Patsy would have had a hard time putting her education to use, especially in the 18th–19th century!

  2. Patsy was considered the most brilliant woman in Washington – when she was there.

  3. Roberta Sandler says:

    Excellent article

  4. Jon Roland says:

    The small portrait labeled to be of Martha Wayles Skelton is actually of Martha “Patsy” Jefferson, the daughter. There is no known portrait of the mother.

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