After five weeks at sea, Polly Jefferson and Sally Hemings (see previous post) arrived in London. Thomas Jefferson was not on hand to greet them, having sent Adrien Petit in his place with orders to bring them to Paris. Abigail Adams was living in London at the time with her husband John who was Ambassador from the United States to Great Britain. She welcomed Polly and her companion and cared for them in Jefferson’s absence. In the following letter she chastised Jefferson for his behavior, albeit in diplomatic language, and provides a lovely description of the precocious Polly.
If I had thought you would so soon have Sent for your dear little Girl, I should have been tempted to have kept her arrival here, from you a secret. I am really loth to part with her, and she last evening upon [Adrien] Petit’s arrival [who was to take her to Jefferson], was thrown into all her former distresses, and bursting into Tears, told me it would be as hard to leave me as it was her Aunt Epps. She has been so often deceived that She will not quit me a moment least She should be carried away. . . She says she does not remember you, yet she has been taught to consider you with affection and fondness, and depended upon your comeing for her. She told me this morning, that as She had left all her Friends in virginia to come over the ocean to see you, She did think you would have taken the pains to come here for her, & not have sent a man whom She cannot understand. I express her own words. . . .
She is a child of the quickest Sensibility, and the maturest understanding, that I ever met with for her years. She has been 5 weeks at Sea, and with men only, so that on the first day of her arrival, She was as rough as a little Sailor, and then She been decoyed from the Ship, which made her very angry, and no one having any Authority over her; I was apprehensive I should meet with Some trouble, but where there are such materials to work upon as I have found in her, there is no danger. She listened to my admonitions, and attended to my advice and in two days, was restored to the amiable lovely Child which her Aunt had formed her. In short She is the favorite of every creature in the House, and I cannot but feel Sir, how many pleasures you must lose by committing her to a convent. Yet Situated as you are, you cannot keep her with you. The Girl she has with her [Sally Hemings], wants more care than the child, and is wholy incapable of looking properly after her, without Some Superiour to direct her.
As both miss Jefferson & the maid had cloaths only proper for the Sea, I have purchased & made up for them, Such things as I should have done had they been my own; to the amount of Eleven or 12 Guineys. . . .
I have not the Heart to force her into a Carriage against her will and send her from me almost in a Frenzy; as I know will be the case, unless I can reconcile her to the thoughts of going . . . Books are her delight, and I have furnished her out a little library, and She reads to me by the hour with great distinctness, & comments on what She reads with much propriety. . . . A. Adams
On July 16 Abigail wrote her sister Mary Cranch about Polly Jefferson.
My dear Sister,
. . . . I have had with me for a fortnight a little daughter of Mr. Jefferson’s, who arrived here with a young negro girl, her servant, from Virginia. Mr. Jefferson wrote me some months ago that he expected them, and desired me to receive them. I did so, and was amply repaid for my trouble. A finer child of her acre I never saw. So mature an understanding, so womanly a behaviour, and so much sensibility, united, are rarely to be met with. I grew so fond of her, and she was so attached to me, that, when Mr. Jefferson sent for her, they were obliged to force the little creature away. She is but eight years old. She would sit sometimes, and describe to me the parting with her aunt who brought her up, the obligations she was under to her, and the love she had for her little cousins, till the tears would stream down her cheeks ; and how I had been her friend, and she loved me. Her papa would break her heart by making her go again. She clung round me so that I could not help shedding a tear at parting with her. She was the favorite of every one in the house. I regret that such fine spirits must be spent in the wall of a convent. She is a beautiful girl, too.
When Polly arrived in Paris on July 15, she did not recognize her sister but, as Jefferson reported, “recollected something of me” when the three were reunited. The Jefferson family returned to America in 1789. More about Sally Hemings in the next post.