Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History

By Fawn M. Brodie | Go to book overview

CHAPTER VI

Martha Jefferson

... the cherished companion of my life, in whose affections, unabated on both sides, I had lived the last ten years in unchecquered happiness.

Thomas Jefferson, Autobiography

Little of significance is known about Thomas Jefferson's wife except for the passionate attachment she excited in her husband, and the fragility of her body when it came to bearing children. There are no portraits, not even a cutout silhouette, and only one letter, a conventional appeal to Eleanor Madison having to do with raising money and making clothing for soldiers of the Revolution. The letter is remarkable only for a tightness and rigidity of the calligraphy so extreme as to suggest great tension in the writer. 1 We are told by Jefferson's great-granddaughter that she was "very beautiful," "a little above middle height, with a lithe and exquisitely formed figure ... a model of graceful and queenlike carriage." She had hazel eyes, auburn hair—a deeper red than Jefferson's sandy-colored hair—and exquisite skin. A family slave described her daughter Maria as "low like her mother and longways the handsomest, pretty lady jist like her mother." 2

Martha Wayles Skelton was a passable harpsichordist and a sweet singer, as Jefferson's sister Jane had been, and music was an immediate bond between them. There is a story that two suitors met accidentally in the hall of her father's house, each believing himself favored, but upon hearing the sound of Jefferson and Martha singing together in the drawing room, they "exchanged a glance, picked up their hats and left." 3 Jefferson fell in love with her in 1770, when he was twenty‐ seven. There was general happiness over the courtship, except possibly

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