Virginia J. Randolph Trist to Nicholas P. Trist

Faithful to my promise, dearest —, I shall spend an hour every Sunday in writing all my childish recollections of my dear grandfather, which are sufficiently distinct to relate to you. My memory seems crowded with them, and they have the vividness of realities; but all are trifles in themselves, such as I might talk to you by the hour, but when I have taken up my pen, they seem almost too childish to write down. But these remembrances are precious to me, because they are of him, and because they restore him to me as he then was, when his cheerfulness and affection were the warm sun in which his family all basked and were invigorated. Cheerfulness, love, benevolence, wisdom, seemed to animate his whole form. His face beamed with them. You remember how active was his step, how lively and even playful were his manners.

I cannot describe the feelings of veneration, admiration and love that existed in my heart towards him. I looked on him as a being too great and good for my comprehension; and yet I felt no fear to approach him, and be taught by him some of the childish sports that I delighted in. When he walked in the garden and would call the children to go with him, we raced after and before him, and we were made perfectly happy by this permission to accompany him. Not one of us in our wildest moods ever placed a foot on one of the garden beds, for that would violate one of his rules, and yet I never heard him utter a harsh word to one of us, or speak in a raised tone of voice, or use a threat. He simply said, “do,” or “do not.” He would gather fruit for us, seek out the ripest figs, or bring down the cherries from on high above our heads with a long stick, at the end of which there was a hook and a little net bag … One of our earliest amusements was in running races on the terrace, or around the lawn. He placed us according to our ages, giving the youngest and smallest the start of all the others by some yards, and so on, and then he raised his arm high with his white handkerchief in his hand, on which our eager eyes were fixed, and slowly counted three, at which number he dropt the handkerchief and we started off to finish the race by returning to the starting-place and receiving our reward of dried fruit—three figs, prunes or dates to the victor, two to the second, and one to the lagger who came in last. These were our summer sports with him.

I was born the year he was elected President, and except one winter that we spent with him in Washington, I never was with him during that season until after he had retired from office. During his absences, all the children who could write corresponded with him. Their letters were duly answered,1 and it was a sad mortification to me that I had not learned to write before his return to live at home, and of course had no letter from him. Whenever an opportunity occurred, he sent us books, and he never saw a little story or piece of poetry in a newspaper suited to our ages and tastes, that he did not preserve it and send it to us; and from him we learnt the habit of making these miscellaneous collections by pasting in a little paper book made for the purpose, anything of the sort that we received from him or got otherwise.2

On winter evenings, when it grew too dark to read, in the half hour that passed before candles came in, as we all sat round the fire, he taught us several childish games, and would play them with us. I remember that “cross questions,” and “I love my love with an A,” were two I learned from him; and we would teach some of ours to him. When the candles were brought, all was quiet immediately, for he took up his book to read, and we would not speak out of a whisper lest we should disturb him, and generally we followed his example and took a book—and I have seen him raise his eyes from his own book and look round on the little circle of readers, and smile and make some remark to mamma about it. When the snow fell we would go out as soon as it stopped to clear it off the terraces with shovels, that he might have his usual walk on them without treading in snow.3

He often made us little presents. I remember his giving us “Parents’ Assistant,”4 and that we drew lots, and that she who drew the longest straw had the first reading of the book—the next longest straw entitled the drawer to the second reading—the shortest, to the last reading and the ownership of the book. Often he discovered, we knew not how, some cherished object of our desires, and the first intimation we had of his knowing the wish was its unexpected gratification. Sister Anne gave a silk dress to sister Ellen. Cornelia [then eight or ten years old] going up stairs, involuntarily expressed aloud some feelings which possessed her bosom on the occasion, by saying, “I never had a silk dress in my life.” The next day a silk dress came from Charlottesville for Cornelia—and (to make the rest of us equally happy) also a pair of pretty dresses for Mary and myself. One day I was passing hastily through the glass door from the hall to the portico; there was a broken pane which caught my muslin dress and tore it sadly. Grandpapa was standing by and saw the disaster. A few days after he came into mamma’s sitting-room with a bundle in his hand, and said to me, “I have been mending your dress for you.” He had himself selected for me another beautiful dress. I had for a long time a great desire to have a guitar. A lady of our neighborhood was going to the West and wished to part with her guitar, but she asked so high a price that I never in my dreams aspired to its possession. One morning on going down to breakfast, I saw the guitar. It had been sent up by Mrs. — for us to look at, and grandpapa told me that if I would promise to learn to play on it I should have it. I never shall forget my ecstasies. I was but fourteen years old and the first wish of my heart was unexpectedly gratified

Published in Henry S. Randall, Life of Thomas Jefferson (Boston, 1858), 3:349–51. Ellipses in published letter.
1Randall’s footnote keyed here reads, in part: “Of the letters addressed to Mrs. Bankhead, we know nothing. She died early, and they are probably lost. Those addressed to the next grand-daughter were numerous, No copies were kept of them, and they were all lost at sea—while following their owner to a Northern city. The younger grand-daughters were too young to receive more than one or two apiece from him.”
2Randall’s footnote keyed here reads: “some of these harmless scrap-books were mistaken by a visitor (or writer in the newspapers, who claimed to derive his information from a visitor) for collections by Mr. Jefferson of all the attacks made on him in the public journals! There was not a trace of truth in the statement. Mr. Jefferson very rarely read, and never took pains to preserve an attack on himself.”
3Randall’s footnote keyed here reads: “The writer of the above, assured us personally, that the task here described was too eagerly coveted to be permitted to a domestic—and that it would have been a gratification to the little shovellers, to sweep the long terraces with their hair, to express their love for him for whose feet they were preparing them.”
4Randall’s footnote keyed here reads: “Miss Edgworth’s works were collected as they appeared, and given to the children. Mr. Jefferson was a hearty admirer of Miss Edgworth—notwithstanding the very few novels he ever read.”
Date Range
May 26, 1839
Randall, Life of Thomas Jefferson