Ellen W. Randolph Coolidge’s Memories of Martha Jefferson Randolph

I meant to make a little sketch of my mother’s life, but never got beyond these two pages—

Martha Jefferson was the eldest child of Thomas Jefferson and of Martha Wayles, widow of Bathurst Skelton. She was born in January 1772, & lost her mother when she was but ten years old. She was one of several children, who all but herself and her sister Maria, afterwards Mrs John Wayles Eppes, died in infancy. She seems to have been her father’s favorite child, and after her mother’s death, became his inseparable companion. She was with him in all his journeyings and finally accompanied him to France when he was sent there as American Minister, about the year 1784. She was too young to remain an inmate of her father’s family in a foreign country, and was placed by him, for her education, in a convent, the Abbaye Royal de Panthemont, in the Faubourg Saint-Germain. Here she remained until within one year of her return to America in 1789. Her sister Maria had remained in the U.S. under the care of a maternal aunt, whose son she afterwards married. She afterwards joined her father & sister at Paris & was placed at the Abbaye de Panthemont. The system of education at this Convent seems to have been altogether admirable. If the secret of education is to bring young persons under happy influences by which all that is best in their characters & talents may be brought forward to perfection, and all that is evil industriously repressed, then this secret seems to have been possessed in a rare degree by the Superintendents of this establishment. Mrs Randolph was wont to say in after life, that she looked back to her residence in the Convent as to a period of great happiness & great improvement. The young ladies of the school were watched over by kind and vigilant eyes, well taught, well treated, their morals & manners carefully formed, and their understandings judiciously cultivated. The only drawback to all these advantages was a spirit of proselytism which prevailed among the nuns and which operated on the daughters of protestant parents to withdraw them from the faith of their fathers.

Martha Jefferson’s young mind was not proof against the Roman Catholic influences which surrounded her. For a long time she hesitated & doubted and finally applied to her father for permission to embrace the religion she had learned to love better than her own. He thought her too young to decide for herself on a subject so important and withdrew her from the Convent to give her time for reflection uninfluenced by it’s atmosphere. The result was that she remained a protestant, though she ever retained a strong feeling of regard for the Church of Rome & it’s adherents1

MS (ViU: Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge Correspondence, Letterbook); in the hand of Ellen W. Randolph Coolidge.
1The last seventeen words of this sentence appear on a separate slip of paper at foot of text.
Date Range
January 1, 1858 to December 31, 1858