Extract from Ellen W. Randolph Coolidge to Henry S. Randall

No. 3.

My dear Mr Randall,

I have found it impossible to resume my pen until now when I have an hour or so of leisure before turning my attention to the daily cares & duties which admit of no postponement. The decay of my grandfather’s fortune was owing, as you know, to various causes, but to none more than the difficulty of attending to his own private affairs, occupied as he always was with those of the public. A man whose whole life was given to the duties of office could have little thought for his own personal interests.

You know that a part of his property was lost during the war of the Revolution—that he sold a fine estate, Elk Island, and was paid in depreciated paper money—so that the whole amount, was, if I recollect right, barely sufficient for the purchase of a great coat!His losses by the embargo and in the war of 1812 were likewise heavy. His housekeeping, as President of the United States, was no doubt, much more expensive than it might have been with a judicious wife to look after his domestic concerns. A train of servants with no keen eye to watch them, will, in any house, but more especially in one like the Presidents become almost necessarily wasteful and extravagant if not dishonest. My Grandfather entertained in on a large and liberal style scale—his dinners were frequent and becoming his position—the expences of his table must have been great. These dinners brought him into pleasant relations with many persons. Foreign ministers, his own Cabinet, members of Congress and of the Supreme Court, Officers of the Army & Navy, professional men, strangers, gentlemen visiters, and, as he gave no evening parties, held no levees except o the 1st January, and accepted no invitation, it was only at his own table that he could have the society of ladies. I have a childish recollection of my grandfather’s head servant, stewart and I think Butler, a portly well-mannered frenchman of the name of Lemaire, of whose honesty his master had a higher opinion than the world at large, and who I fancy made a small fortune in his employ. But he was a civil and a useful man and marited reward.

My grandfather’s long absences from home left his estate in the hands of agents and overseers, not always skilful and not always faithful to their trust. There is no species of property perhaps, that requires the eye of the master more imperatively than a Virginia plantation. My grandfather’s great fear lest his slaves should be abused or overworked, made him derive a comparatively small profit from their labours, whilst the expences of their maintenance were always certain and heavy. Bad year or good year, crop or no crop, these dependents were to be clothed and fed—well clothed and well fed—men, women and children I never knew in what number, on the estates of Monticello and Poplar Forest.

After his retirement from public life besides a large family of his own—(I have said that the support of his daughter and her children fell principally upon him) he had to provide for the entertainment of innumerable guests, whom his old habits of hospitality and his reputation as a public man brought in crowds to his house. They followed each other in rapid succession, and came with children and servants and horses, to stay, as it might be, for a longer or shorter time. My father’s near relatives were often in the number of these guests. It had been, in old colonial times, the custom for relations and friends to make long and frequent visits to each others houses. The custom had not (I may say perhaps, has not,) fallen into disuse, and the large size and ample accommodations of the house at Monticello made that a rallying point for all the family connexion. My youngest aunt, Virginia Randolph, adopted, as I have said, by my father and who always resided with him was married at Monticello, some where I think about the year, 1804 or 1805, after the death of my aunt Eppes. Her husband, Wilson Jefferson Cary, was great nephew to my grandfather, whose niece, Jane Carr, had married the only son of the proud and aristocratic Col. Wilson Miles Cary of Williamsburg & of Carr’sbrook in Albemarle Fluvanna Co.. She had two sons, Wilson and Miles. The elder married my aunt Virginia, and succeeded, though with means far less ample than his grandfather’s had been, and encumbered by a load of his debts, to the family place of Carr’sbrook. The mountain air of Albemarle was pleasant & healthful. Carr’sbrook was dull & Monticello famed for it’s society. Regularly every year Aunt Cary with her whole family, children and nurses, paid us a six weeks or two months visit. At first there was one child, then two, three, four, five, six—babies, small children, schoolboys, young ladies—I cannot remember whether we ever had all six at a time—perhaps not—but these annual & sometimes bi-annual visits continued up to the time of my grandfather’s death. My aunt, Mrs Hackley, who had married a widower with children, on her return from Spain, where she had left Mr Hackley, then Consul at Cadiz, came to Monticello with two of her own and two step-children and two Spanish nurses, and staid on her first visit about ten, and on her second six months. This was in the years 1810. 1811. During the first visit she was confined with a third child, had a long illness, and the time of half a dozen servants was taken up in waiting on her, her children and her foreign servants. I make no apology for these details. They shew habits and manners and a state of society which will go a great way to explain how a man might become involved in his fortunes without any improvidence on his part. I speak to you very freely on family affairs, relying on your delicacy and discretion, and anxious to give you right impressions which can only be done by going into matters of fact.—

(The remainder of this letter is published in Mr Randall’s book.)

Tr (ViU: Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge Correspondence, Letterbook); in the hand of Ellen W. Randolph Coolidge.

mr randall’s book was The Life of Thomas Jefferson, published in three volumes in 1858.

Recipient
Henry S. Randall
Date Range
Date
February 13, 1856
Collection