Saturday, July 14, 2012


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 I hope you enjoy them.

Thomas & Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson

Martha Wayles Jefferson  (?)
Martha Wayles Jefferson (1748-1782) grew up in rural Virginia in the lap of luxury. Her mother was beautiful, cultured, and as an Eppes from the huge Bermuda Hundred plantation, well born. Her father was John Wayles, a dashing Englishman grown rich on the slave trade. When Martha’s mother died shortly after her birth, her father immediately married again. And when his second wife died, married once again. Finally, after 
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. 

Like so many women of her time (including Martha Washington and Dolley Madison), Martha Wayles was married and widowed young. In fact she was only 22 in 1768, when she met Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826). At 27, he had already graduated from William and Mary College, become an accomplished violinist, inherited a fair-sized fortune, and served in the Virginia House of Burgesses. Martha, at 22, had borne two children and  lost a husband and a son.

No images of Martha Wayles Jefferson  survive--with the possible exception of the silhouette shown here. But by all accounts, she was beautiful. She was described as of middle height, slender, with auburn hair and hazel eyes, highly educated, a voracious reader, and accomplished pianist--as one visitor to Monticello noted in 1780, “in all respects a very agreeable, sensible, and accomplished lady." She was also said to have great good nature, spiced with a “vivacious temper that sometimes bordered on tartness.”

Young, gorgeous, and rich (she would inherit from her father 40,000 acres, 135 slaves--and a heavy undisclosed burden of debt), the widow Skelton was soon deluged by suitors. According to a favorite family story, one evening, two young men coming to court her arrived at her father’s house at the same time. While taking off their overcoats warily in the foyer, both gradually became aware of sweet strains from a piano (Martha) and violin (Thomas), coming from the drawing room. When this was followed by two voices blended harmoniously in song, the rivals exchanged a look, took up their coats, and left without a word.

Sketch by Charles Bird
Jefferson's favorite image of himself
During their courtship, Thomas Jefferson's passion for Martha was so great that it caused him to ignore his revolutionary principles. In a blatant violation of the colonial boycott of British goods, Thomas ordered a “forte-piano” from England—along with special instructions about its construction to make sure it would be "worthy the acceptance of a lady for whom I intend it." Thomas was also busy building his dream house Monticello atop a mountain, taking care of his mother whose house had burnt down, and carrying out his legislative duties as a Virginia Burgess. 

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 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.

Time wastes too fast: every letter
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—
From Laurence Sterne’s Tristam Shandy,
Copied by Martha Jefferson just before her death

and every time I kiss thy hand to bid adieu,
every absence which follows it,
are preludes to that eternal separation
which we are shortly to make!
Completion of Sterne quote
copied by Thomas Jefferson

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