Ellen W. Randolph Coolidge to Henry S. Randall

My dear Mr. Randall:

… The house at Poplar Forest was very pretty and pleasant. It was of brick, one story in front, and, owing to the falling of the ground, two in the rear. It was an exact octagon, with a centre-hall twenty feet square, lighted from above. This was a beautiful room, and served as a dining-room. Round it were grouped a bright drawing-room looking south, my grandfather’s own chamber, three other bedrooms, and a pantry. A terrace extended from one side of the house; there was a portico in front connected by a vestibule with the centre room, and in the rear a verandah, on which the drawing-room opened, with its windows to the floor …

Mr. Jefferson, from the time of his return home in 1809, was in the habit of visiting this Bedford plantation, but it was some years before the house was ready for the reception of his family. It was furnished in the simplest manner, but had a very tasty air; there was nothing common or second-rate about any part of the establishment, although there was no appearance of expense. As soon as the house was habitable, my grandfather began to take the ladies of his family, generally two at a time, with him, whenever he went. His first visit of a fortnight or three weeks was in the spring—the second, of about six weeks, in early or late autumn. We have staid as much as two months at a time. My mother went occasionally—not very often—for she had too much to do at home. I…generally accompanied him with one of my younger sisters. Mr. Jefferson greatly enjoyed these visits. The crowd at Monticello of friends and strangers, of stationary or ever-varying guests, the coming and going, the incessant calls upon his own time and attention, the want of leisure that such a state of things entailed as a necessary consequence, the bustle and hurry of an almost perpetual round of company, wearied and harassed him in the end, whatever pleasure he may have taken, and it was sometimes great, in the society and conversation of his guests. At Poplar Forest he found in a pleasant home, rest, leisure, power to carry on his favorite pursuits—to think, to study, to read—whilst the presence of part of his family took away all character of solitude from his retreat. His young grand-daughters were there to enliven it for him, to make his tea, preside over his dinner table, accompany him in his walks, in his occasional drives, and be with him at the time he most enjoyed society, from tea till bed time. The weather was generally fine (the autumn climate of this part of Virginia is delightful, and even the spring is pleasant), the neighbors, who were to a man exceedingly attached to him, were very friendly, without being oppressive in their attentions. There were some excellent people among those Bedford neighbors of ours, and something touching in their affection for their old friend, whose arrival they watched for with pleasant anticipation, and hailed with a sort of loyal satisfaction. It was no sooner known in the neighborhood that Mr. Jefferson had arrived, than our neighbors hastened to help our housekeeping with all kinds of fruit, vegetables, poultry, game (I remember once a quarter of a bear’s cub), the product of rich farms and an abundant country.

By and by the gentlemen came dropping in—the ladies soon followed—we were invited out to dine, and the neighbors came to dine with us—but not often enough to consume much time, or interrupt our home occupations. I remember among these neighbors a certain “Parson” Clay, as he was called, who must have been an Episcopal clergyman before the Revolution, to whose four sons my grandfather used to lend books, and who astonished me with their names of Cyrus, Odin, Julius and Paul.

My grandfather was very happy during these sojourns in a comparatively simple and secluded district—far from noise and news—of both of which he got too much at Monticello; and we, his grand-daughters, were very happy too. It was a pleasant change for us, a variety in life and manners. We saw, too, more of our dear grandfather at those times than at any other. He was most desirous that we should find congenial occupations, and we had books, drawing materials, embroidery, and never felt time heavy on our hands. He interested himself in all we did, thought, or read. He would talk to us about his own youth and early friends, and tell us stories of former days. He seemed really to take as much pleasure in these conversations with us, as if we had been older and wiser people. Such was the influence of his affectionate, cheerful temper, that his grandchildren were as much at their ease with him, as if they had not loved and honored and revered him more than any other earthly being. I … not only listened with intense interest to all he said, but answered with perfect freedom, told my own opinions and impressions, gave him my own views of things, asked questions, made remarks, and, in short, felt as free and as happy as if I had been with companions of my own age. My grandfather missed my mother of course. Her company had become very necessary to him, but her absence seemed the only drawback on his unalloyed satisfaction during these short and highly prized intervals of rest and leisure.

Our days at Poplar Forest were cheerful and uneventful. We met in the morning for an early breakfast, which, like all his other meals, he took leisurely. Whilst sipping his coffee or tea he talked with us, and if there was anything unusual to be done, arranged our plans for the day. The forenoon, whilst we followed our own desires, he passed in the drawing room with his books. With the exception of an occasional visitor, he was seldom interrupted until the hour of his ride. We dined about three, and as he liked to sit over his wine (he never took more than three glasses, and these after, and not during dinner), I always remained at table till he rose. His conversation was at this time particularly pleasant—easy, flowing, and full of anecdote. After dinner he again retired for some hours, and later in the afternoon walked with us on the terrace, conversing in the same delightful manner, being sometimes animated, and sometimes earnest. We did not leave him again till bed-time, but gave him his tea, and brought out our books or work. He would take his book from which he would occasionally look up to make a remark, to question us about what we were reading, or perhaps to read aloud to us from his own book, some passage which had struck him, and of which he wished to give us the benefit. About ten o’clock he rose to go, when we kissed him with warm, loving, grateful hearts, and went to our rest blessing God for such a friend.

Mr. Jefferson had decidedly one of the evenest and most cheerful tempers I ever knew. He enjoyed a jest, provided it were to give pain to no one, and we were always glad to have any pleasant little anecdote for him—when he would laugh as cheerily as we could do ourselves, and enter into the spirit of the thing with as much gaiety.

It was pleasant to see him in company with the country gentlemen of the neighborhood, they treated him with so much affectionate and respectful frankness—were so much at their ease with him, whilst they held him in such high honor. Their wives too were as happy as queens to receive him, and when he called or dined with them, were brimful of satisfaction and hospitable devotion. This frank and free homage, paid by independent people, who had nothing to gain, to one whose public character had merited their approbation, and whose private virtues they loved and revered, was equally honorable to those who rendered and him who received it.

Our journeys to and from Bedford, were almost always pleasant. The weather at the season of our visit was good of course, though we were once or twice caught by an early winter. The roads were not bad for country roads. My grandfather travelled in his own carriage, with his own horses, his faithful Burwell on horseback by his side. It took us nearly three days to make the hundred miles. We always stopped at the same simple country inns, where the country-people were as much pleased to see the “Squire,” as they always called Mr. Jefferson, as they could have been to meet their own best friends. They set out for him the best they had, gave him the nicest room, and seemed to hail his passage as an event most interesting to themselves. These were pleasant times, but I have dwelt on them long enough …

With great regard, my dear Mr. Randall, Very truly yours.
Published in Henry S. Randall, Life of Thomas Jefferson (Boston, 1858), 3:342–4. Ellipses in published letter.
Recipient
Henry S. Randall
Date Range
Date
February 18, 1856
Collection
Repository
Life of Thomas Jefferson