Ellen W. Randolph (Coolidge) to Nicholas P. Trist
|Monticello March 30th 1824.|
Really, my dear Nicholas, you are quite too modest and humble; you will never make your way in the world with so poor an opinion of your own merits; do you not know that with the common herd a man often passes current for the value he chooses to fix on himself & that impudence is the most thriving quality you can possess.—how could you so far underrate your own communications, & overvalue my poor returns as to think one of your letters worth only ten of mine—what disinterestedness & humility. the days of chivalry are reviving, and I have lived to see the time when the scrip of a man’s gentleman’s pen was not such an obligation but it might be repaid in kind by a lady, & that at the rate of only ten for one.—I must say with old Leddy Grippy “weel! this beats print,” though to say the truth I am more tempted to quote from Sir Anthony Absolute “Why Jack, you d—d impudent dog!” only I am afraid you might be shocked at so flagrant an usurpation of the rights of your sex, which reserves as a peculiar privilege, the use of such energetic expressions, and although the words G—d d—m, or as the French write it, godam or godem, are considered by this ingenious people in common with other foreigners, as the very basis and root of the English tongue, or as Lord Byron expresses it
|– – – – – – – – those syllables intense.|
|Nucleus of England’s native eloquence,|
yet with the injustice which has uniformly marked your proceedings wherever women were concerned, you forbid us to avail ourselves of what would give so much bone and sinew to our sayings.
You are mistaken, my dear Nicholas, in supposing that I have escaped the rock, on which many a noble mind having been is wrecked, and where the skiff laden with such mental faculties as Nature had bestowed on me, has been near dashing to pieces, and by no means avoided such injury as has sensibly damaged the cargo. the Conduct of the Understanding is indeed a subject of the deepest importance, too little attended to by either the instructers of youth or their pupils—I would give much, very much, to have read Locke’s Essay on this subject ten years sooner than I did. it might then have been of immense value to me; now it does little more then waken my regrets & I am almost sorry to have my eyes opened to the errors of my course, now that being too late to retrieve them, I can only sigh over my own ignorance & the folly of my past career—I have been all my life in the custom of reading a good deal, but I can truly say that I never knew how I ought to read until I had grown too old & my habits too inveterate for the knowledge to be of much use to me, especially as the injudicious manner in which I burthened without exercising my memory, had already, [. . .], materially impaired that important faculty, and of course in great measure taken from me the means of laying up matter for reflection—in former years I read because it amused me & because I wished to make myself a companion for those intelligent and well-informed persons in whose society I most delighted, but it never occurred to me that it was necessary to do any thing but read; to reflect on what I read, to go slowly and deliberately to work & make myself thoroughly acquainted with the nature and properties of A, before I proceeded to investigate B, C, and D, of this I had no idea. I knew that it was folly to read without understanding what I read, but to understand I conceived to be nothing more than to have an image presented to my mind, & provided the words of the author, instead of falling on my ear, as in a foreign language, did really give me some kind of an idea I examined no farther—my fancy was a warm and lively one, I delighted in leaving the world of realities, to spend all my leisure hours amid creations which as they existed principally in my own brain I could of course accommodate to my own tastes, nor was I aware that the proper and healthy employment of the mind was to think, and not to dream and that it’s business was to make the best use of the materials it could gather from observation and reading, taken as they were, and not fantastically moulded into new forms, to please a capricious imagination, or rejected altogether to give place to phantoms which that imagination possessed the dangerous power of forming at will—Was I a man, could my studies have any object of sufficient importance to stimulate my exertions, I would now, even now, commence my education, and with a hornbook in my hand, and experience in my head, go through all the drudgery of the rudiments of knowledge, resolutely resisting all temptation to explore new lands before I had secured my title to the old ones; as it is, I am nothing but a woman, and could promise myself no competent reward for so much trouble—and perhaps you will say if I had not been a woman I should not have thought myself & my concerns so entertaining a subject as I appear to have done, talking to you of nothing else—let me see then if I can find something to say about other people, & things—the newspapers have answered your questions concerning Mr Gallatin, & when I tell you I am a Crawfordite as well as yourself, it will be the same thing as telling you that the political part of your letter met with my full assent, whilst the interest I take in the subject may remove all future apprehensions from your mind of wearying me by your speculations upon it—do tell me if you have any good elementary books, which would give me the first principles of Sciences of Politics so that I may be able to set a just value on what I sometimes think very fine, merely because I never happened to hear it before, thus making my own ignorance the test of knowledge.—I am keeping a watchful eye on my hero Bolivar, ardently desirous that he should gather fresh laurels for his own immortal brow, in the land of the Incas—I have some hopes of becoming acquainted in the course of the summer with a first cousin of his, who is Consul General from the Republic of Colombia, and said very much to resemble, in person at least, his illustrious kinsman—this gentleman promises us a visit if nothing happens to put it out of his power to pay this tribute of respect to the “gran Jefferson ” for whom he professes a profound veneration—My Washington friends write me that he is a perfect Indian Apollo, so that Bolivar in addition to his “godlike spirit” had probably in his younger days a godlike person, “ the outward & visible sign of the inward grace.” I hear through the same sources; (passing from great things to small, from a hero of real life, to a heroine of romance) that Miss Cora Livingston has been a good deal of a belle in Washington, although it is agreed on all hands that she would be a great deal more charming, were she a little less anxious to be thought so, & could be prevailed on to lay aside a few of the affected airs & artificial graces with which she has over-ornamented herself—the [. . .] ‘Maman’ too is not sufficiently cautious in concealing her maternal anxiety for the success of her daughter, and keeps up a constant fire of looks & winks and nods, with approving or disapproving gestures which matronly battery playing upon Miss Cora, is not so well muted concealed from other people as it might be—this you will understand is between ourselves, for many a tongue has been cut out for saying, what every eye could see—
You speak with so much openness of your grand mother, (and why should you not to one who feels for you all the affection of a sister, & to whom your confidence is sacred) that I have no hesitation in saying what I think upon her subject. I do not perceive that the faculties of her mind are seriously impaired except her memory which is utterly & absolutely gone, so much so, that not only from day to day, but from hour to hour, she forgets all that she sees, hears or reads. in writing a letter she will repeat on the second page what she has said on the first, and after finishing the whole, will begin a fresh sheet & go over the same, from sheer forgetfulness of what she has previously done written —she is conscious of this decay of memory & frequently speaks of it—her spirits are very much what they used to be, always fluctuating between cheerfulness & depression, but her temper has been more acrid than in former times, and will I am afraid my dear Nicholas, give you trouble—however I am not quite sure that this increased asperity proceeded from any thing more than ennui, for it always disappeared upon a rise in her spirits—the fears you express with regard to her putting “our friendship to a hard trial” are entirely groundless—in the first place she is your grandmother & you are one of us, and your interests & your affections are ours, and in the second, she has so many friends in this neighbourhood at whose houses she is welcome that you should not allow yourself to indulge a single unpleasant feeling—Mrs Trist left Mr Gilmer’s which had been her proper & natural home for many years, upon the express & repeated invitation of Mrs Peter Minor an old & tried friend, she came to a neighbourhood where she had once been a resident and of course where she had the claims of “auld lang syne”; claims ever sacred until society has reached a point of civilization which, thank heaven, we are as yet far removed from.I have written a most unconscionable letter, entirely because I undertook to write during the latter days of my house-keeping month, when I am so overwhelmed with business that I have not time to be concise, for, to be concise requires that you should think, & for me to think of any thing but beef and pudding at present is quite out of the question I only feel that it is quite time to write to you, which I must do by snatches, half a page at a time, and away again at the call of some of the ‘facheux’ by whom I am beset—adieu then my ever dear Nicholas we are all well—V. is too good a correspondent herself to render it necessary for me to say any thing of her, except what she will not say for herself that her character, temper and understanding as she has advanced to complete womanhood have developed themselves in a way to render her the darling of her family—and for myself I acknowledge that there are certain qualities in which as far as my experience goes I consider her absolutely unequalled—in disinterestedness, magnanimity, (for a woman in the little circles of domestic & country life, may show magnanimity, as great as any hero could display,) in warmth & purity of heart.
weel! this beats print is taken from John Galt, The Entail: or The Lairds of Grippy (Edinburgh and London, 1823), 3:25. sir anthony absolute and his son Jack Absolute are characters in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1775 play, The Rivals. Jack Skyscrape describes G—d damn! as those syllables intense. nucleus of england’s native eloquence in George Gordon, Lord Byron’s poem, The Island, or Christian and His Comrades (London, 1823), canto 3, stanza 5, lines 125–6. John Locke’s essay Of the conduct of the understanding was first published posthumously in 1706. Saint Augustine described a sacrament as an outward & visible sign of the inward grace. Edmund warns his servant Walter that he may put your friendship to a hard trial in Joseph Hutton, The Orphan of Prague (Philadelphia, 1808), 19. facheux: irritating persons.