Thomas Jefferson: A Biography

By Nathan Schachner | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 25 Constitution from Afar

JEFFERSON had barely returned to Paris when his younger daughter, Polly, arrived. On his departure from France he had left Polly and the baby, Lucy Elizabeth. in the charge of his sister-in-law. Elizabeth Eppes. because he thought they were too young to be transplanted. But the shock of Lucy Elizabeth's death made him change his mind. Polly was growing older; she had been six when he quit America--now she was nine. He yearned for her, fearing she might forget him entirely with the passage of the years; and he wanted to reunite what remained to him of immediate family.

It was not easy, however, to accomplish his purpose. The voyage for a small girl was long and arduous, and a proper guardian had to be found to accompany her across the Atlantic; while the threat of capture by piratical corsairs was ever present. Almost two years, indeed, elapsed between the time when the plan first formed in his mind and its final execution.

In August, 1785, he asked Francis Eppes, his brother-in-law, to find some agreeable passenger en route to France to take her in charge; in September his determination almost failed him. "No event of your life," he wrote Mrs. Eppes, "has put it into your power to conceive how I feel when I reflect that such a child, and so dear to me, is to cross the ocean, is to be exposed to all the sufferings and risks, great and small, to which a situation on board a ship exposes everyone. I drop my pen at the thought-but she must come."1

But Polly proved unexpectedly stubborn. She was happy enough with her uncle and aunt and playmate cousins; and her memory of her distant father had already dimmed. It took bribes, exhortations and cajoleries to get the willful little miss finally on board ship.

Jefferson had asked that she be sent only in a French or English vessel, since their countries had treaties with the Barbary pirates and were therefore supposedly immune from capture; and gave careful instructions that the ship be sound, "neither new nor old, sailing in the months of April. May, June or July under the care of a trusty person." He added an illummating footnote: "We all pant for America, as will every American who comes to Europe."2

It was the spring of 1787, however, before Polly undertook the long voyage, accompanied by a Negro maid, and under the supervision of Captain Ramsay, the master of the ship. She duly arrived in London in June, where she was met by Abigail Adams. The child, however, had become so

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