Thomas & Martha Jefferson: A Love for All Time

On April 13, 1743, Thomas Jefferson was born in Albermarle County, Virginia. A true renaissance man, Jefferson was a statesman, author, inventor, architect, lawyer, politician, revolutionary, and the third President of the United States.

In the company of some of the brightest minds in history, including Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, James Madison, Samuel Adams, he was considered an intellectual, a visionary, and a genius.

He wrote the Declaration of Independence as well as the Statute of Religious Freedom of Virginia and founded the University of Virginia. He was the inspiration for the Alien and Sedition Acts, having irritated President John Adams and his Federalist-controlled Congress into trying to silence all critics, but specifically Vice President Thomas Jefferson.

In response, and in support of the First Amendment, Jefferson wrote the Virginia Resolution, which was paired with the Kentucky Resolution, written by James Madison. Collectively, these two documents are known as the “Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions.”  The Resolutions essentially stated that the states had not just the right, but the duty to nullify acts of Congress which were not authorized by the United States Constitution.

We all remember these things, I believe, from our history classes. But what was not ever really discussed in those classes was Jefferson’s wife Martha, and their love for one another.

He met and became immediately with Martha Wayles Skelton, who had been married previously to Bathurst Skelton in 1766, and together they had a son a year later. Bathurst died in the fall of 1768. John died in June of 1771 at the age of three.

On New Years Day, 1772, Thomas, then a member of the House of Burgesses, married Martha.

In “Memoirs of a Monticello Slave,” the book by one of Jefferson’s domestic slaves, Isaac Jefferson described Martha was described as small and “pretty,” and oral history of the family describes her as “a graceful, ladylike and accomplished woman.” She was musically inclined, as there are writings about her playing of the harpsichord, pianoforte and the violin.

Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge, granddaughter of Mrs. Jefferson, had this to say about her grandmother: “My grandmother Jefferson had a vivacity of temper which might sometimes border on tartness, but which, in her intercourse with her husband, was completely subdued by her exceeding affection for him.” Later in the same interview, she went on to say, “She was a very attractive person and my grandfather was tenderly attached to her. She commanded his respect by her good sense and domestic virtues, and his admiration and love by her wit, her vivacity, and her agreeable person and manners. She was not only an excellent housekeeper and notable mistress of a family, but a graceful, ladylike and accomplished woman, with considerable powers of conversation, some skill in music, all the habits of good society, and the art of welcoming her husband's friends to perfection. She was greatly liked by them all. She made my grandfather's home comfortable, cheerful, pleasant, just what a good man's home should be...Her loss was the bitterest grief my grandfather ever knew, and no second wife was ever called to take her place.”

Martha bore Thomas six children during their ten years of marriage, but only two survived to adulthood, Martha -- who was called Patsy -- and Maria -- called Polly. Two of their daughters, Jane Randolph and Lucy Elizabeth, died as infants, as did an unnamed newborn son. And their last child, who was also named Lucy Elizabeth, died of whooping cough when she was two years old.  

Thomas was frequently gone for long periods of time, and therefore, she ran the plantation, Monticello, which grew tobacco, and took care of the food and other daily necessities for both her family and the families of the slaves.

For the first three years they were married, her husband remained a member of the House of Burgesses. During those years, she was frequently in the colonial capital, Williamsburg, Virginia, where she participated in the social life of that society.

But while he was a delegate representing Virginia in the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1776, during which time he wrote the Declaration of Independence, they were separated.

He was the Governor of Virginia during the Revolutionary War, and during that time, Martha joined him for a while when he moved the capital of Virginia from Williamsburg to Richmond, as Richmond was less vulnerable to a naval attack by Britain.

At the request of Martha Washington, Martha Jefferson led the drive in Virginia to raise money and donate supplies which were needed by the militia of the Continental Army. Mrs. Jefferson's health was failing at that time, and she had to hand off much of that chore to others.

When Lord Cornwallis invaded Virginia in 1781, she was forced to flee Monticello to Bedford County, and her childhood home of “Poplar Forest.” It was less than a month later that her first Lucy Elizabeth died.

After Lucy died, Thomas resigned his gubernatorial position, promising Martha that he would not accept any more political posts, and he kept that promise.

Though causes of death during the 18th century are notoriously unreliable, it was apparent that Martha never recovered from her last childbirth. Lucy Elizabeth was born on May 8, and Martha died in September.

Thomas buried his beloved wife in Monticello’s graveyard, and he had these lines from Homer’s “The Iliad” on her headstone. Those lines are in Greek, but the English translation of them read:

“Nay if even in the house of Hades the dead forget their dead,
yet will I even there be mindful of my dear comrade.”

But there are no known portraits of Martha Jefferson because, history tells us, Thomas tore up everything that reminded him of his wife in his grief.

Martha’s death came eighteen years before Thomas Jefferson would be elected President. She was the first of five women who would marry men who would become President after their own deaths.

As President, Jefferson was in charge of entertaining most of his White House guests, including overseeing the food for such occasions. When he had women dinner guests, he invited Dolley Madison, the wife of his Secretary of State and good friend, James Madison, to take over hostessing duties which the First Lady would normally perform, as well as accompanying him when an escort was necessary.

He never married again.