Cynthia Kierner: Some twisted people in Jefferson's clan

Historians in the News

Thomas Jefferson’s clan was not just dysfunctional, there were “some seriously twisted people in that family,” she says.

Kierner will present a lecture, “Martha Jefferson Randolph: Virginian,” at 8 p.m. Thursday, March 1 in Memorial Chapel at Sweet Briar College. She will discuss Randolph, who had captured her interest while she was researching her 2004 book, “Scandal at Bizarre: Rumor and Reputation in Jefferson’s America.”

Randolph appeared to the historian – at least at first – as one of the saner Jefferson kin, and Kierner began researching her for a biography.

Randolph was Thomas Jefferson’s eldest daughter. Though married, she ran her father’s Monticello household for several years, including while her husband, Thomas Mann Randolph, served as Virginia governor from 1819 to 1821. Her mother, Martha Wayles Skelton, had died in 1782.

Kierner cautions that her unflinching language does need historical context. For example, she knew Randolph’s views toward enslaved blacks to be empathetic though not egalitarian. So she was jarred by an 1830s letter in which Randolph writes that native Americans truly are savages and “we should exterminate them.”

Her first reaction was, “Whoa, were we having a bad day?”

“Things pop out like that to kind of remind you that this is a person of her own place and time and all that that implies,” Kierner said in a telephone interview from her office at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte. “The criteria really were different.”

Kierner earned her master’s degree and doctorate in U.S. history at the University of Virginia, and is the author of five books and numerous articles on U.S. and women’s history. She will discuss her understanding of how Randolph’s identity as a Virginian grew from the economic and political realities that defined her lifetime.

“Born in 1772, Martha Jefferson [Randolph] came of age during the era of American nation-building, and died in 1836 at a time of growing southern sectional consciousness,” Kierner wrote in a summary of her topic.

Kierner’s research suggests that Randolph, like many of her female relatives, was more apt to see herself as a Virginian rather than a Southerner. The historian posits that Virginia represented a preferred middle ground for Randolph and other women of her circle in the growing North-South divide, despite their own problems at home.

“My preliminary research suggests that Randolph’s sense of what it meant to be a Virginian had two main components: economic decay born of pervasive debt and the omnipresent dilemmas of race and slavery.”

Through Randolph’s experience, the historian also will address more generally what being a “Virginian” meant in the 17th and 18th centuries, and how the identity developed from the Colony’s founding at Jamestown.

Kierner’s talk is the second in a series of three women’s history lectures at Sweet Briar in honor of Jamestown 2007. On April 26, Temple University professor of history Elizabeth Varon will present “Gendered Strife and Disunion: A New Look at the Origins of the Civil War” at 8 p.m. at the Elston Inn Conference Center.
Read entire article at Press Release -- Sweet Briar College

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