Ellen W. Randolph Coolidge to Henry S. Randall

Sent to Mr Randall with alterations or additions which I no longer remember, but the whole letter omitted in Mr Randall’s book

No. 5.

My dear Mr Randall.

This letter is a continuation of the one of the 18h and I begin by correcting several small, unimportant inaccuracies. My grandfather’s visits to Bedford were sometimes in summer. I remember a very long one during which time we saw the thermometer, or perhaps heard of it in the neighbourhood, as high as 96° Fahrenheit—higher than it was ever known at Monticello. At this time the centre Hall at Poplar Forest, it’s skylight shaded by Venitian blinds, and protected as it was from the Sun by the whole body of the house, was always deliciously cool.

The land at Poplar Forest had not been all sold in payment of debt. A part of it, I do not know how much, had been given to my mother

The Eston Randolphs, a branch of the Dungeoness family, the same into which my great-grandfather, Peter Jefferson, had married, only took the name of Eston in the person of my uncle Thomas Eston, who coming from England where he was born, to take possession of an inheritance, (the estate of Dungeoness which he afterwards sold,) adopted the name of an English gentleman, I believe his god-father, Mr Eston. This was done in order to distinguish himself from other Thomas Randolphs, whose real name was Legion.

What you say in one of your letters of my grandfather’s being considered by a great many persons, considered as a theorist, a man of projects, an innovator,—set me to thinking how far there might be truth in these views of his character. He certainly had a good deal of ingenuity in contrivance—a good deal of what would be called here in Boston, Yankee ingenuity. He had various little devices for increasing comfort & facilitating labour. Some successful, some unsuccessful, as I presume must always be the case. Then he had lived abroad and he had introduced into his own household many of what were called foreign ways. He ate with a silver fork when other people used steel. He would have his plate changed several times during dinner, a habit not observed, in those days, by country gentlemen generally. I remember my cousin Dabney Terrell, who had lived in Europe many years, once said to me, “Yours is the only table in the county where I dare ask for a clean plate.” My grandfather had his bed-chambers fitted up with alcoves, a french fashion not often adopted in America. He preferred french wines to Madeira or Sherry. He set up a small Brewery at Monticello and brewed his own ale. He liked boiled Beef, Bouilli, better than roast. He ate a great many vegetables and little meat, contrary to the custom of his countrymen.

Now a man like Mr Jefferson, whose every action was watched by curious or jealous eyes, and descanted on by idle if not malicious tongues, can do with impunity nothing different from what other people do. I have no doubt that his Bouilli and his vegetables and his silver fork were all looked on with good humoured indulgence by his friends, and perhaps considered by his enemies as so many proofs of his being under french influence & conspiring with Bonaparte.

Some of his innovations, his theoretical novelties, so absurd in practice were mere anticipations of other men’s ideas. He built a light open carriage after a plan of his own with leather tops which closed at will, and he used it for all purposes of driving & for travelling. This carriage was something new and was smiled at by his friends and sneered at by his enemies. Within the last ten years I have seen abroad & in this country, carriages built not exactly but very much on the same plan and well liked by those who used them.

My grandfather taught me to play chess, liked to play with me, and after our dinner, in summer time, he would have the chess board under the trees before the door, and we would have our game together. He had made, by his own carpenter and cabinet maker, John Hemmings, and painted by his own painter, Burwell, a small, light table, divided in squares like a chess board & with a sort of tray or long box at two of the sides to hold the men and put them into as they were taken off the Board. It was a very nice, convenient little thing and purpose purfectly answered the purpose for which it was intended. This was called one of Mr Jefferson’s contrivances. My first writing table, made for me when I was perhaps thirteen or fourteen years old, out of the beautiful wood of the wild cherry, by the same John Hemmings, and planned by my grandfather for my use, was as simple and convenient a thing as could be, and I still remember how useful I found it as writing table, reading desk & serving all the purposes of a light easily portable stand.

But these are idle trifles and might be passed over—there were charges of a graver nature brought against Mr Jefferson as a man of theory & speculation, a dreamer. What was deemed especially worthy of pity and of blame was his obstinate propensity to think [. . .] well of mankind—of human nature—to trust [. . .] largely in the good sense and good feelings of the mass, especially in a country where the mass had not been brutified by bad government. It was in these opinions and on these convictions that his democracy was founded. How far he was right remains to be proved. Should the people of the United States eventually shew themselves unworthy of the confidence he felt in them, why then we must say perhaps, that he was a theorist, ignorant of mankind.—But what individual with a generous heart beating in his bosom but must allow that the great experiment of trusting the people was worth trying, and that there is more nobleness if less prudence in trust than in suspicion. I have heard my grandfather say that he considered moral deformity as rare as personal deformity, and as much out of the course of nature. Such a sentiment would find favour with few.

I shall resume my pen when I can. There are several things in your letters that I must reply to. One of these is your conversation with Wormeley. My silence on this point might lead you to form wrong conclusions. Either the old man was himself, in some [. . .] things, mistaken, or you have in some way mistaken him. I will be frank with you on this subject as on every other which I touch upon at all. I am deeply desirous that the truth should be known, though of course, I shall speak much more freely to you than you will do to the public.

Very truly yours,
Ellen W. Coolidge
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. Beef Bouilli is made by cooking beef with vegetables and herbs in a stewpot, rather than on a spit over a fire, and reserving the juices for gravy (Eliza Leslie, Directions for Cookery [Philadelphia, 1837]).

Henry S. Randall
Date Range
February 22, 1856