Thomas Jefferson’s Odd Relationship With His Mother
Thomas Jefferson probably wrote more letters than any other president. He saved over 18,000 personal letters that he penned from 1783 to 1826. (He was able to accomplish this through the use of a letter press and a polygraph which replicated his correspondence.) Jefferson’s mania for the preservation of his life on paper went to the extent of recording the exact beginning and ending of seasons for 29 vegetables and seven fruits for 58 years. He kept a listing of almost every expense he incurred as an adult. For 52 years, his Farm Book tells us to the ounce, how much grain, meat, or other goods were used on his plantation.
Jefferson was, indeed, a prodigious recorder. It is odd, then, that we have no correspondence between him and his mother. It is odd that he mentions his mother only once in his voluminous letters to others. It is odd that she is only listed in his account books as expenditure. And, it is odd that in his autobiography, there is only one terse sentence concerning his mother. What kind of odd relationship did Jefferson have with his mother?
Jefferson’s mother was Jane Randolph Jefferson. She was of the Randolph clan who were considered to be among the first families of the Virginia Colony. The Randolph’s had long been squires in England and Scotland. Family lore held that the Randolph’s were descended from various European royalty ranging as far back as Charlemagne. Jefferson once stated that his maternal side could “trace their pedigree far back to England and Scotland…” He further added, sarcastically, “to which let everyone ascribe the faith and merit he chooses.”
Jane was the daughter of Isham Randolph. He was a planter, sea captain, and like his grandson Thomas, an amateur scientist. He was also a graduate of the College of William and Mary, a member of the House of Burgesses, and Adjutant General of Virginia. Isham spent several years in England as an agent for the Colony. While there, the widowed Isham met and married Jane Lilburne Rogers. According to the Jefferson family Bible, Jane Randolph was born on February 9, 1721 in Shadwell Parish, London. (Various sources give different dates.) The Randolph’s left London shortly after Jane’s birth and sailed to Virginia. Isham Randolph settled into life as a colonial planter with his new family at his plantation, Dungeness, on the James River, about forty miles above Richmond.
Much has been made of the difference, economically and educationally between the aristocratic Randolphs, and the yeomen Jeffersons. The first Jefferson in Virginia emigrated from Wales in the late seventeenth century. The family established itself in Henrico County where they did quite well. Through the generations, the clan was respected and held such posts as “gentlemen justices” in the county courts. These facts suggest that the class distance between the Jeffersons and the Randolphs were not as great as often assumed. This is important to realize since some have theorized that a tension caused by this disparity could explain the dichotomies in Jefferson’s character and his feelings toward his mother. Merrill Peterson in The Jefferson Image in the American Mind stated:
The idea that Jefferson, both by birth and early environment, was formed in the confluence of two great streams — patrician and plebeian…Jane, the daughter of the lordly Randolphs on the James Rivers, and Peter, the commoner of the Virginia frontier…As the idea was unfolded, Jefferson could be reduced to some blend of a number of opposites: father-mother, power-love, frontier- culture, simplicity-elegance, utilitarian-humanist, cosmopolitan-gentleman.
Peter Jefferson, Thomas’ father, was a massive man in size, accomplishment and personality. Legend had it that he could simultaneously grab two lying hogsheads of tobacco, weighing nearly 1,000 pounds each and upright them. While peter received little formal schooling, he valued knowledge, keeping a library much larger than most of his contemporaries. His neighbors thought his capabilities were such, that he was selected for a colonelcy in the militia and was later elected to the House of Burgesses. He, also, was an explorer, surveyor, land speculator, and planter. He had surveyed the boundary between Virginia and North Carolina and had produced one of the first and best maps of the Colony.
Peter Jefferson used his intimated knowledge of Virginia gained through exploration and surveying to purchase farm land on the frontier. He had claimed 1,000 acres of fertile bottom land on the Rivanna River which were prime for the cultivation of tobacco. He used his tact and personality to gain more land. His best friend, William Randolph possessed 200 acres just across the river. Peter convinced him to deed the tract to him for “Henry Wedderburn’s biggest bowl of arrack punch” at the Raleigh Tavern in Williamsburg.
It is not known with Isham Randolph met Peter Jefferson. But it may be assumed the younger Jefferson had probably been introduced to Isham by his nephew William Randolph, Peter’s aforementioned friend. We do know that the two men admired and respected each other. Isham posted a 1,000 pound bond for Peter when he ran for sheriff in 1738. Also in 1738, Isham allowed the older Peter to court his teenage daughter. Peter was among many suitors for Jane’s hand, but the 30 year old charismatic Jefferson won out. They were wed in 1739.
Little is known of Jane’s attributes except for family lore and suppositions. (This was due to a fire at the family plantation in 1770 and Jefferson’s apparent destruction all her correspondence after her death. As an aside, Jefferson supposedly inquired about his books before his mother’s health after being informed of the fire.) It is supposed that she was of smaller stature than her husband. Jefferson is said to have had a strong physical resemblance to her. Ellen Randolph Coolidge, Jane’s great granddaughter, who never knew her, wrote that family tradition stated she was “mild and peaceful by nature, a person of sweet temper and gentle manners.” She was a woman of “clear and strong understanding.” She possessed a most amiable and affectionate disposition, a lively cheerful temper, and a great fund of humor, and that she was fond of letter writing. Jefferson is said to have inherited his reticence and refinement from her and this tasted for reading, music and dancing. And, that it was from his mother that he was endowed with “his cheerful and hopeful temper and disposition.”
It may also be assumed that she was intelligent, capable and strong-willed. She suffered hardships during her marriage to Peter; moving several times, bearing ten children, raising eight, and burying her husband of seventeen years. She was 37 at the time of Peter’s death and would live nineteen more years. During this time was in charge of running a plantation, Shadwell.
If Jane Jefferson had so many positive attributes, why is it that there is not an affectionate word written about her by her son? He never seemed to have spoken fondly of her even to his own children. This lack of communication about his mother seems to indicate feelings of deep hostility. A survey of this teenage writings in his Literary Common Place Books finds numerous extracts that suggest deep resentment for his mother. Conclusions as to the font for these feelings may be found in the nature of Jefferson’s childhood and adolescence.
Jefferson was fourteen when his father died. This is a time when boys normally struggle with parental control, especially maternal, and begin to assert their own personality. But, Peter’s will left Jefferson under the complete control of his mother. The will defied convention by not leaving everything to Thomas. In Virginia primogeniture was the law by which the eldest son would inherit the entire estate. In the will Peter wrote: “I give and devise to my Dear & Well beloved Wife Jane Jefferson for and During her Natural Life or Widowhood the use and profits of the House & plantation whereon I now live.”
Thomas would not receive anything until the age of 21 and was subject to the scrutiny from the will’s executors and his mother. Thus, at a young age, he was now head of the family with all its responsibilities, but he had no power. His mother was the master of Shadwell, a fact that young Jefferson acknowledged by always referring to the plantation “as my mother’s house.” It can be supposed that this aroused feelings of resentment and guilt in the adolescent.
The troubled teen had no masculine companionship within the family after the death of his father. He had his mother, six sisters and an infant brother. He had not known his father well, since Peter was away surveying much of the time and young Jefferson had been sent to boarding schools for his education. From his writings, Jefferson felt he had been deserted at the age of fourteen and that he could not rely on his mother. In his Common Place Books he protested his mother’s authority and brooded about his father’s death. He copied phrases which talked of being friendless, alone and suffering at the hands of women. He later wrote:
But thrown on a wide world, among entire strangers, without a friend or guardian to advise, so young too and with little experience of mankind, your dangers great, and still your safety must rest on yourself…When I recollect that at 14 years of age the whole care and direction of myself was thrown on my self entirely, without a relative or friend qualified to advise or guide me…
This alienation was further aggravated soon after his father’s death by Jefferson being sent to Reverend Maury’s boarding school, 14 miles away from Shadwell. His mother insisted that he return home every weekend, no matter the weather, to assist her. For two days a week he was the titular heir, but the rest of the week under the strict control of Maury.
This trend of affairs would continue until he turned 21, when immediately declared his financial independence and assumed his place as head of the family. During this time, he was continually away at school, college, or studying law in Williamsburg. He would still call Shadwell his official residence until the age of 27. He once wrote John Adams about his youthful years as “the dull monotony of a colonial subservience,” and told him that if he had the choice of living his life again he would not go back before the age of 25.
Some historians conjecture that Jefferson’s feelings toward his mother were a manifestation of his general feelings about women. Whether his feelings about women are because of his mother is also open to conjecture. Jefferson liked women who were feminine and gentile. He wrote:
“Nothing more effectually lessons a man or wife in the eyes of the world, than when they publicly differ in opinion…Modesty and diffidence are the greatest ornaments of a married woman…Anger and violence and rage deform the female figure, and a turbulent woman disgraces the delicacy of her sex.”
Jefferson could not abide women who interfered in politics. There are hints that his mother disapproved of his revolutionary activities. His coldness toward his mother may have been exacerbated by her alleged sympathies to the Loyalist viewpoint of their cousin John Randolph.
In his feelings about his mother and women, Jefferson was not alone. Several of the Revolutionary Founders lost their fathers at an early age and had strained relationships with their mothers. Kenneth Lynn wrote:
that there existed a considerable tension between mothers and sons, which cause the latter to view the former as sharp-tongues termagants to be avoided wherever possible, or a hopeless ignoramuses who could talk intelligently about anything intelligently about anything important. The very fact we have no evidence at all about the mothering of most patriots may also tell us something about the quality of mother-son relationships in the Revolutionary generation.
On March 31, 1776, Jefferson wrote tersely in his pocket account book: “My mother died at eight o’clock this morning, in the 57th year of age.” It wasn’t until three months after her death, that he finally corresponded with brother, William Randolph, in Bristol, England. After inquiring about his uncle’s health, he wrote: “The death of my mother you have probably not heard of. This happened on the last day on March after an illness of not more than an hour. We suppose it to have been apoplectic.”
Jefferson’s response to her death seems cold with its absence of grief. As a student of the Enlightenment, he felt that reacting emotionally to the biological process of death would be irrational. He could see little value in the pain of grief. The only clue to the impact his mother’s death had on him is when wrote that he had “taken sick myself” at the end of March.
His “sickness” was a debilitating headache would last for six weeks. Headaches struck Jefferson several times in his life. They were usually correlated with personal loss, personal conflict or deeply buried rage and guilt. Fawn Broke in Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History wrote:
This syndrome is found in people who are generally anxious, striving, perfectionists, order loving, rigid, who during periods of threat or conflict become progressively more tense, resentful, and fatigued. The elaboration of a pattern of inflexibility and perfectionism to deal with feelings of insecurity begins in early childhood.
The lengthy headache was the only manifestation of Jefferson’s feelings toward his mother. He would only mention her in one brief sentence in his autobiography. This was not unusual for Jefferson. He had an aversion about revealing his personal life in general and particularly about females of his family.
Was Jefferson so unsympathetic where is mother was concerned; or was he like other men of his paternalistic era? Did he harbor a deep psychological loathing for her; or was he so self-absorbed and rational-minded that he could not find room for grief? Whatever the reason, his relationship with his mother seems odd by today’s standards.