Over the next several weeks, I am going to post a series of small articles on Presidential couples, as they were when they got married. Since the husbands in these couples are well known, I will concentrate on the wives. These are in no way comprehensive--just a brief intro to our First Ladies. It is also fitting that I "remember the ladies" because these sketches were originally designed for a Bride's Luncheon Tour, for ExecutiveToursDC.com. I hope you enjoy them.
|Martha Wayles Jefferson (?)|
losing three wives in short order, John vowed never to marry again. Rather he turned openly to his beautiful mulatto slave Betty Hemings for conjugal comfort, eventually siring six more children. Though accomplished and rich, the young Martha was left to the care of stepmothers and slaves who were not always kind.
|Sketch by Charles Bird|
Jefferson's favorite image of himself
The wedding was planned for summer. Then, in June 1771, Martha’s only remaining child suddenly sickened and died. In the end the couple did not marry until January 1, 1772, and on the trip north from Williamsburg to Monticello, they were overtaken by a huge snowstorm. When the drifts became too deep for their carriage, they abandoned it at a neighbors’ and continued on by horseback. Finally arriving at the one-room structure (ever after known as the Honeymoon Cottage) that was then the only building completed at Monticello, the couple found—nothing. No word had been sent that they were coming, no servants were there to meet them, and there were no fires and no food. Too in love to feel hunger or cold, the newlyweds discovered a leftover half-bottle of wine behind some books and began their new life together with "song and merriment and laughter." The story of that night passed into family lore. Alone on their mountain top with each other, there was no adversity Thomas and Martha Jefferson could not overcome.
The next September, the arrival of a daughter increased their happiness, and over the next ten years the Jeffersons added five more children to the family, but only two—Martha (called Patsy) and Mary (called Maria or Polly)—lived to adulthood.
How did Mrs. Jefferson spend her days? Her household accounts book shows a constant round of pig slaughtering, soap making, linen counting, and other household duties, which—if she did not do the work with her own hands—she certainly oversaw.
But a decade of plantation life and pregnancies left Martha so weak that Thomas, then Governor of Virginia, was afraid to leave her. In 1880 he resigned from the Continental Congress and refused the post of consul to France. Weak as she was, Martha was not left in peace. In January 1871, the British invaded Richmond and she was forced to flee with her 3-month-old daughter, who died not long after. In June, when the family were once again forced to flee, Jefferson resigned as Governor.
The following May, when Martha gave birth to their last child, Jefferson wrote that her condition was “dangerous.” Fearing for her children after her own death, Martha made her grief-stricken husband promise never to marry again—thereby laying the seeds for the shameful liaison with his beautiful slave (who happened to be Martha’s 7/8’s white half-sister), Sally Hemings.
Thomas cared for his wife tenderly throughout the months that followed, but she did not rally. On September 6, 1782, he recorded in his account book, "My dear wife died this day at 11:45 A.M."
In his later years, Jefferson recalled that marriage to Martha was a time of "unchequered happiness." For three weeks following her death he did not emerge from his room, and it was reported that he fainted whenever he saw his children. His daughter Patsy wrote that that, after her mother’s death: "the violence of his emotion...to this day I cannot describe to myself." In November, Jefferson fled Monticello's haunted halls for Paris, where he would open a new chapter in his life as America's envoy abroad.
What do we learn from the marriage of
Thomas and Martha?
Perhaps that great love carries with it the shadow of great loss.
I trace tells me with what rapidity
life follows my pen. The days and hours
of it are flying over our heads like
clouds of windy day never to return--
more. Everything presses on—