In 2011, Bernard Mayo edited the collection of letters between Thomas Jefferson and younger brother Randolph in Thomas Jefferson and His Unknown Brother Randolph. In the short book, Mayo proffers a four-page introduction to the thin correspondence. The letters exchanged, says Mayo, “are primarily interesting because they reveal Thomas Jefferson’s solicitousness: his “affection, patient kindness, and desire to help a brother strikingly his inferior.” Still, Mayo somewhat dexterously offers a sketch of what can be know of Randolph’s life from the paucity of evidence to direct that sketch. That sketch, which dubs Randolph as “an earth-bound farmer,” is consistent with Thomas Jefferson’s own depiction, in a deposition to contest Randolph’s second will, upon the latter’s untimely passing in 1815. “In all the occasions of life a diffidence in his own opinions, an extreme facility and kindness of temper, and an easy pliancy to the wishes and urgency of other, made him very susceptible of influence from those who had any views upon him.”
In 2012, Joanne Yeck offered a challenge to Mayo’s work in her The Jefferson Brothers. Randolph, says she, was more than a “muddy boots farmer.” Her book promises scholars critical reassessment of Randolph Jefferson and impresses by its bulk. It is, as a 400-plus-page book, over 100 times the length of Mayo’s meatless sketch. She aims to show that Randolph Jefferson was in his own way a historically significant person, not an earth-bound farmer.
As any Jeffersonian scholar acknowledges, we know precious little about Thomas Jefferson’s younger brother, Randolph. Their considerable difference in age—they were separated by more than 18 years—made difficult any sort of intimacy between the brothers, even though, of the 10 offspring of Peter and Jane Jefferson, they were the only males to live to adulthood. The extant letters between the Thomas and Randolph—they are not numerous—show genuine fraternal affection, though no intimacy. The letters are businesslike, as they often relate to advice and information that one owner of a plantation might share with another.
Yeck acknowledges that there is little material upon which to base a narrative on Randolph Jefferson. There are few extant letters between the brothers and much that might have been learned about Randolph has been lost in the fires at his residences at Shadwell and Snowden and at the Buckingham Courthouse. Moreover, Randolph did not keep a diary or memorandum book of his daily affairs.
Thus, Yeck’s approach is indirect. She digs for information. She employs, for instance, courthouse records and tax records as well as the diaries of others familiar with Randolph or of a similar social status as Randolph.
Yeck sets the stage by beginning with preliminary discussion of the history of the early Jeffersons in Virginia, with a focus on Peter Jefferson and mother Jane Randolph. We are then led to what can be known of Randolph’s education. She then discusses Randolph as patriot and planter, his plantation at Snowden, his two wives and their children, Randolph’s final days, and she ends with a contrast of the brothers Jefferson.
That outline bespeaks of a narrative thread, but we are never given one. Instead, her indirect approach to crafting a narrative on Randolph Jefferson takes us on an anfractuous journey that ends where it has begun. At trip’s end, we have learned many fine things about many persons and places in Randolph’s time, but have not learned much more about Randolph Jefferson in Yeck’s plus-400 pages than we have learned from Mayo’s four pages.
There are many divagations along the way—what might be characterized as loosely connected vignettes or rhetorical loops from the intended narrative. I proffer on illustration. Yeck notes that Randolph did not leave behind a diary or memorandum book to help us, so there is very little direct evidence to help her in her quest. Yet there were diaries in the Bolling family and so she uses them to speculate on the pattern of Randolph’s daily and yearly affairs. She specifically draws from Major Thomas Bolling and his son Colonel William Bolling. Yeck then goes on to share much content from those diaries and then to extrapolate analogically from that content to have something to say about Randolph’s daily and yearly affairs.
William Bolling did u, v, w, x, y, and z.
Randolph Jefferson was a gentleman and plantation owner like Bolling.
So, Randolph Jefferson also did u, v, w, x, y, and z.
Yet this analogical tack, used much too frequently, is of limited assistance in getting to know Randolph Jefferson. More particularly, it helps us nowise in ascertaining if Randolph was in some sense historically important, which he has promised to show.
Because of want of knowledge of Randolph Jefferson, Yeck employs a large number of unhelpfully vague or useless claims to drive her narrative. Consider these claims about Randolph’s brief stint at William and Mary College (my italics throughout). “Randolph Jefferson may have already known Robert Burton.” Concerning Burton, Carter Page, Walker Maury, and St. George Tucker, “any and all of these young gentlemen might have been among Randolph Jefferson’s friends or even roomed with him.” Concerning Randolph’s supplemental education prior to grammar schooling with Rev. Johnson and Rev. Thomas Gwatkin, “these experiences may have been simultaneous or sequential.” Again, “he may have been fundamentally disinterested [sic] in the world of the mind.” Finally, “Randolph … was undoubtedly altered by the experience” of his educative years at the college—a tautology, given the meaning of “experience.”
That illustrates the major problem with Yeck’s Randolph Jefferson. When we get to the end of the book, most of what she has to say about Randolph, given the skerrick of data, is purely speculative, and thus, historically unhelpful. For instance: “There is no reason to believe that Randolph acted with everyone else the way he acted with his brother, who easily may have towered over him. … Randolph Jefferson may have acted and appeared very different indeed.” Then again, he may not have done so. Sentences are frequently begun with “there is every reason to believe…,” “it appears that…,” “Randolph may have…,” and “it is possible that….” Such claims are too meatless to be of historical worth.
Another difficulty concerns lack of editing. As the book is self-published, there are many redundancies, and numerous grammatical errors and grammatical infelicities. As an example of redundancy, on one page, Yeck writes, “Mitchie died between her second son’s birth and her husband’s marriage in the autumn of 1825.” On the next page, she adds, “Mitchie died between her second son’s birth on July 2, 1820, and her husband’s remarriage in September of 1825.” Grammatical mistakes include participial phrases that are habitually misplaced, split infinitives, frequent nonuse of commas after “Jr.,” and frequent misuse of subjunctives. Infelicities include sentences that tediously begin with “interestingly,…,” “significantly,…,” or “importantly,…”; use of one question after another when Yeck arrives at a probative dead end; and Yeck’s assessment that one court decision was “very correct,” as if correctness admits of degrees.
A final nodus is lack of a thesis, though the motivation for her undertaking can be discovered through analysis of her final chapter, where Yeck sums her findings concerning Randolph Jefferson. Yeck castigates scholars who “have dismissed Randolph Jefferson as historically insignificant”—as nothing more than, to repeat her term, a “muddy boots farmer.” Yet her assessment at book’s end is consistent with historical insignificancy. “Randolph Jefferson appears to have lived and died an upstanding, yet unremarkable, citizen of Buckingham County, Virginia.” Again, “Randolph Jefferson … was a simple man who never would have drawn any attention, except that he happened to be the brother of an extra-ordinary person.”
Yet Randolph’s letters, evidenced both by style and content, intimate fecklessness. Yeck’s Randolph Jefferson is not “mentally deficient,” but instead mentally capable. “With a yardstick like Thomas Jefferson for a brother, who wouldn’t come in a very poor second?” Moreover, “it is entirely [sic] possible that Randolph possessed other kinds of intelligence, notably innate musical talent and an intuitive knowledge of agriculture. … [But] there is no way to know.” Again, I merely add that it is “entirely possible” that he did not. She does note that Randolph was at least able to maintain a sense of fiscal responsibility that Thomas could not.
In summation, we thus see how Yeck crafts a lengthy book on Randolph Jefferson when there is paucity of information on him. She employs somewhat unsubtly what might be dubbed the rhetoric of indirect discourse: rhetorical vignettes, irrelevant digressions, vague claims, a flood of questions when one arrives at a probative impasse, use of analogy, and speculation when evidence is wanting.
At day’s end, we have learned numerous fine facts about many fine persons, many fine places, and many fine things in 400-plus pages of text, but little more about Randolph Jefferson than we have learned in Mayo’s succinct four-page sketch. One wonders whether the scholarly return was worth the immense scholarly effort. I suspect that Yeck herself, given her summation in chapter 14, is aware that it was not.
Such things noted, Yeck does show herself throughout the book to be an ingenuous scholar. Truth is her aim and the rhetorical devices she employs throughout are used just because of scholarly integrity. Her facts are few, but she is disinclined to connect them through fiction, and she is to be lauded for that. Nonetheless, the perspicacious reader will readily grasp that too much of the prose is irrelevant to the life and persona of Randolph Jefferson. A book of 100 pages could have done the job.
Still, the prose is in general lively and engaging, and that Yeck has done much hefty research in the process of crafting her book and has made familiar to readers the climate of the Buckingham County, Virginia, of Randolph’s day. In that regard, the book does not disappoint.