Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to Elizabeth Wayles Eppes, [3? October 1782]

To Elizabeth Wayles Eppes

[3? October 1782]

My dear Madam

The girls being unable to assure you themselves of their welfare the duty devolves on me and I undertake it the more willingly as it will lay you under the necessity of sometimes letting us hear from you. They are in perfect health and as happy as if they had no part in the unmeasurable loss we have sustained. Patsy rides with me 5 or 6. miles a day and presses for permission to accompany me on horseback to Elkhill whenever I shall go there. When that may be however I cannot tell; finding myself absolutely unable to attend to any thing like business. This miserable kind of existence is really too burthensome to be borne, and were it not for the infidelity of deserting the sacred charge left me, I could not wish it’s continuance a moment. For what could it be wished? All my plans of comfort and happiness reversed by a single event1 and nothing answering in prospect before me but a gloom unbrightened with one chearful expectation. The care and instruction of our children indeed affords some temporary abstractions from wretchedness and nourishes a soothing reflection that if there be beyond the grave any concern for the things of this world there is one angel at least who views these attentions with pleasure and wishes continuance of them while she must pity the miseries to which they confine me.

But I forget that I began this correspondence on behalf of the children and am afflicting you at the distance of 70 or 80 miles with sorrows2 which you had a right to think yourself out of the reach of. I will endeavor to correct myself and keep what I feel to myself that I may not dispirit you from a communication with us. News from hence you will not expect. Mrs. Gilmer’s getting better and better is the only event I recollect which can be interesting to you. I say nothing of coming to Eppington because I promised you this should not be till I could support such a countenance as might not cast a damp on the chearfulness of others. I shall begin to expect Jack in a week or ten days. When he shall have been with me some time he will I hope furnish me with a pleasing subject for a letter to Mr. Eppes. At present having neither business, politics nor news to communicate, I do not trouble him with an epistle of small stuff as your injunctions have obliged me to do you. Be so good as to tender my sincere esteem to him and to the family and sometimes to recollect yourself the fr[iend]ships & affection with which I am Dr. Madam your most obedt hble servt.,

Dft (MHi); written on the address-leaf of a letter addressed, in the hand of Edmund Randolph, to “Thomas Jefferson esquire Monticello Albemarle.” This draft contains many alterations, deletions, and interlineations, of which two are noted below.

This appears to be the first intimate, personal letter written by TJ after his wife’s death and the great care which he took in its composition, to say nothing of the expressions that he allowed to remain, testify to the overwhelming grief that he experienced. Randolph may have visited Monticello about this time and he certainly gave one of the most graphic accounts of Jefferson’s grief: “Mrs. Jefferson has at last shaken off her tormenting pains, by yielding to them, and has left our friend inconsolable. I ever thought him to rank domestic happiness in the first class of the chief good; but scarcely supposed that his grief would be so violent as to justify the circulating report of his swooning away whenever he sees his children” (Randolph to Madison, 20 Sep. 1782, quoted in Henkels Catalogue 694 [1892], lot 86). James Madison thought TJ’s “philosophical temper renders the circulating rumor which you mention altogether incredible” (Madison to Randolph, 30 Sep. 1782, DLC: Madison Papers), but TJ’s daughter Martha left an account which validates the basis for the rumor that Randolph reported: “… after her death, during the first month of desolation that followed I was his constant companion, while we remained at Monticello. … As a nurse no female ever had more tenderness or anxiety; he nursed my poor Mother in turn with aunt Carr [Mrs. Dabney Carr] and her own sisters [Randall, Jefferson, I, 382, gives the reading as “sister,” who, of course, would have been the recipient of the present letter] setting up with her and administring her medecines and drink to the last. For four months that she lingered he was never out of Calling. When not at her bed side he was writing in a small room which opened immediately at the head of her bed. A moment before the closing scene he was led from the room almost in a state of insensibility by his sister Mrs. Carr who with great difficulty got him into his library where he fainted and remained so long insensible that they feared he never would revive. The scene that followed I did not witness but the violence of his emotion, of his grief when almost by stealth I entered his room at night to this day I dare not trust myself to describe. He kept his room for three weeks and I was never a moment from his side. He walked almost incessantly night and day only lying down occasionally when nature was completely exhausted on a pallet that had been brought in during his long fainting fit. My Aunts remained constantly with him for some weeks, I do not remember how many. When at last he left his room he rode out and from that time he was incessantly on horseback rambling about the mountain in the least frequented roads and just as often through the woods; in those melancholy rambles I was his constant companion, a solitary witness to many a violent burst of grief, the remembrance of which has consecrated particular scenes of that lost home beyond the power of time to obliterate” (“Reminiscences of Th.J. by MR,” from a MS copy made by Mary and Anne Cary Randolph, ViU; one word supplied from text in Randall, Jefferson, i, 382, who states that these recollections were drawn up in answer to some queries from Tucker for use in his biography of TJ). Though written nearly half a century afterwards, this comment by Martha (who was ten at the time of her mother’s death) is so clear in its details as to leave little doubt of its general accuracy. It may be safely assumed, therefore, that the statement “He kept his room for three weeks” and the assertion “My Aunts remained constantly with him for some weeks” are dependable and that TJ began to emerge from his deep withdrawal sometime in late September. Presumably Mrs. Eppes had returned to Eppington by the end of that month; the date of 3 Oct. 1782 has been assigned to the present letter as the probable date of its composition on the ground that, on that date, TJ entered in his Account Book: “gave…[Jupiter] to pay ferrges by Eppington to Richmd 5/.” I shall begin to expect Jack: This was probably John Wayles Eppes, who later married TJ’s daughter Mary.

1TJ deleted the following at this point: “and myself thrown on the world at a time of life when I should be withdrawn.”

2TJ deleted at this point: “of another you participated in recently while here.”

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