War and History Non-Fiction posted February 18, 2012

This work has reached the exceptional level
a true historical romance

The One and Only Mrs. Jefferson

by Writingfundimension

As Thomas Jefferson breathed his last, a beautiful mulatto slave woman named Sally Hemmings kept vigil. Her life with the brilliant, eccentric former President had been a cinderella story. She'd gone from domestic servant to lover and companion, bearing Thomas Jefferson six children.

Ironically, Sally Hemmings came to be in Jefferson's household by virtue of being half-sister and domestic servant to the one and only Mrs. Jefferson - Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson. A circuit lawyer and would-be farmer, Thomas Jefferson found a kindred soul in the attractive daughter of businessman/slave trader, John Wayles.

Like most wealthy young ladies of her day, Martha was home-tutored in a variety of domestic skills. Reputed to have a keen intellect and a passion for music and the arts, she and Thomas spent long, happy hours of their courtship playing music together - he on the violin and she on the piano.

Having buried a husband and two children before the age of twenty three, Martha could be forgiven for being dour and bitter. Yet, in his account of the young woman's disposition, Robert Skipworth - Martha's brother-in-law - assured Jefferson that the young widow "[possessed] the greatest fund of good nature...that spriteliness and sensibility which promises to ensure you the greatest happiness mortals are capable of enjoying."

Jefferson's interest in the Widow Skelton was likely spurred by the probable inheritance of her father's considerable estate, including a large number of slaves. But, it was the couple's shared love of all things artistic and beautiful that formed the true bond of passion that would weather hardship and heartbreak throughout their ten years of marriage.

Married on New Year's Day in 1772, the newlyweds spent two joyful weeks at The Forest, Martha's childhood home before setting out for Thomas Jefferson's farm in Virginia. They made the one hundred mile trip by horsedrawn carriage until being overcome by a fierce winter blizzard. Abandoning the vehicle and, likely, most of Martha Skelton Jefferson's trousseau, the couple rode horseback the last eight miles to Monticello.

Arriving at the modest structure that formed the foundation of Thomas Jefferson's imagined ideal home, they found no warming fire or food and the slaves had retired for the night. Nevertheless, the lovers were in high spirits and excited to be in their own home at last. They celebrated with a leftover bottle of wine, song and laughter.

Strangely, there are no known portraits of Mrs. Jefferson. However, in his memoirs, slave Isaac Jefferson, wrote that Martha was 'small and pretty.' Elsewhere, Hessian officer Jacob Rubsamen, who visited the Jefferson's at Monticello in 1780, noted, "You will find in [the] house an elegant harpischord, piano forte and some violins. The latter he [Thomas Jefferson] performs well upon himself, the former his lady touches very skillfully and who, is in all respects, a very agreeable sensible and accomplished lady."

Upon the death of Marth's father, the Jeffersons's received 11,000  acres of land, 135 slaves and a formidable number of debts. It took years to pay off the debts they inherited, and, along with the former President's taste for a lavish lifestyle and gourmet indulgences, likely contributed to the statesman's life-long struggle with finances.

The years spanning the marriage of Martha and Thomas were filled with Jefferson's political activities. He served in Williamsburg as a member of Virginia's House of Delegates, in Richmond as Virginia's governor, and in Philadelphia as a member of the Continental Congress (and main writer of the Declaration of Independence).

Martha spent the majority of those years producing offspring. The grief of losing all but two of those children, the strain of running a large, unwieldy estate, diabetes and a bout with smallpox undoubtedly contributed to a rapid decline in the young mother's health.

On two separate occasions, the Jefferson family barely escaped death at the hands of British invaders. During this difficult, frightening period, the couple experienced the loss of their only son and sixteen-month-old daughter, Lucy. 

In May of 1782, another daughter was born and it became obvious to everyone that Martha's health was irreparably damaged. Increasingly she took to her bed, and Thomas refused the offer of a commission to France, remaining at his wife's side.

Before her death in September of 1782, Martha Jefferson put to paper this quote from Tristam Shandy, "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. Every thing presses on..." Jefferson, on reading these words, transformed the passage into a dialogue between lovers, "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!"

One of Martha Jefferson's final acts was to extract a most unusual promise from her husband - that he would never remarry. Though to some this might be the selfish wish of a dying woman, it likely came about due to the circumstances of Martha's background. Her own mother died three weeks following birth and Martha was forced to endure two separate step-mothers and a retinue of slave mistresses and illegitimate children all co-habitating under her father's roof.

The words that transpired between them are nowhere recorded.  But Thomas Jefferson, in fact, did not re-marry for the remainder of his life. However, this did not preclude relationships of the type he maintained with Sally Hemmings and, reputedly, other attractive female slaves.

A letter between friends of Thomas Jefferson following Martha's death give an insight into the public's perception of the widowed husband's grief. "Mrs. Jefferson has at last shaken off her tormenting pains by yielding to them, and has left our friend inconsolable. I ever thought him to rank domestic happiness in the first class of the chief good; but I scarcely supposed that his grief would be so violent as to justify the circulating report of his swooning away whenever he sees his children."

Sequestered in his chamber for three weeks following his wife's funeral, the grieving husband only emerged in order to ride horseback through the woods and hills of his estate. His daughter Martha 'Patsy' Jefferson wrote, "In those melancholy rambles I was his constant companion..a solitary witness to many a violent burst of grief...the violence of his emotion...to this day I do not describe to myself."

Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson is buried on the grounds of Monticello. An epitaph on her gravestone, from Homer's Greek epic reads: "Even if I am in Hell, where the dead forget their dead, yet will I even there be mindful of my dear companion."

Less than two months following his wife's death, Thomas Jefferson became the new ambassador to France. After settling in France with his eldest daughter, Patsy, he eventually sent for his nine-year-old daughter, Polly, to join them - accompanied by her personal maid, Sally Hemmings.

During their two years in Paris, Sally became pregnant with the first of six children she would eventually bear the future president. She was fifty-four years of age when Jefferson died.

Although she was not freed under the conditions of his will, in yet another of the many twists and turns of Jefferson's affairs of the heart, Sally Hemmings was to have been officially emancipated under the terms of Patsy Jefferson Randolph's will. Sadly, Mistress Hemming's death preceded that of Patsy Jefferson, denying her the experience of life as a free woman.



Sources: womeninamericanhistory18.blogspot.com/2011 and Wikipedia

Quotes: Homer's, The Iliad; and Laurence Stern's, Tristam Shandy.

Thanks much to VMarguarite for: Power of Prayer
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Artwork by VMarguarite at FanArtReview.com

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