Ellen W. Randolph (Coolidge) to Nicholas P. Trist
|Monticello Dec. 22nd 1823|
If I did not, from experience, know you to be a “much enduring man”, my dear Nicholas, I should despair of forgiveness for my manifold sins as a correspondent; I can only assure you that I have been deterred from writing as much by the consiousness of having nothing new or agreable to tell you, as by any other cause. and lest you should imagine that “the dark spell of silence” has at last been broken by a removal of this cause, & so run your eye impatiently over the pages which lie before them in search of the ‘something’ I have at length found to write to you about, I will at once spare you the trouble & disappointment, by assuring you that things stand as they did, & that I might as well have written to you a month ago, for aught that I am going to tell you now. so “Keep cool” my dear boy, there is nothing coming.You have heard from other sources all the little news of the family and neighbourhood, & the newspapers keep you supplied with sufficient accounts of all that is going on in public—if they did not, & you depended on me for this sort of information, you would find me about as much ‘au fait’ in matters of present concernment, as the young lady spoken of by Las Cases, who asked Napoleon if he was satisfied with the conduct of Gaston de Foix & whether that hero was still serving in the french armies, whilst another wiseacre wept over the death of some heroine of the age of Richard Coeur de Lion, of which melancholy event the good man had remained in profound ignorance until it was announced to him by the Emperor—I try to read the newspapers sometimes, but they are so full of falsehoods & contradictions, & you are obliged to go travel over so much ground to pick up the least little bit of information that happens to lie by the way side, that I generally throw them down in disgust. the strong interest that I take in the Presidential Question sends me back again to the same polluted source for information that experience might tell me I cannot find, as sailors suffering with thirst will sometimes try to quench it with sea water—South American affairs also lie near my heart, but I cannot agree even on a subject of this interest to read so much, to know so little. the little wild Spaniard of whom I have spoken to you in a former letter, very much increased the feeling I have long had in favor of the Spanish America, by his anecdotes and animated descriptions of persons and things—Bolivar, the heroic Bolivar, was the theme of most pleasing to me & most inspiring to him; his courage, his patriotism, his generous & magnanimous devotion to the cause of his country, & the general rights of man—since I was a child, when my heart would swell and my eyes fill over the characters & exploits of the heroes of Greece & Rome, I have never felt more strongly than I do now, for those few of the Spanish American chiefs who have shewed themselves worthy of the sacred cause whose banners they are rallied around—
Bolivar is a man of forty two or forty three years old, of noble birth, and originally possessed of a large fortune, which he has sacrificed in the cause of his country. his first step in the career, he has since so gloriously seen, was the freeing of his slaves to the number of seven hundred, giving them arms and disciplining them into regular soldiers for the patriot service. inflexibly just & naturally humane, he has become so familiar with the sight of blood and the waste of human life that although nothing would induce him to pass an unjust sentence, he will order the execution of a traitor or a spy with something of the indifference described by Scott as belonging to the character of Claverhouse. on one occasion, after a battle or skirmish in which some prisoners were taken, he looked at them & recognized several whom he knew deserving of to death for former mal-practises. a little while after being in company & conversation with several officers, he turned to one just entering to receive his orders, “go”, said he, “and have such and such things done”, giving some general directions of no great moment, “but first of all, let those men” naming the prisoners “be taken out and shot”. one of the officers present, exclaimed in horror, & implored Bolivar to pardon & release the unhappy wretches. Bolivar refused at first to listen, but finally yielded to the entreaties of this [. . .] person for whom he had a great regard, & said “take these men, and do with them what you like, but remember what I now tell you, you will one day regret your interference on this occasion.” the officer immediately dismissed the prisoners in safety. not long after he was himself with several others taken prisoner by these very men and narrowly escaped with his life from their hands, while they exercised unheard of barbarities upon those retained in their power. he related his danger and deliverance to Bolivar; “I told you something of this kind might possibly happen”, was the cool reply, “hereafter you will perhaps believe that I never destroy but to preserve”.—what scenes a man of Bolivar’s character & natural humanity must have passed through to bring him to such coolness on such a subject—for the rest, I will answer only for the ground of the anecdote, it has passed through several mouths & languages, and it was perhaps rash in me to attempt to give the words. Like Claverhouse (the Claverhouse of Scott I mean, not the genuine barbarrian Jock Graham, the unworthy original of the striking portrait) Bolivar is a good deal of a lady’s man, fond of the sex & of entering into, and contributing to, their amusements, as far as is consistent with his duties and dignity. he is or was particularly fond of dancing, and would spend in the ball-room two thirds of a night which was to be succeeded by a day of hard duty. on one occasion he had given leave of absence to several officers for a certain number of days. they availed themselves of this to visit a neighbouring town whither, after a while, Bolivar himself came. their furlough had expired within a day when he reminded of them of it; remember, said he, you will be in camp to morrow at such an hour, naming an early one. there was to be a ball that night to which the officers went & where they again met their general. they retired at a late hour leaving him still engaged in the amusements of the evening. they agreed that it was quite out of the question Bolivar could be in camp at the hour appointed, and they might venture to delay their own return at least as long as he did, which would gi[ve] them several hours longer for rest or business. they loitered accordingly, perhaps indulged themselves in sleep after dancing half the night, & did not reach their posts for some hours after the one on which he had commanded their attendance. they were immediately on their arrival put under arrest, & discovered to their great consternation that Bolivar had been punctual to a moment and was disposed to punish severely their neglect of his orders.—He has a sister who with a good deal of her brother’s spirit & inflexible character, devoted herself to the Royalist cause and spent the great[er] part of her time, & the whole of a great estate in thwarting his views, & promoting to the utmost, the interests of his enemies—yet strange to tell, a strong personal attachment always subsisted between them. both actuated by a sense duty, and respecting the motives, al[. . .] lamenting the errors of which each, according to the other, has been guilty. he once took [. . .] prisoner, “now Margaret, said he, I will keep you out of the way of doing any more [mis]chief” and detained her a while until he thought she might be released with safety. But my paper warns me to be done with “El Liberador”, the greatest hero of the present [. . .] I hope you are not tired of him; if you are, it is because I have done no sort of justice [. . .] my subject, and this I willingly acknowledge—
We are all as well as usual, your grandmother with us, in good health & spirits. Virginia just returned from Ashton where she had been staying some days. the [. . .] lasses who have lately made their debut “on the theatre” of the world (Miss Jane Cary Randolph Eppes, & Miss Eleanora Wayles Randolph, my namesake & god-da[ughter] if I can prevail on myself to take the required oath) with their mothers are doing we[ll.] Grandpapa as usual is thinking & hoping on the subject of the University, Papa in Richmond attending to his legislative duties, being chairman of one committee, & a mem[ber] of another. my dear mother, thank heaven, enjoys good health. the boys have acquitted themselves very well at school this year, better a very great deal than they have ever done before. adieu my dear Nicholas, remember me affectionately to Browse, & rely on the unchanging attachment of your friend and sister.