In America’s First Daughter, we posit a life-long romance between William Short and Thomas Jefferson’s daughter Patsy. But how much of it is true?

According to Martha “Patsy” Jefferson Randolph’s biographer, Cynthia Kierner, some manner of romance of unknown intensity and duration blossomed in Paris between Thomas Jefferson’s teenaged daughter and his secretary, William Short.

Kierner’s main basis for this conclusion upon the letters of Patsy’s good friend at the convent, Marie Botidoux, who “believe that Patsy loved Short and that he attempted to persuade her to stay in Paris after her father left.” Marie also wrote that Short had angrily denied his affections for Patsy, but that she still believed he was in love, something she wrote again months later.

In the writing of America’s First Daughter, we were able to procure photographs of Marie’s letters. But we also engaged in some detective work that left us stunned and persuaded. Namely, we made a timeline of both Patsy Jefferson’s life and William Short’s and discovered the startling frequency with which William Short was present at crucial junctures in Patsy’s life.

He was with her family when they fled Monticello. He was with her family in France. He was at Monticello when the family was faced with James Callender publishing the expose about Sally Hemings. He was present just prior to Patsy’s marriage breaking up. He was apparently involved in preventing an effort to buy the house from her after Jefferson’s death. He took an active interest in her children, visiting Ellen in Philadelphia and taking Virginia’s husband, Nicholas Trist, under his wing as an aspiring diplomat.*

This, of course, could be nothing but a coincidence or friendship.

More shocking to us was the frequency with which Short visited Patsy in the convent in Paris when her father was away; far more frequently than could be explained by courtesy or obligation such as paying her tuition. The trip from the American Embassy to the Panthemont was not a trivial one to be taken regularly by a man in charge of his country’s affairs in France without some ulterior motive. It seems very plain what that motive may have been, especially in light of the subsequent letters that Short exchanged with his employer in an effort to make plans for his future.

Jefferson’s tone in these letters becomes paternal and insistent and even manipulative on one particular point–that if Short wants a wife, then he’d better make some money, and he’d also do best to settle down in Albemarle County, not far from Jefferson’s own house. These letters take on an interesting character if one presumes, for the sake of argument, that William Short has a particular bride in mind, and Jefferson suspects who that bride might be.

Finally, there is the matter of the recently discovered/released anonymous letter to Patsy before she left France, apparently lamenting Patsy’s choice to go home to Virginia with her father. Though we couldn’t positively identify the handwriting as belonging to Short–the prose matches up quite well with Marie’s account of Short trying to persuade Patsy to stay in Paris, and being angry when she did not.

In the end, both of these historical people ended up more famously involved with other partners. Patsy with Tom Randolph. William with the Duchess de la Rochefoucauld. Those are the relationships that we can document with near-perfect historical certainty.

Patsy and William are less certain.

If they shared a lifelong love, they left no letters yet discovered that would confirm it–which leaves the matter to speculation and historical novelists!


* More details available in Jefferson’s Adoptive Son by George Shackelford.