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Martha Jefferson


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Martha (Wayles) [Skelton] Jefferson
The Wife of Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson, like General Washington, married a widow and an heiress, and gained by his marriage a considerable increase to his social importance.

Mrs. Martha Skelton, the daughter of an eminent Virginia lawyer, was left a widow in her nineteenth year, and inherited from her husband considerable property. She was a lady of extraordinary beauty, both in form and face, and was a woman singularly competent both to adorn and govern a household. A little above the medium stature, she was slightly but beautifully formed; her complexion was fair; her eyes large, dark, and expressive; and her abundant hair was of the most admired tinge of auburn. Like all the ladies of her time and country, she was an accomplished rider on horseback. She also played, danced, and sung with more than usual taste and effect. At the same time, she had literary tastes, conversed well, and had a warm, affectionate disposition. Some of her household account-books, which are still in existence, show that she had a neat handwriting, and kept accounts with accuracy.

A young and beautiful widow, residing in the mansion of a wealthy father, and possessing such varied and useful accomplishments, is not likely to pine for lack of wooers. Young lovers and old frequented her father's house, and sought her hand, during the four years of her widowhood. Thomas Jefferson was one of them. He was a lawyer at that time, in large practice, who had inherited from his father an estate of nineteen hundred acres of land and about thirty Negroes. When first he came to woo this lovely widow, he was twenty-eight years of age, a tall, slender, and muscular man, of ruddy complexion, reddish gray hair, and bright gray eyes. Without being handsome, he was graceful and vigorous in his carriage, and there was that in his countenance which denoted an intelligent and friendly nature. Considering his wealth, his high rank in his profession, his excellent character, and his agreeable appearance, ho was a match not to be despised.

Mrs. Martha Skelton was evidently of this opinion; for, among all her lovers, he was the favored swain. The story goes, that two of his rivals arrived at the same moment at the widow's house, and were shown into a room together. It happened that, at that moment, Mr. Jefferson and Mrs. Skelton were singing and playing together, their voices being accompanied by her harpsichord and his violin. The song was a tender and plaintive melody, and they performed it as two lovers might be expected to execute a piece of music which enabled them to express their feelings to one another. The rivals listened for a few moments, and then retired, to return no more on the same errand. They were correct in their interpretation of the performance, and, soon after, the marriage took place.

The wedding was celebrated on the grand and liberal scale of the olden time. Two clergymen officiated. Fiddlers were sent for from afar, and the tables were spread for scores of guests. The wedding breakfast over, the happy pair, in a modest carriage driven by two horses, set out for Monticello, the husband's home. There was some snow upon the ground when they left the mansion of the bride, and, as they advanced up the slopes of the Blue Ridge, the snow rapidly increased in depth, until they were obliged to leave the carriage and proceed on horseback. At sunset they reached the seat of one of their neighbors, which was eight miles from Monticello, the road to which was a rough mountain track, upon which the snow lay to the depth of two feet. Late at night, exhausted with their long journey, and penetrated with the cold, they reached the house, to find the fires all out, and the servants all gone to their own cabins for the night. Not a light was burning; not a spark of fire was left; not a morsel of food could be found; and not a creature was in the house. This was a sorry welcome to a bride and bridegroom; but they were young and merry, and made a jest of it.

Mr. Jefferson struck a light, took the horses to the stable, and duly attended to their wants, and, returning to the house, groped about again for something to eat or drink. On a shelf behind some books he was lucky enough to discover half a bottle of wine, and this was their only supper. The house to which Mr. Jefferson brought his bride was not the spacious and elegant mansion which he afterwards inhabited, and which the reader knows by the name of " Monticello." On the contrary, it was not larger nor handsomer than the porter's lodge of many modern residences. They contrived, however, to be as happy in it as any couple in Virginia.

A year after the marriage, Mrs. Jefferson's father died, leaving her forty thousand acres of land, one hundred and thirty-five slaves, and several large debts. Her husband immediately sold as much of the land and Negroes as sufficed to pay the debts, and, after this reduction, his wife's fortune and his own inherited estate were about equal in value.

The life of a planter's wife in old Virginia was one of great labor and incessant anxiety. Upon her devolved much of the care of the slaves, whose ignorance made them little more competent to take care of themselves than if they had been so many children. It was the wife of the proprietor who superintended the making of the clothes of all this large family, and it was she to whom they always ran when they were in trouble, or when there was sickness in any of their cabins. It was she who administered the medicine, took care of the lying-in women, and provided garments and other necessaries for the infants. She was liable to be called up in the night and to be summoned from her company by day; so that, if she was a good and faithful woman, she was often more a slave than any slave on the estate. This was much the case with Mrs. Jefferson, and no doubt the fatigue of her position had much to do with the early failure of her health. Besides this, she had children rapidly, and her constitution was not originally strong.

Her married life, brief as it was, and checkered with many griefs, was peculiarly happy. Her husband was devoted to her, and he was a man formed to make happy those with whom he lived. The cheerful notes of his violin, his agreeable conversation, and his winning manners, rendered the evenings at Monticello delightful indeed.

Nine years rolled away; during which children had been born and children had died. In 1781, when Thomas Jefferson was Governor of Virginia, Lord Cornwallis and the British army, on their way to Yorktown, went ravaging through the State. One of the officers serving under Cornwallis was Colonel Tarlton, the enterprising and dashing cavalry officer of whom we have heard so much. Tarlton had determined to capture the Governor of Virginia in his own house, and, for this purpose, dispatched a troop of cavalry toward Monticello.

Mr. Jefferson had some friends to dinner that day, and, while he was at the table, he received from a trusty friend an intimation of Tarlton's design. He said nothing; but, as soon as his guests were gone, he told his wife the news, directed her to prepare herself and her children for a journey, while he himself packed up his most important papers. When they had been thus employed for about two hours, a neighbor rode swiftly to the house with the startling intelligence that Tarlton's troopers were then ascending the mountain upon the summit of which Monticello stands. The governor hurried his wife and children into a carriage, and sent them off to the seat of a neighbor, fourteen miles distant, under the charge of a young gentleman who was studying law in his office. Then, having ordered his own horse, he resumed his packing for a few minutes, and when he had secured the most valuable papers, he left the house and proceeded to a distant spot on the estate, where he had ordered the horse to be in waiting. Ascending a high rock, from which he obtained a good view of Charlottesville, the nearest town, he saw no signs of troops, and no appearance of alarm in the streets. Thinking the alarm premature, he concluded to return to his house and complete the rescue of his papers; but, returning to the rock, after having walked away but a few steps, he saw the town all alive with dragoons. Then he mounted his horse, and dashed away after the carriage containing his family. At the very moment when he discovered the troops at Charlottesville, the captain of the company sent to capture him entered the drawing-room of Monticello. If the governor had remained in his house five minutes longer than he did, he would have been taken prisoner. As it was, however, he and his family arrived safely at the neighbor's seat to which we have alluded.

The house and its contents were respected by the enemy; nothing was taken except a few bottles of wine from the cellar. When the enemy approached, two faithful slaves were hard at work secreting plate under the planks of the front portico. One of these men had the plank raised, and was handing down an article to another Negro, who was under the portico, when they heard the clang of hoofs. The plank was let fall, shutting the man in a dark hole, and there he remained until the British left, a period of eighteen hours, without light or food. The other of these men was ordered to tell which way his master had fled, and was threatened with instant death unless he told.

"Fire away, then," said the slave, without retiring a step from the pistol aimed at his heart.

If the house was respected, the plantation was not. All the growing crops of corn and tobacco, all the barns and stables, all the cattle, sheep, hogs, and horses, all the fences, as well as thirty slaves, were either destroyed or carried off. Nine valuable mares were driven away, and their colts killed; and the slaves were taken to a camp where the small-pox was raging, of which all but three died. In short, the whole estate, except the mansion-house, was laid waste.

These events were the immediate cause of the early death of Mrs. Jefferson. Twice during the war of the Revolution she had to fly before the approaching enemy, and on one of these occasions she had an infant two months old. Those twenty seven slaves who perished miserably by the small-pox had been the objects of her care and her affection for many years, and their terrible fate haunted her imagination continually. Her husband, too, was continually liable to capture, and, for long periods she was obliged to be separated from him, while he was concealed from the foe, or was eluding their attempts. Weak and sickly when she fled from Tarlton's troopers, her subsequent anxieties rapidly consumed her remaining strength. Of six children, all but two died in infancy, and her grief at so many bereavements was such as mothers only know.

Early in May, 1782, she was about once more to become a mother; and all her friends looked forward to the birth of the child with apprehension. The child was born on the 8th of May, and she never recovered from her confinement. She lingered four months, during which her husband seldom left her side, sat up with her part of every night, and administered her medicines and drink to the last moment. One of her children has given a most affecting account of her last moments, and of Jefferson's grief at her death.

"For four months," she says, "he was never out of calling; when not at her bedside, he was writing in a small room which opened close at the head of her bed. A moment before the closing scene he was led from the room almost in a state of insensibility by his sister, who, with great difficulty, got him into his library, where he fainted, and remained so long insensible that they feared he never would revive. The scene that followed I did not witness; but the violence of his emotion, when almost by stealth I entered his room at night, to this day I dare not trust myself to describe. He kept his room three weeks, and I was never a moment from his side. He walked almost incessantly, night and day, only lying down occasionally, when nature was completely exhausted, on a pallet that had been brought in during his long fainting fit. When at last he left his room, he rode out, and from that time he was incessantly on horseback, rambling about the mountain in the least frequented roads, and just as often through the woods. In these melancholy rambles I was his constant companion, a solitary witness to many a violent burst of grief, the remembrance of which has consecrated particular scenes beyond the power of time to obliterate."

Nor was his grief of short duration. After his own death, which occurred forty-four year later, in the most secret drawer of his cabinet were found locks of hair and other relics of his wife and of his lost children, with fond words upon the envelopes in his own handwriting. These mementos of the past were all arranged in perfect order, and the envelopes showed that they had been frequently handled.

The death of his wife changed his plans for the future. It had been his intention to retire from public life, and to pass his existence in the bosom of his family, employed in literary and scientific labors. His wife's death destroyed this dream, and when, soon after, he was appointed minister to France, an appointment which he had twice before declined, he was willing enough to accept it, and change the scene.

To have been so loved by one of the best and greatest and purest of human beings, is Mrs. Jefferson's best title to the esteem of posterity. Few particulars of her life have been preserved; but we have abundant proofs of this: THOMAS JEFFERSON LOVED HER.

On the plain slab of white marble which covers her remains, in the burial-place of Monticello, her husband caused to be placed the following inscription:

"To The Memory of
Martha Jefferson,
Daughter of John Wayles;
Born October The 19th, 1748, O. S.
Intermarried With
Thomas Jefferson
January The 1st, 1772;
Torn From Him By Death
September 6th, 1782:
This Monument Of His Love Is Inscribed."

To this were added two lines from Homer's Iliad, which Pope thus translates:

"If in the melancholy shades below
The flames of friends and lovers cease to glow,
Yet mine shall sacred last; mine undecayed
Burn on through death, and animate my shade."

A grand-daughter of Mrs. Jefferson is still residing in Philadelphia. She is the wife of the Hon. Nicholas P. Trist, a gentleman well known in the diplomatic history of the country. Monticello, that beautiful mansion amid the mountains of the Blue Ridge, that was once adorned by the presence of this estimable woman, is fast going to decay, and parts of it are already much dilapidated. The present occupant charges visitors twenty cents for admission to the premises, and those visitors have been so numerous and ill-bred that the granite slab of Jefferson's tomb, which was placed over his remains when he was buried, has been all broken off and carried away. Considerable progress, I hear, has been made in the destruction of the stone which took its place. The graveyard is totally uncared for, and the whole scene is a disgrace to the country which Jefferson served and honored. Let us hope that, before it is too late, measures will be taken to restore and preserve so interesting an abode.

Source: "People's Book of Biography", by James Parton, 1868
Submitted by Cathy Danielson


JEFFERSON, Martha (Wayles) Skelton, wife of President Jefferson, was born at " The Forest" in Charles City county, Va., Oct. 19 (o.s.), 1748; daughter of John Wayles. She was married in 1763 to Bathurst Skelton, a widower with several children, who died in 1767, and she inherited the property of both her husband and father. She was celebrated throughout Virginia for her extraordinary beauty and her varied accomplishments, being a skilled horsewoman, musician, dancer and housewife. She also had a marked literary taste and was a brilliant conversationalist. She was married at " The Forest," the home of her father, to Thomas Jefferson, in January, 1772, and they had six children, all girls, only three of whom survived their mother. The youngest, Lucy Elizabeth, died in October, 1784. The eldest, Martha, born in 1773, went abroad with her father on his appointment as minister plenipotentiary to Europe, and was placed in a convent at Panthemont, France, where she remained until 1789. On Feb. 23, 1789, she was married to her cousin. Thomas Mann Randolph, and she became the mother of eleven children. She made occasional visits to the White House during her father's administration, assisting him in dispensing hospitality as far as her family cares would allow. Her sister Mary, born Aug. 1,1778, went to France in 1787, was educated in the convent with Martha, and was married Oct. 13,1797, to her cousin, John Wayles Eppes. She died April 17, 1804. Sarah N. Randolph, great-granddaughter of President Jefferson, published an account of his domestic life (1871). Mrs. Jefferson died at " Monticello," near Charlottesville, Va., Sept. 8, 1782. Jefferson wrote the epitaph for his wife's tomb : " To the memory of Martha Jefferson, daughter of John Wayles; Born October 19th, 1748. o.s., intermarried with Thomas Jefferson January 1, 1773 ; Torn from him by Death September 6th, 1783 ; This Monument of his Love is inscribed."
[Source: "The twentieth century biographical dictionary of notable Americans ... edited by Rossiter Johnson, John Howard Brown" - Submitted by K. Torp]
 


 


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