Martha Jefferson Randolph to Ellen W. Randolph Coolidge

I recieved your letter dearest Ellen after a very sick night, occasioned I believe by a walk of about 20 minutes on the terrace, and although it has left me extremely languid, yet as the subject of it will admit of no delay I will try and recall to memory as many of the circumstances which have come to my knowledge as I can, and leave to Joseph’s discretion and your own to [. . .] select what would be proper to communicate and what to with hold from the publick.

You know that he recieved a great estate from his own father. I should suppose at least 10,000 acres of land here and at Poplar Forrest where his and My Mother’s lands were contiguous. she her self was sole heiress of to an heiress and coheiress with her sisters to her father’s estate. but by my My Grand father’s will I believe her negroes were thrown in and divided with the rest, or a part of them I do not know which, and she [. . .] inherited a part of his land, the Bedford land was exactly what she chose in the division. by his will the estate was to be kept to gether untill the debts were paid. but it was so badly managed that his heirs determined to divide it and each pay his part. My Father immediately sold a valuable estate of My Mother’s not liable for the debt but which suited them best to dispose of. this took place before the war consequently before paper money had ever been thought of, but he was paid in depreciated paper money the amount of the sale bought him a great coat. the purchaser excused him self by saying that he also had been treated in the same way. the State of Virginia in what year I can not say instituted1 a loan office in which she invited her citizens to deposit their british debts, pledging her self at the end of the war to refund the money to them—My Father sold his own Bedford lands not liable either for the same payment of the same debt and deposited the money in the loan office where it was lost the State government being reorganised in 1787 they found they could not make good their engagements and broke their faith soleml solemnly pledged—there was no help for it, it was a matter of necessity and he submitted to th with out a murmur to a measure ruinous to many but for which there was no remedy. there was an attempt made to annull liquidate the british debts and defraud the british creditor but fortunately there was honesty enough left to defeat it. but while the thing was still pending My Father called a meeting of My Uncles and the british Agent Hanson, at Monticello in the winter 89, 90 where they agreed to pay the debt without regard to the issue of the question then before the legislature, exacting of him however that he would hold each liable for his third only, that he would relinquish the 8 years interest of the war and that he would recieve the bonds collect the money and2 hold come upon them only in case of actual loss from bad bonds. it is probable he thought the conditions not hard for he although a hard man he acquiesed at once. My Father sold 100 negroes for the payment of the debt for the third time and when he retired from publick life in 92 I think it was I heard him say the debt was all paid to I think between 2 and 300$ not as much as three hunded I am certain. he had met with other losses some of which I remember hearing him speak of, and many no doubt that I either never heard of or have forgotten. but during the war the civil officers recieved their salary at the nominal value wi while their expenditures were according to the scale of depreciation. you remember no doubt My Mother’s old account book in which was a chintz gown at 250 dollars a powder box and puff at 40, & & & General Nelson was refused a horse in lieu of 30,000 $ paper money by the purchaser of an estate sold for that sum, and while My Father was Governor the depreciation was I have heard 1000, for one. I remember perfectly hearing him say that his whole salary paid for a set of table china, and by no means a full or an elegant one. to the military that was made good, but not to the civil officers of course he lost more than others, only in as much as being Governor his expenses were necessarily greater. he lost also by advis[ed] Aunt Marks to place her money in some [. . .] fund by which she lost it and having been the cause of the loss he refunded the money. 25 valuable negroes were given her out of his estate at her marriage to replace that. he gave each of his daughters a good marriage portion mine was 1800 acres of the Bedford lands and 40 negroes my sisters was the same in value. and to her son the house at Poplar forrest with some [. . .] additional land at a time when he thought him self not only perfectly solvent but rich enough to provide well for My self and his other grand children. To Jefferson in he intended doing as much as for Francis giving each the portion of an elder son, because the house of the eldest son he always said was the natural home of the Orphan children, and he their natural guardian and protector; and that rendered it just that he should have a greater share of [. . .] the estate to enable him to meet those claims—he retired from publick life in 92 almost entirely free from debt and in the vigor of yout if not of youth yet of strength, with his powerfull constitution and still more powerful mind, unimpaired by care or sickness he turned his whole attention to the management of his private affairs. we lived with him, happy, and prosperous, when the violent political struggle between the 2 great parties that divided the Union drew him most reluctantly I do aver, from his retirement. I witnessed the importunites he endured and the violent strugle between his aversion to return to those stormy scenes that he had quitted with so much pleasure and his sense of duty to his country. after remaining 12 years in office he returned to Monticello in 1809 broken in constitution with a load of debt contracted by his overseers, too old to learn and too feeble in health to attend give that attention to his affairs which a virginia slave estate requires. he had on his first return from Europe prohibited the culture of tobacco as a crop, because it was such hard work for the negroes and from 70 hogsheads which were made at Poplar forrest the year we returned they fell to as much only as could be cultivated without interfering with the other crops say 10 or 15 never I believe beyond 20. any one who knows any thing of a Virginia slave estate will know how soon with out the most unremitting and judicious attention and good management it will bring the owner to ruin, with out any extravagance, as surely in our case their there was none, but his fears of having his negroes over worked and ill treated furnished his overseers with an excuse for doing nothing. they knew that their own wages would always come out of the principal even where they made nothing. and they literally made nothing. the Poplar forest estate fell short regularly 1000 $ a year of its own expenses and I have known 1500 $ paid for bread alone on this plantation besides cloathing and the expense of the house establishment. the sacrifice of a library worth 50,000 $ we always believed for 23,000 gave a check to his ruin but it did not pay his debts by a good deal at the time, then the unfortunate endorsement of 20,000 $ for Col. N. gave the finishing blow. such was the state of things when Jefferson took the mann management of his affairs in hand he did every thing that could be done at so late a period but his good management came too late to save. it kept the estate to gether and I sincerely believe prolonged his precious life. to the lottery he looked as a blessed inspiration which by enabling him to sell a part of his property for it’s value would pay his debts and leave his family independent. he died tranquil under that belief it was an error but blessed in it’s effects as it rendered his last moments happy in the belief that our circumstances would be entirely independent if not good. the reverse is now entirely ascertained. if they [. . .] sell ½ the tickets the lottery will be drawn in december the 15th the money arising from that and the subscriptions after paying certain debt to which it is appropriated will leave a debt of 20,000 $ for which the Bedford property is mortgaged and which althoug[h] it is worth more than the double will in these disastrous times sweep the whole. other debts which I do not remember will take the remaining property negroes house hold furniture and stock which will be advertised for the 15th of January if tickets enough are not sold to authorise the drawing of the lottery a decree from the chancellor will be obtained for selling the property which would have been drawn, and immediately after the sales, the advertisement will come out for a school, my last means of support except one which I never will resort to as long as I have strength to do any thing for My self. as soon as I go, the poor dear girls will set about having the furniture got in order for the sale, after which the house will be shut up and they will go to Tufton to stay till my return in May as in no case the house can be disposed of before October and we shall retain some of the beds and cheapist cheapest of the furniture will be retained I shall return here to make my final arrangements according to circumstances. My dear Jefferson proposed building a house at Shadwell for me, but I have too large a family to burthen him whose youth has been almost worn out in our service. we will take a house some where, and all remain to gether Virginia can take her part in teaching and if I get a good assistant Cornelia and Vir Mary may take it by turns to stay with you. I am told that my number will only be limited by my power of accommod[a]ting them. but I feel that I require present relaxation from care. the scenes which will take place this winter would be an injudicious and unnecessary trial of a constitution that has been too severely tried of late, and which may if spared in time, ensure many years of utility.

Gen. Cocke and Mr Garrett have been Jefferson’s advisers. the debts ammount to nearly 100,000 $ and the property will under any circumstances fall short I cant tell you what I have suffered since the first dreadfull conviction of our total ruin. and the frightfull task of keeping school in my present state of mind was but if God does not literally “temper the wind to the shorn lamb” the poor creatures feelings become seared and callous to it the keen wind I assure you I am quite tranquil and begin to look forward with almost indifference to the means, and something like hope to the end. I am sick now but I shall be well again, and the bitter anguish of seeing his abode rendered desolate, the walls dismantled, and the sanctua[r]y of his bed room violated by the auctioneer, I shall escape by being with you. adieu My dear child dont be alarmed or uneasy about me. I have shewn so much strength in this last fatal year that I dare say I shall struggle through what remains behind. I am afraid I have lost this mail if I have I may probably add some thing more having confined my self to pecuniary matters alone his character and habits you know almost as well as my self his failings even were from a virtuous source his temper in youth was gay chearful even to gaity his manners to the his children sportive and affectionate but partaking of the enthusiasm of his character in youth. in the course of my life I can not call to mind one solitary action that I would censure. I have often seen him irritated some times in violent passions, but never with out a reason that would have justified his going much farther than he did. kind and liberal in the extreme his heart and purse were always alike open to those who had any claims even the slightest upon them, and often3 to those who had none but there distresses. his charities were numerous but judicious. what can I say My dear Ellen that have so long basked in the sun shine of his affections, and been the witness to his private virtue, that will not look like partiality? but if speak at all I must speak the truth, and so doing can utter nothing but praise. adieu once more give to My dear Joseph and My baby the affectionate greeting of a mother who has nothing else left to give God bless and preserve you all nothing can justify my imposing the reading of such a letter upon you but the subject and My being to unwell to write another

RC (ViHi); addressed: “Mrs J. Coolidge Junior to the care of J. Coolidge Jur Boston Massachusetts”; stamped; postmarked Charlottesville, 22 Oct.; sealed: “A Letter Soothes the Pain of Absence.”
1Manuscript: “instituded.”
2Manuscript: “and and.”
3Manuscript: “often often.”
Date Range
October 22, 1826