Extract from Ellen W. Randolph Coolidge to Henry S. Randall

No 2.The character and pecuniary embarrassments of my father, Col. Randolph.—Parts of this letter, very properly omitted by Mr Randall as unfit for publication, I reproduce here. They are facts which my children should know.

My dear Mr Randall,

Few things could give me more pleasure than to contribute in the smallest degree to the successful termination of the work which at present occupies your time and thoughts. I feel the deepest interest in it.—

I will not take up your questions in order, but write what I can, when I can, and as the thoughts happen to suggest themselves.—One thing strikes me at this moment. How comes it that my brother, Col. Jefferson Randolph, and Mr Trist should have left you uninformed on the subject of my father’s loss of property? You say that you desire to present him to your readers as a gallant, accomplished, wealthy and generous man—But that “as the world already knows the story of Mr Jefferson’s pecuniary difficulties, why did not his wealthy son-in-law relieve him, is a question which people must ask themselves.”

The answer is that Col. Randolph’s pecuniary difficulties began early, and arose from peculiarities in his own character and circumstances which kept him always poor, even when in possession of large property. My mother’s life from the earliest moment of my recollection (I was her fourth child) was one of painful economy and self-denying frugality. She had none of the luxuries, few of the gratifications which her birth, early life & habits, and the handsome fortune she carried my father, certainly entitled her to. Whatever she enjoyed beyond the necessaries, scarcely amounting to comforts, which she allowed herself came from her father. Not that her husband, who truly loved and honored her, would not have granted her every indulgence, but he always left himself without the power to consult her wishes or his own. One of the admirable points in my mother’s conduct was her cheerful submission to a state of things so painful and undeserved. There seemed to be a sort of fatality in my father’s character which made it impossible for him, in the first place to avoid pecuniary difficulties, and in the second, once involved in them ever to extricate himself. Then it must be said that circumstances were against him. His father, a weak man, made a most unwise second marriage and became perfectly enthralled by a young and most unprincipled wife, a very step-mother to his children. By her artifices he was induced to alienate the whole of the large property which remained to him after portioning his elder children, entirely from the younger ones of the first marriage. Five of these, my uncle John and my younger aunts were left nearly destitute, and of these my father took almost entire charge of four. He aided very materially in the maintenance of my uncle; he supported my aunt, Mrs Morris, for many years before her marriage; his sister Jane Mrs T. E. Randolph, found a home in his home family for at least four years, and his youngest sister, Mrs Cary, he adopted & educated as his own child, putting her on the footing of an elder daughter and portioning her as he was never able to do his own younger children.

But it was not in the discharge of a sacred duty, the care of his nearest relatives left helpless and unprovided for, that my poor father expended the ample means he at one time possessed. It was in the service of persons having very small claims upon him that he wasted his own patrimony and even his wife’s fortune. It was by lending his name to enable idle and extravagant kinsmen and companions rather than friends, to pursue an unprincipled career, by rendering himself responsible for their debts which he was ultimately forced to pay, that he impoverished himself and his family. He could not say No to importunate pleaders, to distressed gentlemen relatives or neighbours or old school-fellows distressed almost always by the results of their own folly. He stood security again and again for men to whose selfish entreaties and false statements he sacrificed his fortune and his peace of mind. He was always crippled by debts not of his own contracting, and lived a life of painful frugality and self-denial only to enable others to keep above water for a short time longer their foolish heads which sunk at last to rise no more, carrying him with them. But he was for a long time persuaded that nothing was wanting but time to husband his ressources, collect his means and work through his difficulties. He thought and he assured my mother that if she would only aid him, by consenting to a close system of retrenchment and economy, he should be able in a few years, to re-establish his fortunes. She did consent, and she did retrench and economise most severely, most conscientiously and most cheerfully. My earliest recollections, my grandfather being then President, are of my dear mother’s noble endurance, patient fortitude, and steady conformity to my father’s wishes and to her own sense of duty!

And she might perhaps have been rewarded for all her sacrifices and my father might have retrieved his fortunes but that same fatality of character, the only fatality that exists, pursued him, and her through him. It was written that he should be poor and die poor, though once rich, the son of a rich father, and married to a wife with a fortune of her own. Again and again he yielded to the solicitations of his friends—again and again he believed their solemn assurances—“Your name, only your name, we pledge our sacred honour that you shall never be called on to pay a farthing.” But he always was called on to pay not “one farthing” but generally the whole amount of the debt.—

(The remainder of this letter is printed by Mr Randall with the exception of the closing paragraphs which follow.)

Now when you take into consideration that my father, almost from the time of his accession to his property, was thus victimized by his friends, and that the infirmities of his character began life with him and pursued him through the whole course of his career, you will understand that when my grandfather’s difficulties commenced, my father was utterly unable to assist him. To the contrary he had been receiving assistance from him in various ways and at various times.

In the year 1809, when my grandfather retired from public life, and my mother and her large family went to reside at Monticello, almost the whole weight of their support fell upon her father. Her husband contributed no doubt, but not to any very great extent. Generous & liberal as he was by nature, and glad as he would have been to surround his wife and children with all that wealth could give, he had deprived himself of the means of even maintaining them in comfort. My poor father! His doom was to profit by no advantage of nature or of fortune however lavishly bestowed upon him! They were of benefit neither to himself nor to those he most loved.

Having written myself weary I will say adieu, my dear Mr Randall, with the hope that I may have thrown some light on a part at least of your subject.

Very truly yours,
Ellen W. Coolidge
Tr (ViU: Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge Correspondence, Letterbook); in the hand of Ellen W. Randolph Coolidge; with note by Coolidge, indicating that portions of the letter had been published on “(P. 327) 3d Vol.” of Randall’s Life of Thomas Jefferson (1858).
Henry S. Randall
Date Range
January 26, 1856