It is an old family story that Thomas Jefferson's earliest memory was of riding horseback, comfortable on a pillow and secure in the arms of an enslaved caretaker, from Shadwell to Tuckahoe. He was only two or three years old at the time.
This journey east from the Jeffersons' Albemarle County landholdings was occasioned by a unique passage in the will of the recently deceased William Randolph. First cousin of Jane Randolph Jefferson and fast friend of Peter Jefferson, the widowed and ailing William Randolph had, in late 1745, turned his thoughts to the impending orphanhood of his three small children. He wrote: "Whereas I have appointed by my will that my dear only son Thomas Mann Randolph should have a private education given him in my house at Tuckahoe, my will is that my dear and loving friend Mr. Peter Jefferson do move down with his family to my Tuckahoe house and remain there till my son comes of age with whom my dear son and his sisters shall live."
In honoring the substance if not the extent of his friend's request, Peter Jefferson kept his family at Tuckahoe in Goochland County from 1746 until 1751. At this genteel Randolph seat, Thomas Jefferson spent his early childhood in school and at play with his three sisters and his three cousins. Jefferson later wrote of their Tuckahoe tutor's instruction as an "English school," distinguishing the basic lessons in English grammar, spelling, and composition from the "Latin school" of ancient languages that he attended when he was older and his family had returned to Shadwell.
Modern scholars and admirers of Thomas Jefferson recognize Tuckahoe as the site of his earliest education — or, as the Commonwealth Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution stated on a bronze plaque installed at the site, "[H]ere the discipline of his noble mind began." Tuckahoe then vanishes from most chronicles of Jefferson's life story. Jefferson himself seemed to will such a narrative course when he wrote acidly of the Randolph family's impulse to trace their pedigree far back into England and Scotland, "to which let everyone ascribe the faith & merit he chooses."
In point of fact, Jefferson maintained enduring ties with his mother's family. Furthermore, he and his Tuckahoe playmate Thomas Mann Randolph were enjoying a sustained or revived connection in the 1760s, when Jefferson's earliest surviving papers confirm occasional visits and correspondence as well as loans and joint business concerns. While he was still practicing law, Jefferson also performed legal services for Thomas Mann Randolph of Tuckahoe. Although interaction between the two suggests none of the trusting intimacy evident in Jefferson's letters to Dabney Carr or John Page, the cousins remained sufficiently cordial and familiar for Jefferson's daughter Martha to choose young Thomas Mann Randolph II for a husband in 1790.
If Jefferson's familial bonds with the Randolphs in general, and the Tuckahoe Randolphs in particular, were significant to his social life in Virginia, then Tuckahoe the house was equally important to his architectural imagination. At first, such a notion seems improbable. In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson made plain his dislike of wooden houses as short-lived, though when he wrote these words, the older section of the Tuckahoe great house had been standing for about a half-century. Jefferson also emphasized his disdain for "unchaste" Virginia architecture, by which he meant that even expensive and imposing structures were but "rude, mis-shapen piles" if their design involved selective use of classical elements, rather than complete and correctly rendered classical orders. Thus Tuckahoe, with its shaped-modillion cornices, classically molded trim, and plain pedimented porches, could not withstand Jefferson's architectural scrutiny. It was not, however, the figure Tuckahoe cut in the landscape, but rather the spaces the house enclosed and their evolving relationships from which Jefferson gained significant insight.
The Algonquian Indian name "Tuckahoe" dates from the seventeenth-century patents for the land, which refer to a "Tuckahoe Creek" as one of its boundaries. The tract's shoreline on the James River was one of the most valuable assets. William Randolph, an English immigrant who resided several miles down-river at Turkey Island, probably had the tract roughly cleared and cultivated as one of his outlying quarter plantations. It did not become a "home plantation," or Randolph family "seat," until after 1711, when William Randolph died, leaving each of his seven sons a substantial plantation and a workforce of slaves, represented in his will by the phrase "with all appurtenances therunto belonging." Thomas Randolph, the second son, acquired the 3256-acre Tuckahoe tract. As was the custom for Virginians who found themselves with challenging agricultural improvements to complete and a sustaining income to attain, Thomas Randolph and his wife, Judith Fleming, probably contented themselves with a relatively small wood-framed house that enclosed two or three rooms and probably stood erect on posts set directly into the ground. In such a small and plain dwelling, the Randolphs would have been like other land-rich, but still aspiring, planters in the first quarter of the eighteenth century. Indeed, unpretentious house-building remained the wisest strategy for any planter who wanted to make a success of an underdeveloped tract — thus this first Tuckahoe dwelling may well have resembled, in many respects, the modest house that Peter and Jane Jefferson first built at Shadwell several decades later.
Architectural investigations confirm that Tuckahoe was constructed in two stages, and the north wing of the house is the earliest. This is discernible because the roof of the north section is completely covered with shingles — even the portion that is now protected by the later roof of the hyphen. These enclosed shingles show clear signs of once having been exposed to the weather. Establishing a sequence of construction, however, does not necessarily indicate dates of origin. For that, the intersection of documentary and architectural evidence provides the strongest clues.
Thomas Randolph died unexpectedly in 1730, leaving a widow, two daughters, and a son, named "William" after his grandfather of Turkey Island. William Randolph was eighteen years old at the time, and William Byrd of Westover, who paid a call on the widow, thought him "a pretty young man, but [he] had the misfortune to become his own master too soon. This puts young fellows upon wrong pursuits, before they have sense to judge rightly for themselves. Though at the same time they have a strange conceit of their own sufficiency, when they grow near twenty years old, especially if they happen to have a small smattering of learning. It is then they fancy themselves wiser than all their tutors and governors, which makes them headstrong to all advice, and above reproof and admonition."
However rashly the young heir may have behaved, William Randolph quickly settled into responsible plantation management and active participation in elite planter culture. By 1736, he had won the hand of the young heiress Maria Page of Rosewell. Her father had left her with a substantial dowry of £2000 sterling, part of which the young couple apparently devoted to the construction at Tuckahoe of an elegant new two-story mansion with a central passage and two stylishly finished rooms on each floor. In accordance with room designations of the time, those on the first story almost certainly were the dining room and the parlor. One of the above-stairs rooms was the chamber where the heads of household slept, while the other was a bedroom of lesser status. Indications that the north wing of the house was completed by William and Maria Page Randolph is strengthened by the clear evidence that the skilled carver who completed Rosewell's interior woodwork during the 1730s also completed the exceptionally rich embellishment of Tuckahoe's north wing. Furthermore, recent glimpses behind the paneling and beneath Tuckahoe's earlier staircase confirm that this Rosewell-inspired woodwork is original; no interior remodeling of an older dwelling has left behind the ghosts and scars of architectural change.
Sadly, the young Randolph couple did not long enjoy their genteel new house. Maria Page Randolph was dead by 1742 and her husband followed her to the grave in 1745. So it was that the boy Thomas Jefferson came to live at Tuckahoe with his parents, who were charged with the welfare of seven children as well as a complex set of plantation affairs.
Those who study Virginia's colonial architecture know of no instance in which expensive and complicated building campaigns were completed by guardians for wealthy but vulnerable orphans in their charge; therefore, it is nearly certain that Tuckahoe stood in its two-story, four-room form during the Jeffersons' period of residence, and indeed until about 1762, when Thomas Mann Randolph came of age. By this date, the young heir of Tuckahoe had already married his first cousin Anne Cary of Ampthill and the couple had produced the first of their many children. Perhaps like his father, young Randolph took advantage of his wife's dowry to enlarge his house, sometime between 1760 and 1765. Just as construction features visible only in Tuckahoe's attic demonstrate that the north wing of the house once stood alone, so a trip to the upper reaches of the house reveals clear indications that the hyphen and south wing were built in a single campaign. Moreover, builders were careful to duplicate the design, dimensions, and proportions of the north wing in the creation of an impressive house with a unified H-shaped form. Only the construction of brick end walls on the south wing suggests to the casual observer that Tuckahoe is not all of one "build."
As with the interior detailing of the original section of the house, characteristics of the interior finish confirm a mid-century construction date for the hyphen and south wing. They also suggest the identity of the craftsman. Embellishment of the stairs in the south wing, including a distinctive design for the balusters, indicates that Tuckahoe's second joiner was Richard Bayliss, whom Carter Burwell engaged to complete the interior of his new house at Carter's Grove and who also produced markedly similar interior stair details for Wilton, the mansion of another Randolph cousin. Both of these houses were completed around 1755, when Thomas Mann Randolph was still a teenager, so Bayliss's work at Tuckahoe surely occurred at least five years later.
In making use of the existing house, what did Thomas Mann and Anne Cary Randolph hope to achieve? Thrifty building enterprise? Their original purpose may have been to have what most Virginia elites enclosed in their stylish mansions. Inside an imposing set of finely detailed elevations, they had four elegant rooms on each of two floors and two passages to facilitate circulation. With their H-shaped scheme, the Randolphs of Tuckahoe gained a four-room plan as well as a capacious hall or "saloon," designed to accommodate genteel dances and other polite convivialities. Among the four corner rooms, the Randolphs would have distributed, as did other Virginia gentry, a parlor and dining room, a new chamber, and perhaps a library. Certainly within a very few years, the Randolphs were making good use of their second-story rooms, as their children, ultimately numbering ten, serially made their appearances. Within fifteen years, however, Tuckahoe's saloon had become a zone of transition. It was functioning either as the general entry, in which visitors received an initial greeting or perhaps a deft interception, or as a social "buffering" space between distinctly public and private parts of the house. When this spatial reconfiguration occurred, Tuckahoe became a "double house" in the truest sense of that eighteenth-century term; one wing had been given over to entertainment of guests and interaction with outsiders, while the other had become a retreat for the Randolph family. That this arrangement had taken place by 1779 is certain, for in that year the Englishman Thomas Anburey visited Tuckahoe and subsequently wrote that the house "seems to be built solely to answer the purposes of hospitality . . . It is in the form of an H, and has the appearance of two houses, joined by a large saloon; each wing has two stories, and four large rooms on a floor; in one, the family reside, and the other is reserved solely for visitors."
Although Anburey's observations did not encompass specific names or functions for the rooms of the enlarged house, Tuckahoe's south wing probably enclosed a fashionable new parlor and dining room, with two guest bedrooms available overhead. Beyond the spatial "protection" of the saloon, the old parlor and dining room had almost certainly become a family sitting room and an informal dining space. Perhaps instead the principal chamber was moved downstairs, while the bedrooms overhead and indeed the second story above the saloon had become the realm of the Randolph's numerous sons and daughters.
That this change at Tuckahoe may have occurred shortly before or during the Revolution, with its attendant ideals of liberty and equality, is suggested by an event which Anburey witnessed during his stay: "I saw at Colonel [Thomas Mann] Randolph's, at Tuckahoe . . . three country peasants, who came upon business, entered the room where the Colonel and his company were sitting, took themselves chairs, drew near the fire, began spitting, pulling off their country boots all over [with] mud, and then opened their business, which was simply about some continental flour to be ground at the Colonel's mill: When they were gone, some one observed what great liberties they took; he replied, it was unavoidable, the spirit of independency was converted into equality, and every one who bore arms, esteemed himself upon a footing with his neighbour, and concluded with saying, 'No doubt, each of these men conceives himself, in every respect, my equal.'"
This "spirit of independency" was, of course, no more authoritatively or persuasively articulated than in the Declaration of Independence, which the Colonel's cousin had penned three years before. During the 1770s, Thomas Jefferson's extensive travels found him stopping at Tuckahoe several times and, while his foremost thoughts certainly dwelt on more momentous concerns, he obviously absorbed the workings of Tuckahoe's divided house. Modern scholars may observe the initial effect of Tuckahoe's organization in Jefferson's plans for remodeling the Governor's Palace in Williamsburg, where he resided as revolutionary governor of Virginia in 1779 and 1780. Two of these sketches involve the transformation of the long rear wing, which formerly enclosed the royal governors' ballroom and supper room, into a hyphen that would connect the original palace with an entirely new edifice of comparable proportions. Had these plans been realized, Jefferson would have drawn on the example of Tuckahoe to create an executive mansion for the new republic, one that afforded reception and entertaining space for all comers — even citizens with muddy boots and inclinations to spit — and also enclosed, beyond the hyphen, a zone of retreat for the governor and his intimates.
Jefferson went on to design more compact revisions for the palace that largely were confined to alterations within the four existing walls, but his commitment to designing house plans with clearly differentiated and architecturally distanced public and private domains remained firm. Of course, the most forceful yet integrated realization of the Tuckahoe example is at Monticello. Over the course of a remodeling that lasted from 1796 to 1809, Jefferson doubled the size of his house. In general conception, the three principal rooms of the original house became the western half of a plan enlarged to the east, so that a center line inscribed through the house on a north-south axis divides the old half from the new half of Monticello. In function, however, Jefferson deftly resorted to partitions involving east-west delineations. The private side of the house was the south end, encompassing Jefferson's chamber, cabinet, library, and south piazza. Its availability — even to fondly welcomed visitors — was severely limited, as Anna Maria Thornton discovered in 1802, when she encountered a locked library door during her wanderings about the house. To the north of the parlor and hall, the public side of the house included the dining room, tea room, north piazza, and two bedrooms designated for guests. In conception, Monticello's hall and parlor were Tuckahoe's saloon, but one in which the saloon's two functions were emphatically bisected and differently accoutered to denote the entry function of one and the elegant entertaining function of the other.
Thomas Mann Randolph, the Tuckahoe friend of Jefferson's childhood and his lifelong associate, died three years after he saw his eldest son, Thomas Mann Randolph II, marry Martha Jefferson. With his departing, Tuckahoe was again held in trust for a minor. This year-old child was the son of Thomas Mann Randolph's young second wife, and Randolph had named the boy, in a patriarchal flourish of exceptional vigor even for a member of the Virginia elite, Thomas Mann Randolph III. This boy lived to take possession of his ancestral great house in 1813, by which time Tuckahoe's outlying sections had been sold or allocated to other siblings, leaving a core tract of 900 acres. The young Randolph spent much of his time in Richmond, and declining profits on his Goochland County tract contributed to compounding financial distress. In 1830, Randolph was forced to sell Tuckahoe, and over the course of the nineteenth century, the property was sold several times more. Then in 1935, descendants of Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Mann Randolph purchased the house and a quantity of surrounding acres. Tuckahoe has remained secure in family hands to this day. It also stands as a significant testament to the depth of Jefferson's Virginia roots, and to his frequent resort to Virginia solutions for fundamental matters — including those of architectural design.
- Camille Wells, 1999. Originally published as "Lessons from Tuckahoe," in Spring Dinner at Monticello, April 12, 1999, in Memory of Thomas Jefferson (Charlottesville, VA: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, 1999), 1-19.
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