What was Jefferson's relationship with his wife like?
Thomas Jefferson in his own thoughts and words, did not believe his life had started until he met his wife. In Martha “Patty” Wayles Skelton, Thomas Jefferson found a woman who spoke his language. She was five and half years younger than her new husband and she was beautiful, musically inclined, well-read–he adored her. Patty and Thomas both shared tastes in literature and wife-ranging conversation. One described the Jeffersons “A couple… well calculated and disposed to communicate knowledge and pleasure.” Their nights were filled with music, wine and talk–they talked of everything. He confided in her about politics. A granddaughter recalled of Patty’s “passionate attachment” to Jefferson and her “exalted opinion of him.”Jefferson’s “conduct as a husband had been admirable in its ensemble, charming in its detail.”
“But it was always so with him,” Mrs. Jefferson is said to have remarked, “he is so good himself, that he cannot understand how bad other people may be.” Mr. Jefferson once gently rebuked her for reminding eldest daughter, Patsy, of an old childhood crime. “My dear, a fault in so young a child once punished should be forgotten.” Patty had a temper but in her relationship with her husband, was “completely subdued by her exceeding affection for him.” Patty could reassure and clam her husband, who was given to worry and restlessness. Easing Thomas Jefferson’s emotional tension was a difficult task, one that she was fluent in.
Jefferson undertook legal work for John Wayles (father of Patty) beginning in 1768. The widow immediately was appealing to Jefferson. At first it was a pursuit in which he worked for and by 1771, he was in full press. He wrote a romantic and poetical description of her to a correspondent. A pair of competing suitors once arrived at the Forest (the Wayles’s plantation), where they heard Patty and Thomas playing and singing beautifully together. Looking at one another, the two callers were said to have recognized the inevitable and departed without announcing themselves (Meacham 56). Jefferson was determined to to have her and to five her the best of everything.
Thomas Jefferson married Martha Wayles Skelton on New Year’s day 1772. He was twenty-eight; she was twenty-three. The Anglican ceremony was held at her father’s house and the celebrations ran for several days. On their marriage license, dated December 20, 1771, Jefferson mistakenly referred to her as a “spinster” and crossed it out and inserted “widow”. Their first child, Martha, nicknamed Patsy, was born at one in the morning of Sunday, September 27th, 1772. The Jeffersons remained at the Forest for some day before setting out for Monticello through ever-worsening snowy weather. As they approached for Monticello through worsening snowy weather. As they approached Shadwell (Jefferson’s childhood home) and Monticello, the snow had grown too deep for their phaeton to continue. He and Patty then got on horseback and pressed on through the forest, wind, ice, snow and gathering darkness (Meacham 58). A sunset, they began their ascent, slowly and miserably taking the mountain’s 867 feet. When the arrived, they were found unexpected and the fires were out. Their was a bottle of wine left out.
After a week or so they moved on to Elk Hill which belonged to Patty. Patty Jefferson was a careful housekeeper. She saw to fresh supplies of meat, eggs, butter and fruit; while also supervising the making of beer and soap. She personally directed the work of the kitchen on more sophisticated foods. “Mrs. Jefferson would come out there with a cookery book in her hand and read out of it to Isaac’s mother how to make cakes, tarts and so on,” recalled Isaac Granger Jefferson, a slave of Monticello. A German officer, founding the Jeffersons charming and engaging. Patty Jefferson gave birth to a second daughter on Sunday, April 3rd, 1774. She was named Jane Jefferson. Jefferson proved an attentive husband and father. His book notes that purchase of “breast pipes” glass devices that were used in the breastfeeding of infants. Martha’s account book tracks her daily work, including supervising the slaughter of ducks, turkeys, hogs, sheep and lambs. She also managed the slaves in the household.
After taking leave of his duties, Thomas spent much of September 1775 at Monticello with his family. Tragically, their daughter Jane at only a year and a half, died. After her loss, his letters home were marked with an almost obsessive concern for Patty and little Patsy (Meacham 93). Arriving back in Philadelphia, Jefferson returned to his work, but his mind was still on Patty. It was during this time that he confided with her on political matters. Patty fell ill and all he got in return was silence with no word from her. Tuesday, October 31st, 1775, he was even more worried: “I have set apart nearly one day in every week since I came here to write letters”. Eight day later he was desperate: “I have never received the scrip of a pen from any moral in Virginia since I left it, nor been able by any enquirers I could make to hear of my family”. Topped with the overwhelming anxiety of a possible British invasion of Virginia; he was beset from each side. Jefferson made plans for Patty and his family to escape in the event of violence, plans that included his joining them in presumably safe territory. He began to think of inoculating his family against smallpox.
Patty stayed in Virginia and due to her health, she was unable to travel. “I am here in the same uneasy anxious state in which I was the last fall without Mrs. Jefferson who would not come with me.” In 1776, with Jefferson at work in the Continental Congress, Patty suffered a miscarriage. Thomas was unable to rest easy about his wife, desperately watching out for letters from her hand. Jefferson hated not hearing, and he feared the worst. Patty Jefferson was a good and loving wife. Jefferson’s own sisters fells for Patty as well, “she commanded his respect by her good sense and domestic virtue, and his admiration and love by her wit, her vivacity, and her agreeable person and manners. Drawn to public life, he still longed to be home with her family. His wife’s health remained such a concern that Jefferson sought to leave Philadelphia to return to Patty in Virginia: “I receive by every post such accounts of the state of Mrs. Jefferson’s health, that it will be impossible for me to disappoint her expectation of seeing me and the time I have promised, which supposed my leaving this place on the 11th of next month.” Jefferson wrote Richard Henry Lee, begging him to relieve him of his duty.
Finally, Jefferson was relieved and rode from Philadelphia to Monticello in early autumn of 1776. He was relived to be with his wife and with Patsy. He spent his non-working hours with his family. Though, Jefferson faced another decision, the congress requested reliable men to represent America’s interests in France and elected a delegation to go to Paris to make an alliance between the France and the Americans. One was Thomas Jefferson and he asked his messenger to await his reply. Given to Patty’s health, she could not go to France. Thomas gave his choice–he would not go. May 28th, 1777, Patty gave birth to a son. The little boy only lived seventeen days. If they gave him a name, it is not recorded. Patty was soon pregnant again. August 1st, 1778, she gave birth to a daughter, Mary “Polly” Jefferson.
Despite her illness and pregnancies, Patty Jefferson reminded resilient and recorded the domestic details of life at Monticello in an account book. When governor of Virginia in 1781, the British troops began moving towards Richmond on Friday, January 5th. Robert Hemings and James Hemings drove Patty and the rest of the Jefferson family to safety at a piece of property Jefferson owned on Fine Creek, west of the capital. Lucy Elizabeth, born six months prior, died at about ten in the morning in April 1781. Jefferson chose to stay with Patty the next week after the death, declining to attend a meeting of the state council (Meacham 137). When the British marched on Monticello he summoned a carriage for his family and sent them to a nearby plantation for safety. Jefferson caught up with the family much later and they sought refuge at Polar Forest. Patty soon added a new member to the family; Lucy Elizabeth, after the sister who had recently died. Her condition was terrible, but it only worsened.
Martha “Patty” Jefferson was dying. By early summer 1782, she was confined to her bed. Days passed to months and Jefferson “was never out.” He was either at her bed or in a small room nearby that opened onto hers. “Her eyes ever rested on him, ever followed him.” According to family, “When he spoke, no other sound could reach her ear of attract her attention. When she waked from slumber she looked momentarily alarmed and distressed, and even appeared to be frightened, if the customary form was not bending over her, the customary look upon her.” She had the strength enough to begin writing some lines from Sterne–they were from Tristram Shady–on a small piece of paper.
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 return–
More every thing presses on–
She faded at this point and Thomas finished the passage for her:
Time I kiss thy hand to bid adieu, every absence which
Follow it, are preludes to that eternal separation
Which we are shortly to make!
Sterne’s message here is tragic, unrelenting so, for even moments of human communion and love are seen not as fulfilling in themselves but ephemeral: a stark yet realistic vision of life. Nearly noon on Friday, September 6th, 1782, when the end arrived. “When she came to the children, she wept and could not speak for some time. Finally she held up her hand, and… told him she could not die happy if she thought her… children were ever to have a stepmother brought in over them.” Patty was only thinking of her children and their happiness. At a quarter to twelve on that Friday, Patty Jefferson died. In the final moments, Thomas’s sister Martha Carr had to help the grieving husband from his wife’s bedside. He was “in a state of insensibility”, when she got him out of the room and to the library, where he fainted. Thomas stayed unconscious for such an extended period of time that they all feared he would not wake.
When he did some to, he was incoherent and surrendered to grief and possibly–rage. The is a hint that he lost all control in the calamity of Patty’s death. According to Patsy, “The scene that followed I did not witness… but the violence of his emotion, when, almost by stealth, I entered his room by night, to this day I dare not describe to myself.” He kept in his room for three weeks and “walked incessantly night and day, only laying down occasionally, when nature was completely exhausted, on a pallet that had been brought in during his long fainting fits.” The Jefferson sisters even came. He could not remain still and would ride out on horseback, “rambling” and venturing on the least worn paths. “In those melancholy rambled I was his constant companion–a solitary witness to many a burst of grief, the remembrance of which had consecrated particular scenes of that lost home beyond the power of time to obliterate.”
There were rumors that he was nearing madness. “Martha Jefferson… intermarried with Thomas Jefferson January 1st, 1772; torn from him by death September 6th, 1782″ was a part of what was written on her grave stone. A month later, he alluded that he was suicidal: “This miserable existence is really too burdensome to be borne,” he wrote, “and were it not for the infidelity of deserting the sacred charge left me, I could not wish its continuance a moment.” His world seemed to have died with Patty, “All my plans of comfort and happiness revered by a single event and nothing answering in prospect before me but a gloom unbrightened with one cheerful expectation,” he wrote his sister-in-law Elizabeth Eppes. He would endure life for Patsy, Polly and Lucy. “I will endeavor to… keep what I feel to myself that I may not dispirit you from a communication with us,” he told. “I say nothing of coming to Eppington because I promised you this should not be till I could support such a countenance as might not cast a damp on the cheerfulness of others.”
In this period of blinding grief, he burnt everything and anything that reminded him of his late wife. Almost every letter ever written, every portrait and most everything in her hand was tossed to the flames as if an effort to erase the fact she was ever event there–this erasing gesture did not prevail. Later offered again the position as Ambassador to France, he quickly excepted–wishing to get away from Monticello and out of the shadow of a woman. During the 1790s, he would rebuild Monticello and the place where they used to live together. Thomas Jefferson kept his promise to his wife and he never married.
Martha and Thomas Jefferson lived in Monticello. They both shared a love of music, Thomas would play the violin while Martha accompanied him on the piano. They had eight children, but only two survived until adulthood.
Martha never served as first lady, she was in delicate health for most of her marriage.She died
after the birth of her last child. Jefferson was inconsolable, he fainted and many feared he would never revive. After the funeral, he stayed in his room for three weeks, tormented by grief.