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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Sunday, August 03, 2008

T. J. Randolph and His Grandfather’s Breathing

Yesterday I quoted a passage from an 1868 letter from Henry S. Randall, a biographer of Thomas Jefferson, to a younger writer, passing on what the President’s grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph had told him about the enslaved worker Sally Hemings. Here’s another tidbit:

He said Mr. Jefferson never locked the door of his room by day: and that he (Col. R.) slept within sound of his breathing at night.
Thus, by evoking the authority of someone who had lived alongside Jefferson in Monticello, Randolph was offering evidence that the President couldn’t have slept with Hemings. From that same letter we know that Randolph had taken it upon himself to “defend the character of [his] grandfather,” and was speaking to a sympathetic author who believed and passed on his remarks. But was he speaking accurately?

Last year Bloomberg posted an interview by Manuela Hoelterhoff of Alan Pell Crawford on his new book, Twilight at Monticello: The Final Years of Thomas Jefferson. It included this exchange:
Hoelterhoff: When you studied the ground plan [of Monticello], you noticed a secret passage to the slave quarters.

Crawford: During the childbearing years of Sally Hemings—the chambermaid with whom he probably had this long-term sexual relationship—he moved her to a room beneath the house itself and then at some point installed a staircase that would lead to his private chambers at Monticello.

I included the floor plan of the house in part to refute a claim made by his grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, that he would have known anything that went on inside Jefferson’s bedroom, because he slept within the sound of his snoring. I show there’s no such bedroom that would be within the sound of anything that went on inside Jefferson’s bedchambers.
Crawford uses the word “snoring” to give Randolph the benefit of the doubt—perhaps the “breathing” Randolph claimed to have heard at night was on the loud side. But it seems that Randolph’s bedroom still couldn’t have been close enough. So that’s the second claim which Randall recalled hearing from Randolph that we now know to be false.

In the overall interview, I was struck by Crawford’s tone of sympathy for the elder Jefferson’s situation, living off the labor of hundreds of other people yet still unable to live within his means.

TOMORROW: Thomas Jefferson Randolph points his finger.

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