By Maryanne Hannan
Ere long I may be plucked from your filial embrace and deprived of that opportunity to guide your gifted but often wayward steps, an obligation foistupon me, all unwilling, by the death of your father when you, his eldest Son, had not yet come into your majority.
I have felt for some time now a slippage of affection that bodes ill for a mother’s love since you have taken to your bosom the widow Martha Wayles Skelton and live at some remove from our familiar environs and myself and your dear sisters. News of your activities reaches us.
Do not meet a mother’s love or her wise counsel with such silence as is your wont, for the very chambers in which you seek acclaim will soon correct such extravagance of view as I have not been able to.
Mark well the eternal Verities, obtained at great expense with the finest teachers this rude land could provide, in which land you have not had the advantage of your forbears.I rue the day it was decided you would grow in this transplanted land, for every child of mine, descended from my father, a captain of the sea, a more noble man never lived, is the scion of royalty.
Beware of ambition to govern other men; leave the helm to others, whilst you steer clear of the difficulties incumbent thereon. If ever a battle between your head and heart should ensue, follow always the wiser counsels of your head, and such principles cherished by those more learned than yourself in the study of which you have spent many pleasant months.
For nothing is self-evident, and unbridled pursuit of happiness is no more than seditious whisperings in the heart, bringing ruin to the future fortunes and happiness of our descendants. No good comes from grasping after what is not natural, and self-government is a chimera applauded by a boisterous and detestable lot. We must have none of it.
My attachments here weaken, but I hope to avert the friendly hand of death beckoning me with news that you return to domestic pursuits untouched by the clamorings of this wicked land. There must be no embargo on my affections, so remember most, if you love me, that equality cannot be claimed, or wrest from Divinity, that equality, young man, is a matter of birth. I remain your devoted
JANE RANDOLPH JEFFERSON (1721-1776)
Little is known about Jane Randolph Jefferson. The mother of one of the most prolific presidents hardly merits a mention by her presidential son. Only four references to her exist in his voluminous writings, a fact made more amazing since he lived with her until he was twenty-seven.
Born in England in 1720, Jane Randolph was the oldest of eleven children. Her father later moved the family to Virginia where he had amassed considerable wealth in the slave trade. At the age of nineteen, she married Peter Jefferson, a tall, ambitious and gifted man, but lacking her social and economic standing.
He died in 1757, leaving his widow the care of six daughters, one of whom was mentally handicapped, two sons, and a complicated will.
Thomas Jefferson, fourteen years old at the time, assumed responsibility for managing the household finances, with the approval of his father’s executors and presumably his mother’s, although he did not receive his own independent inheritance until he was twenty-one. Fastidious account books from this period and throughout his life attest to habits engrained in this period. Still, Jefferson spent much of his life deeply in debt and when he died at the age of 83, he was essentially bankrupt.
Many years later, in 1808, he described that period of time in a letter to his grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, as “the whole care and direction of my self was thrown on my self entirely, without a relation or friend qualified to advise or guide me.” Another oblique comment on his youth comes in his response to John Adams’ question, whether he would be willing to live his life over again. Yes, said Jefferson, but only from the ages twenty-five to sixty.
Jefferson recorded the day of his mother’s death succinctly in his account book:
“My mother died about eight o’clock this morning, in the 57th year of her age.”
Two months later, he wrote her relative in England, with scarcely more detail, “The death of my mother you have probably not heard of. This happened on the last day of March after an illness of not more than an hour. We supposed it to have been apoplectic.”
This was 1776. Jefferson, already married and living at Monticello, immediately came down with a debilitating and protracted headache, which forced him to withdraw from the political arena at a crucial time in our history. Given what we know about his father, it is likely he would have supported his son’s political stands. Not so, his mother. In his Autobiography, written when Jefferson was seventy-seven, he wrote that his mother’s family traced “their pedigree far back in England and Scotland, to which let everyone ascribe the faith and merit he chuses.” There is some evidence that his mother disapproved his first choice of wife, Rebecca Burwell, and abundant evidence that Jefferson disapproved of women meddling in politics.
Jefferson’s attitude toward his daughters, as evidenced by his letters, is nearly overweening. He offers them guidance on the minutest details of their lives, linked with fervent pleas for their love and affection. Over-attention to detail may have been a family trait. One of his grandchildren visiting Monticello wrote of Jefferson’s sister “(Aunt Marks) would not let me drink my tea without her advice” and another remarked “I wish Aunt Marks would let me alone.”
The infantilism pervading his family of origin had its most pernicious effect on Jefferson’s attitude to slavery, the most troubling aspect of this otherwise brilliant man’s presidency. Bad enough that he himself was a slaveholder, but his emphatic belief in the essential inferiority of blacks and his impossible recommendations for gradual emancipation and deportation of slaves led to disastrous political decisions. In the end, he could not have it both ways. He could not please both parents.
Maryanne Hannan has published poetry in a variety of print and online journals including Adanna Literary Journal, Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review, Gargoyle, Magma, Pirene’s Fountain, Poet Lore, Xavier Review, Umbrella, and upstreet. Another epistolary poem can be found at poemeleon.org.