In this episode of Mountaintop History, Monticello Guide Alison Kiernan takse a deep dive into the legacy of female education among elite Virginians and shares the story of the school founded and operated by the Jefferson's daughter and granddaughters in the aftermath of his death.


Alison Kiernan: Welcome to Mountaintop History, a podcast produced by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello. Mountaintop History brings forward meaningful stories from the past and from the present. I'm Alison Kiernan. Thanks for listening. We hope you'll learn something new.

Just off the side of Route 250 in Albemarle County, Virginia, is a historic marker for Edgehill. Edgehill was the name of a plantation nearby to Jefferson's childhood home at Shadwell, and only a few miles from Monticello.

The marker explains that the plantation was owned by Jefferson's son in law, Thomas Mann Randolph, and that when not living at Monticello, Edgehill was home to him, his wife Martha Jefferson Randolph, their children, and a vast enslaved workforce. The marker then goes on to state, quote, Martha Jefferson Randolph and her family operated a school for girls here.

There's more to the story. In this episode of Mountaintop History, we're going to take a deep dive into the legacy of female education within the Jefferson and Randolph families and share the story of the Edgehill School for Young Ladies.

In February of 1818, Thomas Jefferson received a letter from a man named Nathaniel Burwell who asked him to, quote, recommend a system of female education best adapted to the present state of our society. What Burwell meant by the, quote, present state of our society, whether meaning one reliant on enslaved labor, or one in which women were not considered full-fledged citizens, or perhaps both, is unknown. But Jefferson responded saying that, quote, a plan, a female education has never been a subject of systematic contemplation with me. It has occupied my attention so far only. as the education of my daughters.

Jefferson's daughters were, perhaps, some of the best educated women in the state of Virginia. His oldest daughter, Martha Randolph, had been educated in Philadelphia, and later in Paris, at an elite convent school.

She could read and write in several languages, was skilled in music, and was often more well-read than the men at Jefferson's dinner table. One guest to Monticello noted that the women of the Randolph family were, quote, obviously accustomed to join in the conversation, however high the topic may be.

Martha Jefferson Randolph passed on to her daughters Jefferson's devotion to education and his belief in lifelong learning. And Martha Randolph certainly had plenty of daughters to inspire. Of her eleven children, six were girls. Anne, Ellen, Cornelia, Mary, Virginia, and Septimia. So, when asked by Nathaniel Burrell to compile a list of books suitable for educating an American woman, Jefferson admitted that his daughter and granddaughters, rather than himself, could create a better list than he could.

And so they did. The list compiled by Martha Jefferson Randolph and her daughters includes books on ancient, modern, and natural history, as well as other works such as Shakespeare, Milton, and Pope. The majority of the books are meant to reinforce moral truths or lessons, and only one book on arithmetic, a few on grammar, and one on gardening are noted. Novels are included, but only titles where a moral lesson could be gleaned were listed. This book list reveals a belief in female education at this time, which dictated that a free woman's role was to be an ornament to, but also the moral center of, their households as wives, but more importantly, as mothers.

In order to raise sons who could go on to be virtuous citizens, women, it was argued, had to be educated with a focus on morality. In this way, women could indirectly affect the path of the new nation. This concept is referred to by historians now as Republican motherhood. And Martha Randolph's education of her children at Monticello is a prime example of this.

Martha Randolph wrote about her children, quote, If they turn out well with regard to morals, I ought to be satisfied, though I feel I can never sit down quietly under the idea of there being blockheads. Following Jefferson's death in 1826, the subsequent sale of Monticello in 1827, and the death of Thomas Mann Randolph in 1828, Martha Randolph and her unmarried daughters faced financial burden and lack of a permanent home.

It is also important to note, however, that They were still enslavers, so what they considered as financial ruin or lack of a home must be taken with a grain of salt. Nonetheless, by late 1828, the widowed and unmarried Randolph women had semi moved into the nearby plantation, Edgehill, which was being primarily occupied by Martha Randolph's son, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, and his wife, Jane Nicholas Randolph as well as their growing family.

Recognizing that it would be too crowded to have so many people at Edgehill at once, Martha Randolph and her unmarried daughters would spend the next decade bouncing between the homes of the married Randolph women in Boston, Washington, D.C., and even briefly, Cuba.

Continuing to live this lifestyle, however, was neither sustainable nor generated much needed income. Having several children of school age, Jane Nicholas Randolph, along with Martha Randolph and her daughters, Cornelia and Mary, decided that they should utilize their privilege of an education when living at Edgehill to open a school for young women in the area.

By 1829, the Edgehill school was off and running. It appears, however, that some of the Randolph women were almost ashamed of operating a school, recognizing that employment for an upperclass woman was not considered the social norm. Some of the Randolph women, including Cornelia, who had been taught architectural drawing by Jefferson in her youth, often undercut herself, stating that she felt unprepared to be able to teach a high school.

The consistent theme of self-doubt in the writings of the Randolph women, which, while possibly true, also reflects the fine line women walked between appearing feminine, but also educated.

While visiting her daughter in Boston, Martha Jefferson Randolph met the young teacher, Hannah Stearns. By May of 1829, the Randolph family letters indicate that Hannah Stearns was living with the Randolph family at Edgehill and serving as the main teacher at the Edgehill school, while the Randolph women served as more of a supporting act, occasionally teaching music or drawing.

The pupils there, which included several of Martha Randolph's granddaughters, would have been taught to speak French. likely be expected to read books such as those noted in the earlier book list, but also learn things considered essential to upper class female education such as painting, drawing, and music. A letter from Martha Jefferson Randolph indicates that “Miss Stearns,” as she was called, was, “firm but gentle.”

She commands both respect and affection from her scholars and the esteem of all who knows her. The same letter also indicates that it's possible Martha Randolph herself may have taught Stearns how to play music, so Stearns could teach that to the students.

The Edgehill School was in operation on and off throughout the 1830s. Following Martha Jefferson Randolph's death in 1836, the school continued to thrive, as records indicate, from the 1840s, 50s, and even the 1860s.

By this point, the Edgehill School was mostly run by Jane Nicholas Randolph, who was Martha Jefferson Randolph's daughter in law. One of her daughters, Sarah Nicholas Randolph, great granddaughter of Thomas Jefferson, both attended -- and would later run -- the Edgehill School, just like her mother and grandmother before her.

Sarah Randolph would later go on to publish The Domestic Life of Thomas Jefferson in 1871. And in 1879, she made the choice to leave the Edgehill School, moving to Maryland and serving as the principal for the Patapsco School for Girls.

She then later established her own school called Miss Randolph School for Girls in Baltimore in 1884. And she operated this school until her death in 1892.

For three generations after Jefferson's death, the Randolph women carried on a legacy of education and a belief in lifelong learning. Jefferson recognized that education was essential to the preservation of American democracy, of which women were not yet full participants. But Jefferson also wrote that “the earth belongs to the living.” As Edgehill School alumnus Juliet Gordon Lowe, later the founder of the Girl Scouts of America, stated “the work of today is the history of tomorrow and we are its makers.”

This has been another episode of Mountaintop History, a production of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello. Join us for new episodes every two weeks on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, and the Virginia Audio Collective. To learn more about Monticello, or to plan your next trip, visit us online at



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