Thomas Jefferson’s Daughter Almost Became A Nun In A French Convent

(Portrait of Martha “Patsy” Jefferson Randolph painted by Thomas Sully  (1783–1872), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)


From 1784-1789, Thomas Jefferson served as an American diplomat in Paris, France. Although Jefferson was genuinely charmed by the French people and their drive for revolution, he was also intimidated and mystified by the freedoms that French women had achieved. In the eyes of the quiet politician from Virginia who dreamed of a simple, rural society, the Parisian women seemed too overly active in politics and sex. When Jefferson’s two daughters were eventually shipped to Paris to be near their father, Thomas Jefferson’s concerns had already grown to a point where he decided his daughters needed to be isolated from the Parisian culture.

Martha Jefferson (known as Patsy) and Mary Jefferson (known as Polly and, later, as Maria) were both placed by their father in school at a convent in Panthemont. Thomas Jefferson was a Protestant (a peculiar one, at that) and he definitely did not want his daughters to become Catholic, but he obviously thought the nuns would be a better influence on his daughters than the rest of France. He hoped, and seemed to believe, that the nuns were separating their religion from the education that was being provided to his daughters in the school.  Nevertheless, Jefferson soon learned from letters sent by his children that the students were not as isolated from the rest of the world as he would have liked.

Even in the convent, the students heard ample scandalous gossip about events occurring locally and throughout France. Jefferson also learned that his daughters were gaining a thorough understanding of the French language—unfortunately, this was apparently detrimental to their native English. Patsy reported to her father that, although her ability to speak French had grown spectacularly fluent, her native English was becoming harder and harder to remember and use.

Yet, another jarring revelation from Patsy led Jefferson to the undeniable conclusion that his daughters needed to be evacuated from France—in April 1789, Patsy made the short-lived decision to become a nun. Upon hearing this news, the shocked Thomas Jefferson quickly drove his carriage to the convent at Panthemont and yanked his daughters away from the tutelage of the nuns. By September 1789, Jefferson ended his business in France and returned to his estate of Monticello in Virginia, putting the Atlantic Ocean between France and his daughters.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.


  • American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, by Joseph J. Ellis. New York: Vintage Books, 1998.

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