To Elizabeth Wayles Eppes
Paris Dec. 15. 1788.
In my last of July 12. I told you that in my next I would enter into explanations about the time my daughters would have the happiness to see you. Their future welfare requires that this should be no longer postponed. It would have taken place a year sooner but that I wished Polly to perfect herself in her French. I have asked leave of absence of Congress for five or six months of the next year; and if I obtain it in time I shall endeavor to sail about the middle of April. As my time must be passed principally at Monticello during the two months I destine for Virginia, I shall hope you will come and encamp there with us a while. He who feedeth the sparrow must feed us also. Feasting we shall not expect. But this will not be our object. The society of our friends will sweeten all. Patsy is just recovered from an indisposition of some days. Polly has the same. It is a slight but continual fever, not sufficient however to confine her to her bed. This prevents me from being able to tell you that they are absolutely well. I inclose a letter which Polly wrote a month ago to her aunt Skipwith, and her sickness will apologize for her not writing to you, or her cousins. She makes it up in love to you all; and Patsy equally: but this she will tell you herself, as she is writing to you. She has never lost her impatience to return to her own country. I hope you will find in her an estimable friend as well as dutiful niece. She inherits stature from her father, and that you know is inheriting no trifle. Polly grows fast. I should write to Mrs. Skipwith also, but that I rely on your friendship to repeat to her the assurances of my affection for her and Mr. Skipwith. We look forward with impatience to the moment when we may be all re-united tho’ but for a little time. Kiss your dear children for us, the little and the big, and tender them my warmest affections, accepting yourself of assurances of the sincere esteem & attachment with which I am my dear Madam Your affectionate & humble servt.,
PrC (CSmH). The enclosed letters from Mary and Martha Jefferson have not been found.
Among the circumstances affecting his daughters’ Future welfare that TJ had in mind, in addition to Martha’s approach to the age of marriageability (see note to TJ to Currie, 20 Dec. 1788), was Martha’s serious thought of becoming a nun. Until recently, this could be regarded by scholars only as a family tradition having some element of plausibility (Malone, Jefferson, II, 207–8). As stated by Randall, Life, description begins Henry S. Randall, The Life of Thomas Jefferson, N.Y., 1858, 3 vols description ends I, 538–9, this tradition holds that Martha was drawn to the religious life of Pentemont, with its “examples of serene and holy life, its intellectual associations,” because of the revulsion felt by her toward the “daring and flippant infidelity now rife in French society” that, “after meditating on the subject for a time, she wrote her father for his permission to remain in the convent, and to dedicate herself to the duties of a religious life”; that a day or two later, without answering the letter, TJ drove to the Abbaye de Pentemont, met his daughters with a “benignant and gentle” smile, withdrew them from the school, introduced Martha into society, and never again mentioned the subject to Martha, though she spoke of it freely to her children in later years; and that this withdrawal occurred in April 1789 (for a similar version, see Randolph, Domestic Life, description begins Sarah N. Randolph, The Domestic Life of Thomas Jefferson, Compiled from Family Letters and Reminiscences by His Great-Granddaughter, Cambridge Mass., 1939 description ends p. 146). TJ evidently did remove his daughters from Pentemont on or about 20 Apr. 1789, for on that day he paid for their schooling in full (Account Book). But no such dramatic episode occurred, though Annabelle M. Melville has recently discovered contemporary evidence which unquestionably supports the essential validity of the tradition respecting Martha’s leaning toward the Catholic religion. However, the fact is that Martha must have been thinking of making such a decision almost two years before TJ withdrew the girls from school. For as early as 5 July 1787, the papal nuncio in Paris, TJ’s good friend Dugnani, wrote to John Carroll of Baltimore that TJ was thinking of taking his two daughters home: “The eldest seems to have great tendencies toward the Catholic religion. She is only sixteen. Her father, without absolutely opposing her vocation, has tried to distract her.” Dugnani added that TJ hoped his daughter would wait until she had reached the age of eighteen before making a decision about religion (Melville, John Carroll of Baltimore, New York, 1955, p. 102, citing the Carroll Papers in the Department of Archives and Manuscripts, Catholic University of America). Dugnani not only had excellent opportunity for knowing the true facts, which here prove to be characteristic of TJ’s relations with his daughter, but he also entertained the hope that TJ would fail to persuade her, and, even after TJ had become Secretary of State, wrote to Carroll on 28 June 1789: “I am sure that you will not neglect to profit from the favourable dispositions Miss Jefferson showed here for the Catholic religion. It is a very interesting subject and can only do honor to your zeal. I know how much delicacy and prudence this affair requires, but it could not be in better hands” (same, p. 103).
Indeed, this continued to be an interesting subject to Dugnani for many years. On 17 May 1797 he wrote TJ asking for “des details sur tout ce qui vous regarde, aussi bien que votre charmante Famille,” to which TJ did not reply until 7 May 1800 and even then did not mention Martha. This evidently was the last exchange between the two friends except for two letters from TJ that never reached the cardinal. The second of these was caused by Dugnani’s letter in 1817 to Bishop Ambrose Maréchal of Baltimore reminding him of a promise made in Paris five years earlier to visit Jefferson at Monticello and make inquiries of him and his family: “J’attend des nouvelles de M. Jefferson comme vous m’avez fait esperer,” he wrote. Maréchal on receiving this wrote Jefferson a letter that, while not specifically asking about Martha’s religious views, was so repetitive in its inquiries about the “daughters whom he [Dugnani] has seen in the convent in which they received a part of their education” that TJ could scarcely have missed the real purpose of the inquiry. With characteristic tact, TJ supplied an answer to the hidden question, and made it even less obtrusive by submerging it in a long letter about himself, about Napoleon, and about George Ticknor, who was then travelling in Europe: “My eldest daughter, who had the honor of being known to you in Paris, lives also, and in good health, and has blessed me with many grandchildren, and some of these have commenced another generation.” Maréchal promptly informed Dugnani that he would soon receive a letter from TJ by way of Paris, and the cardinal wrote back to the bishop: “Je vous remercie infiniment de m’avoir rappellé au souvenir de Monsieur Jeffersonne. J’ai rassenti une vraie joie de l’espoir que vous me donnez de pouvoir recevoir une Lettre de lui par la voie de Paris.—Vous me feriez plaisir de me dire Confidentiellement quels sont les principes religieux de Mr. Randolph et de Madame son Espouse que j’ai Connue dès son Enfance et à qui je porte beaucoup d’intérêt.” Unhappily, the prelate for whom TJ had so great an esteem never received the promised letter (see Maréchal to TJ, 28 Jan. 1818; TJ to Maréchal, 15 Feb. 1818; TJ to Dugnani, 14 Feb. 1818; TJ to Gallatin, 15 Feb. 1818; Dugnani to Maréchal, 20 Sep. 1817 [Archives of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, 22K2]; Dugnani to Maréchal [June 1818], [same, 21A-B3]; TJ to Maréchal, 17 Jan. 1820; TJ to Ticknor, 25 Oct. 1818; Life. . . of George Ticknor, 1876, I, 302–3).