Ellen W. Randolph Coolidge to Henry S. Randall

No. 7. (Omitted.)

My dear Mr Randall,

Enclosed you have part of a letter, which I began a week ago. Sudden and severe cold which confined me some days to my bed, prevented me from going on with it: I send it in it’s unfinished state. Yours of the 22nd with it’s enclosures, reached me yesterday. I am not strong enough to write much to-day. In a day or two I hope to be better

I think the truth lies between your impressions and Mr Trist’s. There certainly never was on the part of my father, any outbreak towards my grandfather. But there was gloom, dark looks and morose silence, and long absences from Monticello, quite enough to shew Mr Jefferson that his son-in-law’s feelings towards him were of a vexed and perturbed character. He was no doubt greatly distressed by such a state of things, but nothing could shake his temper, or overcome his patience, where his daughter’s happiness was at stake.

There is no evil without good. I have sometimes thought that the pecuniary embarrassments of my father were, in one respect, of positive advantage to us. If a pressure for money exasperated his temper it rendered it impossible for him to take his wife & children away from Monticello, where they found a home and support which he was little able to give them. Perhaps had his means been ample his heart might have been softened and his temper soothed. But with dispositions so moveable mutable as his, he might in a paroxysm of some sort, have insisted upon removing his family from the house of their grandfather, where for his happiness and their good it was equally essential they should remain.

My poor father was not however harsh & cold to all around him. He was uniformly kind to his daughters. His manners to them were gentle, affectionate & I may say respectful, for he had after all, a good deal of what might be called chivalry in his composition, and his treatment of women in general was equally courteous and deferential. He always in his heart of hearts loved and honored my mother—How could he do otherwise?—But here again came in his unfortunate temper, and a man’s wife is too near to him not to suffer from whatever defects most influence his conduct in private. So that the unconscious wife of a dishonest knave may be a happier woman than were she married to the most upright of his sex with a violent, bitter or sullen temper. My father’s conduct to my mother was fluctuating as his mood of the hour. He frequently gave way in her presence to paroxysms of rage. He hated some of her best friends and often made her unhappy by his treatment of her sons—For, strange to say, uniformly kind as he was to his daughters he was by no means equally so to his sons. [. . .] Towards my eldest brother especially, the great favorite of his grandfather, and perhaps even for this very reason, he was always unjust and often ungenerous. I must say that in all the difficulties that arose between them, my brother Jefferson was uniformly in the right. I never knew an instance to the contrary, although blame has often been attached where it did not rightfully belong, and my brother has been harshly judged of by some who did not, and by some who would not understand the truth. But his is a very noble nature. He was a great comfort and blessing to our grandfather and to our mother, and for his brothers and sisters, all, except Mrs Bankhead, younger than himself, he has done almost all that a father could have done.

I feel guilty in laying bare My poor father’s weaknesses, for in spite of them all I loved him much. Yet how otherwise can I do justice to those persons over whom his peculiarities exercised so unfortunate an influence—to their patience, their long suffering, their genuine magnanimity? If I speak at all I must speak the truth, and, under the circumstances, can I refuse to speak? Would not my silence lead to wrong conclusions? You are, preparatory to giving to the world, your Life of Jefferson, inquiring, as you are bound to do, most minutely and particularly, into all the details of his private life, and in order to understand him you must understand those by whom he was surrounded. Having faith, as I have, in your good faith, and earnestly desirous to promote the success of your undertaking,—prompted too by affection & gratitude towards my best friend & one whom I consider the best [. . .] of men, I stand acquitted at the bar of my own conscience.

Very truly yours,
Ellen W. Coolidge
Tr (ViU: Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge Correspondence, Letterbook); in the hand of Ellen W. Randolph Coolidge.
Henry S. Randall
Date Range
March 27, 1856