Ellen W. Randolph Coolidge to Henry S. Randall

No. 6. (omitted.)

I know not where to begin in reply to your enquiries, my dear Mr Randall, for many subjects press upon me at once. I will therefore take up the one to which I have already alluded. You say in one of your letters “From some remark that dropped from Wormeley, a former slave in your family, as in 1852, I stood with him looking into one of the windows of one of the offices at Monticello, I inferred that some tragic features mingled in the tale (in what tale of human life alas, do they not mingle) of your father and grandfather’s connected history. I asked no questions of Wormeley—I have asked none since—your own judgment and taste will be your best guide as to what it is best to say.”

Wormeley was an attached and faithful slave set free by my mother, and who, up to this time, when he has attained an advanced age, has continued a servant in the family. He now lives with Mrs Ruffin, one of my brother’s married daughters. His loyal attachment,

“The constant service of the antique world,

“When service sweat for duty and not meed

having passed through four generations, for he is particularly devoted to Mrs Ruffin’s children, the great, great -grand children of his old master.*

Wormeley must himself have received a false or exaggerated impression of the nature of the relations subsisting between his “old and his young master” to give you the idea that any thing deserving the name of “tragic” ever mingled in these relations. I think that my grandfather’s conduct to my father was singularly wise and kind—perfect in it’s forbearance, it’s generosity, it’s dignity. He pursued the only course which, with a man of my father’s peculiar temper & habits of mind, could have ensured family peace. My father with some noble qualities, great abilities, ardent feelings, a high sense of honour, extraordinary personal courage and hardihood, and naturally warm affections, was jealous, suspicious, irascible and violent. His feelings were morbid, his judgment controuled by his passions. Have you ever read Godwin’s Fleetwood or the Man of Feeling? In Fleetwood, from my recollections of the character, you will find a near resemblance of my father. He was a man of too high perceptions both in morals and intellect, not to appreciate & admire my grandfather, but for this very reason perhaps, he was jealous of his good opinion, and always fancying neglect or undue preference of others. He carried a bitter dislike of my uncle John Wayles Eppes (he was a fierce hater, my father!) principally because he thought him the favored son-in-law. Mr Eppes was a gay, good-natured, laughing man, inferior perhaps to my father in talent & cultivation, but of a much happier and more amiable temper. His manners were free and familiar, my father’s cold and austere. Of course my grandfather’s tone in addressing persons so opposite in character was not the same to both. With Mr Eppes he was often jocose, with my father kind, courteous and respectful. In action he was to both uniformly generous, liberal, obliging—rendering them many services and often very important ones. As my father advanced in life, and his pecuniary difficulties increased, he became more morose, more irritable, more suspicious. My own belief is that nothing but the mingled dignity, forbearance and kindness of my grandfather prevented some outbreak which might forever have alienated two men bound by the strongest ties. But it was impossible to resist the influence of a manner so resolutely friendly, so determined in it’s union of consideration and cordiality. Whatever my grandfather may have known of my father’s suspicions and unfounded resentments, he adopted the wise plan of seeming ignorance, and his unalterable calm, his affectionate politeness made it entirely impossible to begin an unpleasant discussion. The angry and rebellious spirit was subdued and, in spite of itself, controuled by a higher nature and a more manly bearing. Thus my mother was spared what would have been the heaviest of misfortunes, a positive disunion between her father and her husband. She suffered greatly from my father’s sullen moods and angry fancies. She dreaded lest they should at last break through all barriers—But her own influence over a man who loved & honored her to the last, united to the steady determination of my grandfather, succeeded in averting the danger and the shame.

The great source of disquiet and uneasiness which latterly saddened our Monticello home was pecuniary embarrassment. Dark clouds seemed gathering over our heads and shutting out the cheerful light of the Sun. What above all things we dreaded was that the last years of our grandfather’s life should be disturbed by a consciousness of debt.

The only thing however in our family history to which the word tragic might well be applied, was of a nature to find no place in your book, as you do not propose, like Lockhart, to record the sins and follies of all the family connexion. But I will tell you what this sorrow was. The early and most miserable marriage of my eldest sister, Mrs Bankhead. She was the oldest of my grandfather’s grandchildren—his first favorite and pet—the firstborn of his firstborn. She grew up a beautiful woman, by far the handsomest of the family, and married before she was eighteen, a man of suitable age and fortune, of prepossesing exteriour, gentlemanly manners & education, competent understanding and not naturally of bad heart or unamiable temper. But addicted from his boyhood, as it afterwards appeared, though suspected by none of his friends, to intemperance. For [. . .] some time after his marriage he succeeded in concealing his deplorable habits—he even made some faint attempts to get the better of them, but they were strong and he was weak. The miserable sequel is soon told. He became a worthless, furious, malignant drunkard—did all the mischief such a character was sure to do—my sister was a victim, my mother rendered wretched, and many hours of my grandfather’s declining life were grievously embittered. Over such a story let us draw as thick a veil as we can. My sister died young, happily for herself.—Even from this great evil some good was seen to flow. It gave us all a still higher appreciation of our mother and grandfather by shewing the extent of their strong affections and magnanimous patience. I remember the distress of my grandfather when one evening, after he had returned to his room, this wretched cast-away, in a fit of drunken fury, insulted, reviled and at last struck the excellent, faithful Burwell, the trustworthy and affectionate servant whom his master had always treated like a friend. That Burwell should have received a blow, should have been outraged under his master’s roof, and the author of the outrage the husband of one of his own grandaughters seemed to produce upon my grandfather an effect more paintful than I can well describe. But enough of this miserable, bad man. Thank heaven, my own brothers were, without exception, men of excellent characters & habits—gentlemen in the best sense of the word—worthy to be their mother’s sons.

But I must close for the present. It is near midnight for I have been absolutely prevented from writing sooner.

Very truly yours,
Ellen W. Coolidge
[Note by Coolidge]

(*I have just heard of Wormeley’s death. He survived his young & most excellent mistress, Mrs Ruffin, just one year! 13. July. 1858.)

Tr (ViU: Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge Correspondence, Letterbook); in the hand of Ellen W. Randolph Coolidge.

constant service ... not meed is from William Shakespear’s As You Like It, act 2, scene 3. godwin’s fleetwood was Fleetwood: or, the New Man of Feeling, by William Godwin (1805).