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New Letters Shed Light on the Paris Lives of Thomas Jefferson and Teenaged Martha Jefferson (Randolph)

Thomas Jefferson loved to play chess, sometimes engaging in “four hour games” with his close friend James Madison. Unfortunately, not all of Jefferson’s gaming was so enjoyable. According to his granddaughter Ellen W. Randolph Coolidge, while Jefferson was serving as minister plenipotentiary in Paris, “he was introduced into a Chess Club, he was beaten at once, and that so rapidly & signally that he gave up all competition.” It sounds as if the experience prompted him to quit the game altogether, but a recently translated invitation reveals that this was not the case.

Thanks to our colleagues in the Curatorial Department, a family of Thomas Jefferson descendants generously offered to place a collection of manuscripts on deposit with the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, and extended that generosity to include making them accessible through our wonderfully rich and growing archive, Jefferson Quotes & Family Letters. Within this collection there was a note from one of Jefferson’s Paris neighbors, “M. de Liniers,” inviting Jefferson to a game of chess, with a bit of pear and melon to savor as refreshment.

So, Jefferson continued to play the game while he was in Paris. He just preferred to play it in a more congenial setting and in the company of friends!

 A Sample of Letters from the New Collection

Did you ever want to know more about what Martha Jefferson Randolph was like before she was the mother of eleven children and the mistress of Monticello?

This new collection also includes many previously unknown letters written primarily by Martha Jefferson Randolph’s schoolgirl friends from her time at the Abbaye Royale de Panthémont in Paris, 1784–1789. Even though sometimes part of the story is missing, these letters nevertheless make for entertaining reading. Through them we learn that the teenaged Martha was fun, humorous, lazy, careless in her appearance, beloved by her friends, and left more than a few male admirers behind when she returned to America. The collection may even include the note enclosing the “J’Aime et J’Espere” enameled ring given to Martha by the Duke of Dorset.

These letters tell us who Martha mingled with socially, the grand balls and intimate parties she attended, and about some of her other pastimes. For example, you may have known that she had a drawing master and studied languages and music while in Paris, but did you know that she was also learning the fine art of artificial flower-making and even possibly giving flower tokens to her friends?

Other documents within this collection were compiled by Martha’s granddaughter Martha Jefferson Trist Burke, many decades later. They record and describe various family-held “relics” of Thomas Jefferson and Monticello. They also include reminiscences about the cabin of Jefferson’s slaves, John and Priscilla Hemmings – a thrilling discovery that was instrumental in our Curatorial Department’s ability to interpret and present that space.

It is a wonderful opportunity to bring these previously unknown family manuscripts to light. We hope you will take a few moments to look at them. A few are highlighted above, but for the whole group, simply search the Family Letters for “Privately owned.” As always, questions, suggestions, and comments are welcome through the “Contact Us” link on the Jefferson Quotes & Family Letters webpage.

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