Ellen W. Randolph Coolidge’s Memories of Thomas Jefferson

a beginning destined never to go farther—

Thomas Jefferson

It is now one hundred and fifteen years since a respectable family, possessed of competent fortune, resided on a plantation of Virginia situated on the banks of a mountain stream, the Rivanna, a tributary of the noble James, one of the great rivers pouring their waters into Chesapeake Bay. This family consisted of a father, mother & children. The father was believed to be of Welsh descent, the mother belonged to one of the wealthy & aristocratic families of the Old Dominion, at a time when such an origin told far much more than it would do at the present time moment.

The name of the father was Jefferson—the mother was a Randolph, daughter of Isham Randolph, the son of William Randolph of Warwickshire, England, the first of the name who emigrated to America. The arms of the Randolphs were gules, a cross argent, five mullets sables. The crest an antelope’s head proper.

The name of Mr Jefferson’s plantation was Shadwell, so called in honour of the birthplace, in England, of Mrs Jane Rogers, a stern & strict lady of the old school, much feared & little loved by her children, the mother of Mrs Jefferson.

Here, on the 2nd April O.S. 1743, was born Thomas Jefferson, the subject of this short memoir.

His father, Peter Jefferson, by original occupation a Surveyor, though afterwards becoming a gentleman farmer of handsome estate, was a man of remarkable character and qualities. Strong in body, strong in mind, firm energetic, manly, wise and kind—respected by his neighbours, loved by his friends, a good husband, an eminently good father. He died in 1757 leaving many children, when his eldest son, Thomas, was but fourteen years old. A great loss, though he had striven to give such early education to his children & to make such provision for their support as to render them less dependent on the chances of after life. Mrs Jefferson, mild & peaceful by nature, a person of sweet temper and gentle manners, survived her husband many years, living till 1776.

Thomas Jefferson, though the eldest son, was the third child. Of all his family the person whom he loved most tenderly was his sister Jane, several years older than himself. Of her he always spoke with equal admiration and affection, and she must certainly have been a woman of superior merit & ability—full of wit & talent and of excellent sense & temper. She died unmarried at twenty five, and her death made a lasting impression on her young & devoted brother.

Mr Jefferson the elder, placed his son at the English school when only five years old, and at the Latin school four years after. With Mr Douglas his Latin teacher, a clergyman from Scotland, he remained till his father’s death, when he was transferred, for two years, to the care of the Revd Mr Maury. This gentleman besides being a correct classical scholar, was greatly respected for his many virtues. He lived to such age as to perform the mariage ceremony for the eldest daughter of his pupil, Martha Jefferson, Mrs Thomas Mann Randolph.

But the education, physical and moral, which the ardent & vigorous boy was obtaining in other ways than by his schools, was of a kind to strengthen all his good dispositions of mind & body. He was richly gifted by nature with powers which only needed development. A mind of high order, a temper singularly cheerful & sanguine, a warm heart, to which was added sound & excellent health. His organization was every way fortunate and his early training was to habits of truth and courage. His affections were cultivated in the midst of an attached and united family. Living in a thinly peopled and densely wooded country, he became well versed in all the ways of the woods & fields, was a fearless rider, a bold hunter and skillful in the use of his gun.

At sixteen he was entered at William & Mary College where he became an indefatigable student, and profited to the utmost by all the educational advantages which the institution afforded, or which he could secure for himself by zeal and a genuine love of knowledge.

MS (ViU: Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge Correspondence, Letterbook); in the hand of Ellen W. Randolph Coolidge.
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Date Range
January 1, 1858 to December 31, 1858