A True Love Affair

Thomas Jefferson began his courtship… of young widow, Martha Wayles Skelton in 1770.  Music helped strengthen the bond between the young couple,  Jefferson played the violin and Martha the harpsichord.  The courtship took place at The Forest, Martha’s father’s plantation, where Jefferson was a frequent guest during the summer of 1770.  The warm afternoons were filled with romantic duets so passionately rendered, other suitors left without further inquiry.  The couple was married New Years Day, 1772.

“the horrible dreariness of such a house”

Thomas Jefferson led Martha to his mountain… through one of the worst snowstorms in Virginia history.  The newlyweds were forced to abandon their carriage and trudge the last several miles on horseback.  Martha was dismayed at the sight of the tiny south pavilion, Jefferson had yet to construct the house most associated with his mountaintop.  Jefferson rummaged through some books and found a bottle of wine, and so the couple began their married life.  Nine months later, Patsy was born.

Jefferson’s career dragged him from Monticello… months at a time, but he considered the ten years of his marriage the happiest of his life.  Martha gave him six children, but only three survived infancy.  Historians believe that Martha suffered from diabetes;  Each of their children were larger at birth, the last child Lucy Elizabeth, may have been 16 pounds.  She never recovered from Lucy’s birth in May of 1782.    Jefferson was at her side during that long summer, tending to her every need.  Near the end, when Martha could no longer speak, the couple penned lines from their favorite novel, Tristram Shandy:

Martha began-  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–  Too weak to finish, Jefferson completed the passage-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! 

“for what good end could the sensations of grief be intended?”

Martha made Jefferson promise to never remarry… she couldn’t bear the thought of the children being raised by a stepmother as she was.  After she closed her eyes on September 6th, Jefferson had to be carried from the room.  He was inconsolable for weeks, only his daughter Patsy was able to help him through the ordeal.  Jefferson kept the slip of paper, in his wife’s hand, at his bedside the rest of his life.  It was discovered decades later, fragile after being folded and unfolded hundreds of times.  Inside were locks of hair from Martha and their deceased children.

This is a love story excluded from current… Jefferson scholarship, and for good reason.  It does not fit the salacious narrative that dominates popular opinion about our third President.  A man who felt deeply and loved deeply is contrary to the image of the wicked slave owner.  Pseudo-scholarship promoting this revisionist view of Jefferson is pervasive in our society, even earning some of the highest literary honors.  Decades of scholarship cannot be ignored for the sake of political correctness.

“And were we to love none but with imperfection, this world would be a desert for our love”




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