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Nicknames

In 1953, Julian P. Boyd wrote: "The use of nicknames and Christian names in ordinary discourse and in correspondence among cultivated adults in the America of Thomas Jefferson's time was almost non-existent, despite the evidence to the contrary in historical novels and dramatizations of the 20th century. This evidence is of recent manufacture."1

While it is impossible to recover the ordinary conversation of Thomas Jefferson and his contemporaries, we can draw conclusions from surviving correspondence. Jefferson's almost invariable salutation was "Dear Sir" or "Dear Madam." The exceptions were his immediate family and the close friends of his youth. The letters from his early years were addressed "Dear Page," "Dear Nelson," or "Dear Fleming," and he was addressed "Dear Jefferson." In later years, all have become "Sir" or "My dear friend."

We have found only one case of Jefferson's use of a nickname or first name for someone other than a member of his immediate family: his two earliest letters to William Fleming (1763 and 1764) begin "Dear Will."2 Even his brother-in-law Francis Eppes is "Sir" and his sister-in-law is "Mrs. Eppes."3 And only the Italian Charles Bellini addressed Jefferson as "Tommaso," in Julian Boyd's opinion less from intimacy than from obsequiousness.4

In correspondence with family members like Francis Eppes, Jefferson referred to his wife Martha as "Patty,"5 while even to close friends like John Page she was "Mrs. Jefferson."6 She was also "Mrs. Jefferson" in Jefferson's own memorandum books.7 His daughter Martha referred to her husband in correspondence as "Mr. Randolph," even in letters to her father.8 Presumably her mother expressed herself with similar formality. Jefferson usually ended his letters with the name: Th. Jefferson.

One intriguing employment of a nickname for Jefferson himself appears on a 1793 dinner invitation from Jefferson to Benjamin Rush, which is endorsed "Tommy Jefferson."9

- Lucia Stanton, 7/90

  • 1. See Boyd's editorial note following Charles Bellini to Jefferson, [ca. August 1785], in PTJ, 8:459. Summary of Bellini's letter and editorial note available at Founders Online.
  • 2. Jefferson to Fleming, [ca. October 1763], in PTJ, 1:12 (transcription available at Founders Online); Jefferson to Fleming, March 20, 1764, in PTJ, 1:15 (transcription available at Founders Online).
  • 3. See, e.g., Jefferson to Eppes, June 26, 1775, in PTJ, 1:174-75. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  • 4. See, e.g., Bellini to Jefferson, April 29, 1781, in PTJ, 5:572. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  • 5. See, e.g., Jefferson to Eppes, October 10, 1775, in PTJ, 1:246. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  • 6. See, e.g., Jefferson to Page, July 30, 1776, in PTJ, 1:483. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  • 7. See, e.g., MB, 1:337.
  • 8. See, e.g., Martha Jefferson Randolph to Jefferson, April 25, 1790, in PTJ, 16:384. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  • 9. Jefferson to Rush, August 7, 1793, in PTJ, 26:638. Transcription available at Founders Online. Image showing endorsement available from The Pat and Jerry B. Epstein American History Document Collection, Colonial Williamsburg, "Principles of Freedom."

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