Martha Jefferson Finally Gets Her Own Biography

tags: Jefferson

William G. Hyland Jr. is the author of In Defense of Thomas Jefferson. His latest book, out soon, is:  Martha Jefferson: An Intimate Life with Thomas Jefferson (Rowman & Littlefield 2014).

A year after the bloody Revolutionary war ended, Martha Jefferson lay near death. She feebly held up three petite fingers to her adoring husband, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson’s face was set hard, as he stared into Martha’s red rimmed eyes, the woman he affectionately called Patty. She whispered the names of their children and clutched Jefferson’s long, slender hand. Martha held his gaze, then asked him for a sacred promise-to never marry again. The words had an ominous double meaning for both Martha and Jefferson. The thought of her own harsh stepmothers invaded Martha’s protective thoughts for her young daughters Patsy, Polly and Lucy.

He bent forward, kissed her chastely on the forehead and lovingly agreed to her dying plea. Jefferson was overcome with emotion. As he rose, the six foot three Virginian buried his haggard face and literally fainted. He crumpled at Martha’s death bed, caught from striking the floor by his sister-in-law and faithful house servants, Betty and Nance Hemings.

Grief stricken and nearly suicidal, Jefferson concealed himself in his study for the next three weeks.


Ten years before, Martha Wayles Skelton had set her wedding date to Thomas Jefferson for New Years Day, January 1, 1772. At age 23, to be an aged spinster was a shameful thing in the 18th century, but Martha Skelton was no spinster. She was married at eighteen, widowed at nineteen and her little son Jack was nearly three. She may have thought that she could not face again the trials of marriage, yet she felt a pang for Jefferson with his alluring promise of love and nurturance.

Martha had matured quite early. Perhaps it was this maturity that was one of the qualities that attracted Jefferson. She had just turned eighteen when she and her first husband, Bathurst Skelton, were married in the fall of 1766. While still nineteen she gave birth to a son, and before the boy was a year old his father was dead, ambushed by one of the marauding diseases that caught so many people of the period.

Jefferson appears to have been in love from the beginning of their courtship, writing glowingly about the hazel-eyed beauty. He was also fond of Martha’s son, even looking forward to serving in a paternal role. On 23 December 1771, Jefferson traveled to The Forest, Martha’s plantation outside of Williamsburg, to sign a wedding bond.

Martha and Thomas Jefferson had many things in common when they first married, most especially the gift of music. Jefferson was devoted to his violin, she to her harpsichord, and they both loved to sing. Their children would later record that they could hear their parents humming in the garden and in their bedroom. But Martha hesitated in marrying Jefferson. Why? Perhaps she thought it was seemly to do so. Maybe she was considering other offers. As historian Henry Randall observed, “With rank and wealth of the last can be supposed to have had any influence on the men of the olden time! it is not wonderful that Mrs. Skelton was a favorite with the other sex--that her hand was sought by wooers far and near.” i

Martha accepted Jefferson’s proposal not out of necessity, but on account of love and desire. She wanted more children, but she could have had those with a richer, more important man. She chose Jefferson because she wanted him. “We have to conclude, in the end,” commented historian Thomas Fleming, “that she decided to marry Jefferson because of a mutual attraction, an emotional and physical chemistry between them that meant a great deal to both.”ii

Martha’s first wedding had been a pious rite with only family in attendance, but her marriage to Jefferson would fill her father’s parlor, bursting with so many of their friends and family that when time came for the couple to approach Reverend Coutts they would have trouble parting the crowd. In the 18th century tradition, Martha would have worn a new-sewn gown in the very latest London fashion, a splendid yellow silk brocade with gold-embroidered stomacher, petticoat and bosom of Honiton lace. The wedding day was a joyful holiday for Martha Wayles Skelton and 29 year old Thomas Jefferson. The Anglican ceremony was conducted by the Reverend William Coutts, and the celebrations ran for several days. Coutts officiated, although the minister for the parish, William Davis, was also present. Jefferson paid each clergyman five pounds, five times what the law deemed. He also tipped Betty Hemings—Sally Hemings’s mother’s first appearance in his account books. On January 2, The Virginia Gazette reported the marriage: “Thomas Jefferson, Esquire, one of the Representatives for Albemarle, to Mrs. Martha Skelton, Relict of Mr. Bathurst Skelton.”iii The ceremony began with the three “causes for which matrimony is ordained,” the first being for “the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of His holy name, the second, as a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication, and the third, “help and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.” iv

Music and feasting would have been the order of the day, as evidenced by Jefferson’s generous tips to “a fidler” and two trusted servants from the Forest (including Betty Hemings and her son, Martin) for tending to the guests and their horses.v In fact, before the wedding, Jefferson had ordered a new pianoforte from London, “worthy the acceptance of a lady for whom I intend it.” And Jefferson no doubt sang, with his bride’s accompaniment, at the wedding party for he had a “fine clear voice,” according to his slave Isaac, and was “always singin’ when ridin’ or walkin’.”vi

When the supper was well along and some of the guests retired, Jefferson probably took Martha’s hand and they left together to climb the ladder to their wedding garret. Jefferson may have carried up a featherbed and ten or more blankets to ward off the cold. There it was that the newlywed couple slept together for the first two weeks of their married life. Martha would treasure the memory of climbing into their garret and dropping the door, pegging it and being truly alone together as they had never been before.

At that moment Martha was open to Jefferson and united with him, her body and soul.

* * *

Their honeymoon lasted two and a half weeks. The couple stayed at the Forest in hopes of better weather, but the winter settled in with three feet of snow and ever colder winds. Not until January eighteenth did the newlyweds set out for Monticello. For another two days the couple made but very little progress, driving swathed in blankets while their horses strained to drag them through the knee-deep snow. The snow piled deeper with every mile as they rolled into hilly Albemarle County. With only eight miles to go, they were “obliged to quit the carriage and proceed on horseback,” pressing forward as the sun disappeared behind the Blue Ridge Mountains to the west. At sunset, they began their ascent, slowly and miserably taking the mountain’s 867 feet. The trees along the path up to Monticello were weighed down by ice and snow. The Jeffersons had to pass through thickets of frozen branches hanging low across the trail.

Finally, after riding for hours “through a mountain track rather than a road, in which the snow lay from eighteen inches to two feet deep,” Martha arrived at her new home, such as it was. He had been sketching plans for Monticello for several years, but on the eve of his wedding the only habitable part of the new house was a small one-room brick structure, twenty feet square, that now comprises the South Pavilion of Monticello. Jefferson had moved into this temporary residence after his house at Shadwell was destroyed by fire in February 1770. He had been living there and supervising the construction of the main house throughout the entire period of his romance with Martha.vii

A blazing hearth, a hot meal, and cozy blankets might have transformed any cottage into a honeymoon sanctuary against the raging snow and sleet, but it was “late at night” and the young bride found “the fires all out and the servants retired to their own houses.” Martha’s new quarters were little more than a cabin at the edge of a raw and frozen construction site. “Part of a bottle of wine, found on a shelf behind some books,” was made to substitute “for both fire and supper.” Then, as the story was told to their children and friends, Martha found “sources of diversion” and the “horrible dreariness was lit up with song, merriment and laughter. As a result, this room has come to be known in present times as the “honeymoon cottage,” although it later served as Jefferson’s office.viii

With bodies warmed and glasses full, the lovers lolled before the fire. Martha’s auburn head bent low, her hazel eyes shining over the latest sketches of the magnificent house in which Jefferson vowed they would grow old together.

It was a night that would become one of Martha’s most cherished memories.

i Life, 1:65; Scharff, The Women Jefferson Loved, I book Edition, 258

ii Fleming, Intimate Lives, I BOOK Edition, 16-18; ; Scharff, The Women Jefferson Loved, I book Edition, 258

iii The Virginia Gazette, January 2, 1772; Meacham, The Art of Power, I Book Edition, 370-371

iv Scharff,Women Jefferson loved, I book Edition, 275.

v Jefferson’s Memorandum Book ( MB) 1: 285; Scharff, Women Jefferson Loved I book edition, 274

vi McLaughlin, I book edition, 511.

vii Scharff, Women Jefferson Loved I book edition, 281-284.

viii Sharff, The Women Jefferson Loved, I book edition, 283; Sara Randolph, the domestic life of Thomas Jefferson, 64-65; Parton, 103.

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