J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, August 22, 2008

Boys Getting Intimate at Monticello

Last weekend I analyzed an anecdote that Monticello overseer Edmund Bacon told about Thomas Jefferson’s eldest grandson, Thomas Jefferson (Jeff) Randolph, and his school friends. I estimate that battle in the garden took place in about 1804. In any event it had to be before mid-1807, when Jeff Randolph went off to a school in Philadelphia at age fifteen.

Bacon told another story about that same set of boys, by my estimate a couple of years after the big fight, when some were coming up to Monticello to do more than “play and eat fruit.” Speaking of his favorite among the gang, the future officeholder William Cabell Rives (shown here, courtesy of Wikipedia), Bacon said:

He [Willie] was at Monticello a great deal. Very often he did not like the doings of the other boys when I gave them the keys to stay up there alone, and he would come down and stay all night at my house. He has stayed there many a night. The other boys were too intimate with the negro women to suit him. He was always a very modest boy. I once heard one of the other boys make a vulgar remark. He said, “Such talk as that ought not to be thought, much less spoken out.”
Bacon didn’t name the “other boys” who were reportedly getting “too intimate with the negro women,” but we can easily identify one who was involved: Jeff Randolph. It was his grandfather’s house, his grandfather’s women. Maybe on the first night his guests’ behavior could have taken him by surprise, but on “many a night”? Jeff Randolph had to have acquiesced with what was going on, and probably participated.

I don’t think we can be sure what was going on, though. Young Willie Rives seems to have been a bit of a prig (“Such talk as that ought not to be thought”), so he might have had a low tolerance for intimacy. Were the schoolboys talking with the enslaved women about their lovers? Trying to see them naked? Making out? Having sex? Any of those behaviors might have made Rives nervous.

Slightly earlier in Jefferson at Monticello, Bacon named another of Jeff Randolph’s school friends: Valentine Wood “Vaul” Southall. There’s no way to know if he figured in these “intimate” visits, too, but he’s come up before on Boston 1775. It was back in Ellen Coolidge’s 1858 letter to her husband, passing on her brother’s statements about the “yellow children” at Monticello. She wrote:
Now I will tell you in confidence what Jefferson [Randolph] told me under the like condition. Mr. Southall and himself young men together, heard Mr. Peter Carr say with a laugh, that “the old gentleman had to bear the blame of his and Sam’s (Col. Carr) misdeeds.”
As I wrote before, Jeff Randolph’s stories about Peter and Samuel Carr were contradictory, contradicted by D.N.A. evidence, and unsupported by statements from anybody else. Randolph’s stories about his cousins seem less reliable for what they say and more reliable as evidence that he wanted to deflect attention away from something embarrassing.

So let’s appreciate the irony here. Jeff Randolph accused the Carrs of fathering all the Hemings children, to his family’s public shame, but as a teenager he himself was often reportedly “intimate” with enslaved women in his grandfather’s house. He implied to his sister that Vaul Southall would be able to corroborate his story about Peter Carr, but Southall is our most likely candidate for being up in the house with Randolph and those women. Might the wildly conflicting emotions that Randolph ascribed to the Carr brothers—tearful regret, laughing bravado—reflect his own private thoughts about looking back on his youth?

And how did Randolph respond to Bacon’s recollection about boys getting “intimate with the negro women” being published? He may not have seen it in Jefferson at Monticello, but James Parton quoted that passage about Willie Rives in The Atlantic Monthly in 1873, along with Bacon’s critical remarks on Randolph’s father. The article, an otherwise complimentary picture of “Thomas Jefferson’s Last Years,” caused Randolph to publish a broadside titled “The Last Days of Jefferson” which called Bacon’s recollections the “fiction of an old man” and argued with many points. I haven’t seen that broadside, so I don’t know if Randolph responded to the specific matter of intimacy at Monticello.

TOMORROW: Why Bacon’s anecdote still doesn’t tell us anything about Sally Hemings’s children.

1 comment:

J. L. Bell said...

Weeks after writing this, I realized that the plantation that belonged to Thomas Jefferson Randolph’s father was right next to Monticello. In other words, he could have brought his friends to that house and garden instead, but he probably would have been under stricter supervision.