Object of the Month

The Sage of Monticello Edits a Letter to His Granddaughter, Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge, 27 August 1825

Letter (draft copy) from Thomas Jefferson to Ellen Randolph Coolidge, 27 August 1825

Letter (draft copy) from Thomas Jefferson to Ellen Randolph Coolidge, 27 August 1825

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  • When we select documents for exhibition at the Massachusetts Historical Society, we almost always regret that interesting and important letters, documents, books, and images have to be left out, usually for space considerations, although sometimes as a matter of what best fits into the narrative thread of our exhibition plan. The extraordinary collections we drew upon for our current exhibition, The Private Jefferson: From the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, made the selection of representative letters and drawings, chosen from thousands of letters written or received by Thomas Jefferson, and hundreds of his architectural drawings, especially difficult.

    One item not included in the exhibition, but displayed here, is the draft of a letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote in the last year of his life to a favorite grandchild, Ellen Wayles Randolph, who had recently married a young man from Massachusetts, Joseph Coolidge, Jr., and moved with her husband to their new home in Boston. The story of how this letter—as part of an enormous archive of Thomas Jefferson manuscripts—came to reside at 1154 Boylston Street in Boston begins in a love story.

    The Belle of Monticello

    Born in 1796, the third daughter (and fourth of twelve children) of Thomas Jefferson's eldest daughter, Martha, and her husband, Thomas Randolph, Eleanora (Ellen) Wayles Randolph received her first letter from her grandfather when she was five years old. While he was president, she dutifully reported on her visits to Monticello and the state of his (their) beloved gardens at Monticello. After Jefferson retired from public life in 1809, there are few letters between grandfather and granddaughter because Ellen and her family lived at Monticello. Tutored by her mother and grandfather, Ellen grew up to be the belle of the family, but was thought destined never to marry; she was closely attached to her grandfather and acted as his assistant at Monticello and agent when she travelled elsewhere.

    In May of 1824, Joseph Coolidge, Jr., a young Boston businessman, visited Monticello with a letter of introduction to Thomas Jefferson. Coolidge made a good impression on Jefferson and an even better one on Ellen. He returned to Charlottesville later that year and proposed to Ellen. They were married in the parlor of Monticello on 27 May 1825. They took a honeymoon tour of upstate New York and northern New England, recapitulating a trip that Jefferson had made with James Madison in 1791, before arriving at Joseph Coolidge's family home in Boston. There Ellen discovered that all of the personal possessions that had been shipped to Boston from Virginia, including her writings and correspondence, had been lost at sea. Jefferson replaced her writing desk with a relic of the Revolution—the desk on which he had written the Declaration of Independence, now at the Museum of American History of the Smithsonian Institution.

    The Coolidge Collection of Thomas Jefferson Manuscripts

    In his will, Thomas Jefferson bequeathed his entire collection of manuscripts to Ellen Coolidge's brother, Thomas Jefferson Randolph. The federal government purchased Jefferson's public papers (now at the Library of Congress) from Randolph in 1848 but his personal papers remained in family hands. In the meantime, Joseph and Ellen Coolidge had raised six children, naming their youngest son Thomas Jefferson Coolidge.

    Thomas Jefferson's personal papers passed down through family hands to the Coolidges, and in 1898 Thomas Jefferson Coolidge made the first of a series of extraordinary gifts of Jefferson papers—more than 9,000 manuscript items—to the Massachusetts Historical Society. In 1912, Thomas Jefferson's architectural drawings were given to the MHS by Coolidge's son Thomas Jefferson Coolidge, Jr. This gift was supplemented by another important donation of manuscripts in 1957 from the younger Coolidge's son Thomas Jefferson Coolidge III.

    These cumulative gifts form the Coolidge Collection of Thomas Jefferson Manuscripts—one of the largest and most important MHS manuscript collections. In addition to thousands of letters sent to Jefferson and thousands of copies of letters that he wrote as a private citizen, the collection includes more than 400 architectural drawings, bound volumes of farm and garden records, and the manuscript of his only sustained literary work, Notes on the State of Virginia, a political and natural history not just of the Commonwealth of Virginia, but really much of the eastern half of the new United States. The much-edited draft of Jefferson's 27 August 1825 letter to Ellen is but one modest item in this enormous personal archive.

    The Fatal Stain

    Jefferson begins his letter in a mournful tone:

    we [Jefferson adopted the practice of usually only capitalizing the first word in each paragraph, rather than each sentence] did not know, until you left us, what a void it would make in our family. imagination had illy sketched its full measure to us. and at this moment every thing around serves but to remind us of our past happiness. only consoled by the addition it has made to yours.

    Jefferson goes on, unexpectedly, to address one of the central dilemmas in American history--slavery:

    I have no doubt you will find also the state of society there [in Massachusetts] more congenial with your mind, than the rustic scenes you have left. Altho' these do not want their points of endearment. nay, one single circumstance changed [that is, slavery, which had ended in Massachusetts during the 1780s], and their scale would hardly be the lightest. one fatal blotch [crossed out and replaced by "stain"] deforms what nature had bestowed on us of her fairest gifts.

    In the letter Jefferson goes on to recollect the path that he and Madison had taken during their northern journey in 1791, describing what must have been in some places an Eden-like combination of forests and lakes as "mostly desert. now it is what 34 y[ears] of free and good gov[ernme]nt have made it," he continued. "it shews how soon the labor of man would make a paradise of the whole earth, were it not for misgovnt and a diversion of all his energies from their proper [course?], the happiness of man, to the selfish [vices] interest of kings, nobles & priests."

    Leaving "small news" (family matters) to other correspondents, Jefferson clearly spent much time correcting and improving the text of his letter to Ellen, adding a long, perhaps overly optimistic passage in the margin about an experiment in self-government adopted at the new University of Virginia:

    we studiously avoid too much govt. we treat them [the students] as men & gentlemen under the guidance mainly of their own discretion they so consider themselves and make it their pride to acquire that character for their insti[tution.]

    Thomas Jefferson closed his letter with a bittersweet request that his new son-in-law, "Mr. Coolidge. . . give to your-self ten thousand kisses for me, and they will still fall short of the measure of my love to you. if his parents and family can set any store by the esteem & respect of a stranger mine are devoted to them." Jefferson and Ellen exchanged several more letters, but never saw each other again before his death at Monticello on 4 July 1826.

    The Private Jefferson: An Exhibition and Companion Volume

    On 24 January 2016 the Massachusetts Historical Society marked the 225th anniversary of its founding, kicking off a year-long celebration featuring a series of exhibitions, public lectures, seminars, and other programs. The Private Jefferson: From the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society will be on display at the Society's 1154 Boylston Street, Boston, headquarters through 20 May 2016. The exhibition is free and open to the public, Monday-Saturday, 10:00 AM–4:00 PM. The exhibition will travel later in 2016 to the New York Historical Society in New York City and then to the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond. Information on the companion volume can be found on our website.

    Further Reading

    Coolidge, Ellen Wayles. Thomas Jefferson's Granddaughter in Queen Victoria's England: The Travel Diary of Ellen Wayles Coolidge, 1838-1839. Ann Lucas Birle and Lisa A. Francavilla, eds. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc., 2012.

    While Ellen Coolidge's travel diary dates from later in her life, her published diary is, in some respects, an engaging self-portrait and contains much information about the extended Jefferson/Randolph and Coolidge families.

    The Family Letters of Thomas Jefferson. Ed. by Edwin Morris Betts and James Adams Bear, Jr. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1966, (457-458).

    The Family Letters also includes transcriptions of ten letters exchanged by Thomas Jefferson and Ellen Coolidge in 1825–1826, including the 27 August 1825 letter.

    Francavilla, Lisa A. "Ellen Randolph Coolidge's "Virginia Legends" and "Negro Stories": Antebellum Tales from Monticello." Massachusetts Historical Review. Volume 17, 2015, 99-151.

    Ellen Coolidge's gathering of tales reveal much about her early life at Monticello and the relationship between the Jefferson/Randolph family and the men and women that Thomas Jefferson held in bondage.

    Jefferson, Thomas. Letter to Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge, 27 August 1825. The manuscript letter that Jefferson sent to Ellen (the recipient copy) remained in family hands when the Coolidge Collection was donated to the MHS, but was transcribed and published in:

    Jefferson Papers. Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Seventh Series.—Vol. 1. Boston: Published by the Society, 1900, 352-354.

    A slightly different transcription of the recipient copy of the letter, together with other letters between Thomas Jefferson and Ellen Coolidge are available online at Founders Online website.

    Both versions of the transcribed 27 August 1825 letter differ in minor details from the draft copy that Jefferson retained among his personal papers.