Inspiring participation in public affairs
in the spirit of Thomas Jefferson’s life, thought, and ideals.


“The opinions and dispositions of our people in general, which, in governments like ours, must be the foundation of measures, will always be interesting to me.” 
—Thomas Jefferson

The Unknown Presidential Wife: Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson
By Robert P. Watson, Ph.D, Department of Political Science, Florida Atlantic University and Richard M. Yon, Department of Political Science, University of Florida

Robert P. Watson is Associate Professor of Political Science at Florida Atlantic University, and is the author or editor of 25 books and has published over 100 scholarly articles, chapters, and reviews on such topics as the presidency, first ladies, women in politics, civil rights, elections, and bureaucracy. 

Richard Yon completed his M.A. in Political Science at Florida Atlantic University and is pursuing his Ph.D. at the University of Florida, with a focus on the American presidency.

Note.  A preliminary version of this manuscript was presented as a paper at the Thomas Jefferson Conference, held at the International Lincoln Center for American Studies at Louisiana State University in Shreveport, October 2003.


Just about the only important facet of Thomas Jefferson’s life receiving insufficient attention by scholars has been the life of his wife, Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson.  With all due respect to the excellent biographies in existence — and with recognition that very little documentation exists on Mrs. Jefferson’s life — most Jefferson biographers treat Mrs. Jefferson only peripherally, with an occasional mention of her youthful death.  Even Jefferson’s relationship with Maria Cosway, Sally Hemings, and other women has generated more scholarly interest (and controversy) than has his marriage.

A review of the major biographies on Jefferson reveals a sketchy but basic core of “accepted knowledge” on Mrs. Jefferson.  In general, six personal traits and life experiences of Martha “Patty” Jefferson accompany the occasional mention of her: 1) she was beautiful; 2) she was of slender build and slightly above average height; 3) she was a gifted musician; 4) she was prone to illness and was physically frail; and, of course, 5) that she bore Jefferson six children – only two of which survived infancy; 6) before she died tragically young.  A rare page describes Mrs. Jefferson as a good mother or as genteel and charming; from time to time it is said that her marriage to Jefferson was loving and solid, and that she was a widow when Jefferson met her. But, Martha Jefferson remains the unknown presidential wife and first lady of Virginia.

The Wayles Family

Martha’s parents were John Wayles and Martha Eppes; Mrs. Eppes died in 1748, only a few weeks after giving birth to her daughter.  Some accounts suggest Martha was an only child, while others claim that twins were born before her.  Wayles would remarry twice – and bury two more wives during Martha’s youth. His second wife’s name was Mary Cocke, with whom he would have three daughters: Elizabeth, Tabitha, and Anne. (A few sources suggest the marriage produced one daughter who died young, while others attribute the birth of Elizabeth, Tabitha, and Anne to Wayles’s third wife.)  Wayles married for a third time in January of 1760 to Elizabeth Lomax Skelton, the widow of Reuben Skelton.  (Interestingly, Reuben Skelton’s brother, Bathurst Skelton, would later marry Martha Wayles.)  Elizabeth Lomax Wayles bore a child who died in infancy; the third Mrs. Wayles died on 28 May 1763. (Wayles never remarried but had five children – Nance, Critta, Thenia, Peter, and Sally – to his slave Elizabeth “Betty” Hemings, the youngest of which would become famous for her relationship with Thomas Jefferson.)

John Wayles, the fourth of five children, emigrated from England and, by his thirties, had established himself as a successful planter, slave trader, and attorney in the Virginia colony.  It appears Wayles was not well educated in a formal sense but was a man of great energy and charisma. Halliday, for example, describes him as: “unusual” (in a complementary sense); possessing “large gusto”; and a “generous host” (1). Thomas Jefferson commented on his father-in-law, as follows:

    Mr. Wayles was a lawyer of much practice, to which he was introduced more by his great industry, punctuality and practical readiness, than to eminence in the science of his profession. He was a most agreeable companion, full of pleasantry and good humor, and welcomed in every society. He acquired a handsome fortune, died in May 1773, leaving three daughters… (2).

Martha’s Upbringing

Martha Wayles was born on 19 October 1748, in Charles City County, Virginia. The family home, known as “The Forest,” was not very far from Williamsburg (Charles City County was just west of the colonial capital).   So little is known about Martha’s birth, family, and upbringing that one finds only a rare mention of her and varying accounts among the teaspoon’s worth that does exist, with one source even placing her birth incorrectly in Lancaster, England. (3)  

Martha appears to have attended – and would have been expected to have done so, given her father’s wealth and their close proximity to the capital – social events in Williamsburg.  Because her father buried three wives and lived for many years as a widower after the death of his third wife, Martha most assuredly would have attended these social functions on the arm of her father – at least on an intermittent basis – and would have been responsible for helping to host affairs at The Forest for her widower father. 

Although the details are lost, it is clear that Martha Wayles knew how to manage a large household. Running a thriving, bustling plantation with its vast estate, mansion, farms, large slave population, attendant overseers, and frequent guests and visitors – which was the case for both the Wayles and Jefferson plantations – required considerable skill and energy.  Several sources note that, in addition to organizing the family affairs and ordering home supplies, Martha assisted her father in managing the plantation/home business accounts.

Because her mother died from complications giving birth to her, Martha’s domestic education would have been at an accelerated pace.  Young Ms. Wayles would have found herself thrust into the role of mistress of the home at a tender age, and would be again forced into this role after the death of both stepmothers. It was common among Wayles’ contemporaries for widowers to seek the assistance of female relatives in raising infant daughters or, if the family could afford, for them to employ tutors.  Of these scenarios we are unsure, but the poise, domestic skills, and education attributed to Martha Wayles as a young woman would point to the likelihood John Wayles had help raising his daughter.  “Patty,” as she was nicknamed, knew how to make soap, candles, butter, and other household staples of the eighteenth century, and she could cook, sew, and treat illnesses with homemade remedies. 

From descriptions of her as an adult, we know she was not only literate but was well read for a woman of her time; she enjoyed poetry and fiction.  Families of comfortable means in the Tidewater region of Virginia in the mid-eighteenth century often employed traveling teachers or tutors to educate their daughters, as young girls were not formally educated at schools. Their basic education at home focused on the domestic arts and was supplemented by tutors in such areas as literature, music, dancing, bible study, and even French. Because Martha grew up to be an accomplished musician, it appears likely she received lessons as a child. 

Mrs. Skelton

Martha Wayles married Bathurst Skelton on 20 November 1766, a month after celebrating her eighteenth birthday. The couple apparently wed at the Wayles family home, but we are uncertain about how or where Ms. Wayles met Mr. Skelton.  Given the fact that Elizabeth Lomax Skelton, the third wife of Martha’s father, had formerly been married to Bathurst Skelton’s older brother Reuben, it is likely the Wayles family knew the Skelton family. 

Bathurst Skelton was born in June 1744, making him four years Martha’s senior. The Skelton family was, by all accounts, reasonably prosperous, and Bathurst Skelton attended the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg.  Unfortunately, little is known about the marriage of Bathurst and Martha or their lives together, except that a son, John, was born on 7 November 1767. Tragically, Bathurst Skelton did not live to see his son’s first birthday, dying on 30 September 1768.  His death was attributed to illness. 

Martha Wayles Skelton was a widow with an infant child at the tender age of nineteen.  After losing her husband, Martha moved with her son back to The Forest to live with her father.  During this time, the young widow appears to have had many suitors after, of course, a suitable period of time for mourning.  Wealthy, beautiful, and accomplished, Martha would have been a very attractive figure among single men in Tidewater society.

Mrs. Jefferson

As with so much of the life of Martha Wayles, the facts surrounding her meeting of and courting by Thomas Jefferson are frustratingly few.  Scholars place the date of Jefferson’s initial courtship of the widow at 1770 (4). The object of his interest was, at the time, in her early twenties, a prominent, wealthy widow with numerous suitors (5).  Jefferson would not have been lost on the fact that other men were vying for Martha’s attention, as she was one of the most eligible women in the colony.  Family lore even suggests that two rival suitors once came to The Forest but paused outside the Wayles family home when they heard Jefferson and Martha playing a lovely musical duet together. Dejected, the suitors are said to have departed without interrupting the lovers (6). The story is plausible, in that the young couple shared a love of music and often performed together, with Thomas on violin and Martha on harpsichord.

The courtship came after a suitable period of mourning for the late Bathurst Skelton.  It was common in the colonial period for widows and widowers to remarry rather quickly, especially if children were involved through one or both partners, as was the case with Martha and her son John. Jefferson appears to have been in love, writing glowingly about the hazel-eyed beauty. He was also fond of Martha’s son, even looking forward to serving in a paternal role.  But, at least one letter suggests he worried whether the feelings were mutual.  In a response to Jefferson’s concerns to this end, a mutual friend – Mrs. Drummond – wrote to the young man: “Let me recollect your description, which bars all the romantical, poetical ones I ever read… Thou wonderful man, indeed I shall think spirits of a higher order inhabit your airy mountains – or rather mountain, which I may contemplate but can never aspire to.”  Mrs. Drummond further advises Jefferson to persevere, saying that Martha has “good sense, and good nature,” offers words of encouragement hoping Ms. Wayles will not refuse her suitor’s love, and closes by saying that she suspects Martha’s heart is already “engaged” (7).

Young John Skelton died on 10 June 1771, not yet four years old. The death of her first child at such a tragically tender age, coming only a few years after her first husband’s death, would have dealt Martha a severe blow.  Heartbroken, she would have had a period of mourning for her child, which might explain the couple’s six-month delay before getting married. On 23 December 1771, Jefferson traveled to The Forest from Monticello to sign a wedding bond.  The bride’s brother-in-law, Francis Eppes, served as Jefferson’s co-signer, writing:

    Know all men by these presents that we, Thomas Jefferson and Francis Eppes, are held and firmly bound to our Sovereign Lord the King, his heirs and successors, in the sum of L50 current money of Virginia… If there be no lawful cause to obstruct a marriage intended to be had and solemnized between the above Thomas Jefferson and Martha Skelton of the county of Charles City, widow, for which a license is desired, then this obligation is to be null and void; otherwise, to remain in full force” (8). 

One week later, on 30 December 1771, Jefferson purchased a marriage license in Williamsburg then traveled back to The Forest.

Few weddings were held in winter, but Thomas Jefferson and Martha Wayles Skelton were married on 1 January 1772 at the Wayles family home, where her father hosted a holiday party for the new couple (9).  Jefferson described the wedding matter-of-factly in his memoir: “On the first of January 1772 I was married to Martha Skelton widow of Bathurst Skelton, and daughter of John Wayles, then 23 years old” (10).

The couple spent their honeymoon at Monticello.  Family history holds that they traveled by carriage through snowy roads on the long ride west to Monticello. They traveled by carriage but as the snow increased during their trip, blanketing the area with possibly as much as two feet of white powder, they were forced to traverse the final, rough eight miles on horseback (11). The snow was too deep for the carriage. Jefferson’s only comment on the episode was that it was “the deepest snow we have ever seen” (12). Bride and groom arrived at Monticello late in the evening to a quiet home, the slaves asleep and fireplaces cold.  Jefferson found a good bottle of wine, lit a fireplace, and the couple slept under a blanket in a small building at the end of the home’s south wing.  As a result, this room has come to be known in present times as the “honeymoon cottage,” although it served as Jefferson’s office. 

The Jefferson Children

The first child of Thomas and Martha Jefferson was born on 27 September 1772, nine months after their wedding.  Weak and small like many of Martha’s children, the child would, however, end up being the only offspring to live a long life. Thomas Jefferson named the child after his wife – the girl was nicknamed “Patsy,” while Mrs. Jefferson was called “Patty.”

Frail and frequently both ill and pregnant, Mrs. Jefferson’s pregnancies were challenging physical and emotional ordeals for both wife and husband, and her recovery from each birth was similarly slow and difficult.  In each instance, Thomas Jefferson remained as close as possible to his wife, helping to nurse her through pregnancy and recovery.  Martha Jefferson Randolph, remembered that her father remained at her mother’s bedside throughout the final pregnancy and days leading to her death:

    He nursed my poor mother in turn with Aunt Carr and her own sister – sitting up with her and administering her medicines and drink to the last.  For four months that she lingered he was never out of calling. When not at her bedside, he was writing in a small room which opened immediately at the head of her bed (13). 

 Martha Jefferson’s health worsened with each pregnancy and childbirth.  The loss of so many children at such a young age took a toll on her mental and physical health. By 1782, Mrs. Jefferson was pregnant again for the seventh time in her life.  Already weak and emotionally drained, this final pregnancy was even more precarious than the others.  Mrs. Jefferson gained far too much weight and was too ill to receive guests, perform any household duties, or even sit comfortably. She remained bedridden and turned over the management of Monticello to her slaves.  Jefferson declined all public duties and offices offered him in an effort to remain at his wife’s side, concerned for her life.

The child of this fateful pregnancy – named after baby Lucy Elizabeth who died in 1781 – was born on 8 May 1782.  In spite of the mother’s grave condition, the baby was healthy. Family history tells that the baby weighed an astonishing sixteen pounds at birth. Mrs. Jefferson’s condition declined further, causing Jefferson to pen a letter to his friend James Monroe twelve days after the delivery saying, “Mrs. Jefferson has added another daughter to our family.  She has ever since and still continues very dangerously ill” (14). Martha Jefferson never recovered.  On 6 September 1782, Jefferson wrote in his diary: “My dear wife died this day at 11:45 a.m.”

Martha Jefferson bore six children during her ten-year marriage to Thomas Jefferson, and one child with her first husband.  Tragically, her first child and three others would die in infancy. A son, Peter, born on 28 May 1777 lived only three weeks (some accounts suggest the infant was not named). Daughter Jane, born in 1774, lived less than eighteen months, and the first of two daughters named Lucy Elizabeth would lose her struggle for life only four-and-one-half months after birth. Martha Jefferson witnessed the deaths of four of her seven children.  Her lastborn daughter also died young, but from whooping cough in October of 1784, only two years after Mrs. Jefferson’s death.  Only two Jefferson children – Martha and Mary – would survive to adulthood.  

Martha Jefferson’s fragility appears to have been shared with her mother, who died as a result of delivering Martha. So too was it passed down to her own children. It is often said that daughter Martha (“Patsy”) resembled her father, even possessing his formidable intellect, while daughter Mary (“Polly”), born on 1 August 1778, shared her mother’s physical appearance, mannerisms, and tender health; she also died from the ordeal of childbirth. 

Mistress of Monticello

Monticello is where Martha spent most of her married life with Thomas Jefferson. The short interval between the births of the six Jefferson children, coupled with her perpetually frail physical condition, would have prevented her from extensive travel.  Arguably the defining event of her life at Monticello was motherhood. However, another role for Mrs. Jefferson would have been that of hostess.

Jefferson was overly generous and hosted a steady stream of guests and visitors at Monticello.  Lavish affairs for fifty guests, who were fed fine French foods and expensive wines, are documented. This meant planning, large dinners, and other accommodations.  We are not sure how much hosting Mrs. Jefferson fulfilled. She clearly did some, as letters from the Jeffersons’ guests, such as the following example, extend their thanks to the lady of the home: “I embrace this opportunity of assuring you that I retain a particular remembrance of the Civilities I received when in Virginia from you, Sir, and Mrs. Jefferson to whom I request my Compliments” (15).  But, Mrs. Jefferson was often pregnant and ill, and apparently somewhat depressed; she appears to have excused herself on occasion from hosting duties during such times (16).  Nor did Mrs. Jefferson officially serve as first lady of Virginia or a presiding lady during the war, as did the wives of other prominent revolutionaries.

There were, however, many visitors to Monticello.  Martha Jefferson would not have been without adult or female company at Monticello. After the death of Jefferson’s dear friend and brother-in-law Dabney Carr, Carr’s widow and six children came to live at Monticello.  Other members of the large Jefferson family – Jefferson’s sister Mary and her husband John Bolling had eight children, and his sister Lucy and her husband Charles Lewis had six children –were guests at Monticello. Martha Jefferson also had a large and close family (half-sister Elizabeth “Betsy” and her husband Francis Eppes had eight children, and half-sister Anne “Nancy” and her husband Henry Skipworth had six children). 

Martha Jefferson’s circle of friends included the wife of Major General Friedrich von Riedesel, a former commander of the Hessian troops captured at Saratoga during the war. The von Riedesels had three daughters near the age of the Jefferson daughters. In a letter to Jefferson, Riedesel writes, “Madame de Riedesel, who never can forget the esteem and friendship she has so justly consecrated to Mrs. Jefferson, desires me to insert her sincerest compliments both to her and your Excellency…” (17). Baroness von Riedesel was a gifted singer and she and Mrs. Jefferson greatly enjoyed one another’s company and signing (18).  Nights with the Riedesels often included other German officers, and were filled with food and music. Monticello’s guests often included those who loved music and joined Thomas and Martha in musical performances.  Another German, Baron de Geismer, joined Mr. Jefferson on violin, while an Italian who visited Monticello by the name of Alberti was a noted musician who gave musical lessons to the Jefferson family.  Mrs. Jefferson appears to have befriended the wives of a number of her husband’s friends, whose letters to Thomas Jefferson often include such pleasantries for his wife as “Lucy unites in most sublime Compliments to Lady & famely …” (19).

It appears that Mrs. Jefferson ran the household at Monticello, much as she had done at the Wayles plantation. The size of the home and number of acres, farms, slaves, visitors, and so forth made her work a considerable feat, even with ample slave labor, such as Isaac and his mother Ursula, who were trained as chefs and purchased by Jefferson in or about 1773.  Monticello was replete with gardens, orchards, dairy, smoke rooms, and more. Slaves would recall many years later Mrs. Jefferson coming to the kitchen “with a cookery book in her hand and read out of it to Isaac’s mother how to make cakes, tarts, and so on” (20).  Mrs. Jefferson demonstrated the necessary (for the time) domestic talents such as being a gracious hostess, industrious housewife, supervisor of house slaves and servants, and self-sustaining home manager with a knack for recipes, homemade medicines, and cures; she also made soap and candles, sewed, knitted, and even brewed beer (21).  Jefferson was also quite particular about his food, drink, and home, so she would have had to be attuned to his tastes and whims. 

Of course, life at Monticello was not entirely comprised of work.  The home was stocked with fine wines, featured one of the country’s premier collections of books, and was the site of lavish parties and frequent guests, the stables boasted many horses, and the woods nearby were stocked with domesticated deer.  The couple worked together in the gardens, delighted in reading poetry and fiction to one another, and frequently performed musical duets. Monticello was, after all, noted for its serenity and architecture, elegance, and prosperity (thousands of acres, well over 100 slaves).

Appearance and Temperament

Martha Jefferson’s letters and writings are lost to history. Whether or not she did sit for portraiture, no likeness of her remains. We are thus dependent on descriptions of her by various commentators and contemporaries to discern her physical appearance and temperament. Martha’s great-granddaughter, Sara N. Randolph, describes her as follows:

    She is described as having been very beautiful.  A little above middle height, with a lithe and exquisitely formed figure, she was a model of graceful and queenlike carriage.  Nature, so lavish with her charms for her, to great personal attractions, added a mind of no ordinary caliber. She was well educated for her day, and a constant reader; she inherited from her father his method and industry, as the accounts, kept in her clear handwriting, and still in the hands of her descendents, testify. Her well-cultivated talent for music served to enhance her charms not a little in the eyes of such musical devotee as Jefferson (22).

Scholars, such as Bowers, echo this praise of Mrs. Jefferson, also describing her as “beautiful” (23), and Ellis calls her “attractive and delicate” (24). Henry Randolph, a relative, writing about the testimony of the Jefferson granddaughters, describes their recollections of her as:

    Distinguished by her beauty, her accomplishments, and her solid merit. In person, she was a little above medium height, slightly but exquisitely formed. Her complexion was brilliant – her large expressive eyes of the richest shade of hazel – her luxuriant hair of the finest tinge of auburn.  She walked, rode, and danced with admirable grace and spirit – sung, and played the spinet and harpsichord (the musical instrument of the Virginia ladies of that day) with uncommon skill.  The more solid parts of her education had not been neglected.  She was also well read and intelligent; conversed agreeably; possessed excellent sense and a lively play of fancy; and had a frank, warm-hearted, and somewhat impulsive disposition. Last, not least, she had already proved herself a true daughter of the Old Dominion in the department of housewifery (25).

Another granddaughter, Ellen Randolph Coolidge, remembered:

    My grandmother Jefferson had a vivacity of temper which might sometimes border on tartness, but which, in her intercourse with her husband, was completely subdued by her exceeding affection for him.  This little asperity however sometimes shewed itself to her children, and of course more to my mother, her oldest child, than to others who were much younger… It would be doing an injustice to my grandmother, having spoken of her small defects, not to say that they were entirely redeemed by her good qualities. All the family traditions were greatly in her favour. She had been a favorite with her husband’s sisters, with his family generally, and with her neighbours. She was a very attractive person and my grandfather was tenderly attached to her. She commanded his respect by her good sense – and domestic virtues, and his admiration and love by her wit, her vivacity, and her agreeable person and manners.  She was not only an excellent housekeeper and notable mistress of a family, but a graceful, ladylike and accomplished woman, with considerable powers of conversation, some skill in music, all the habits of good society, and the art of welcoming her husband’s friends to perfection. She was greatly liked by them all. She made my grandfather’s home comfortable, cheerful, pleasant, just what a good man’s home should be. As a girl I have amused myself in looking over some of her old papers which were in my mother’s possession.  Her receipt book written in a light, straight, somewhat still Italian hand, her book of family expences regularly kept, her manuscript music book with the words of songs all fairly copied out and free from blot and blemish. Things that told of neatness, order, good housewifery and womanly accomplishment.  Her loss was the bitterest grief my grandfather ever knew, and no second wife was ever called to take her place (26).

A Hessian officer visiting Monticello in 1780 says of Jefferson’s wife: “In all respects a very agreeable, sensible & accomplished Lady” (27), who played the harpsichord “very skillfully” (28).  Jefferson’s Italian houseguest, Philip Mazzei, described his friend’s wife as “angelic” (29), while the Marquis de Chastellux, a Frenchman with whom Thomas Jefferson developed a close relationship, formed an opinion based on his time at Monticello of a “gentle and amiable” lady whose health was “delicate” (30).  Great-granddaughter Sara Randolph described Mrs. Jefferson as “a person of great intelligence and strength of character” (31).  She also noted her great-grandmother’s fine education: “Before her mother’s death, her father had paid very particular attention to her education” (32). We also know from numerous descriptions that she enjoyed music, was an accomplished musician who played the forte-piano (harpsichord/spinet) regularly, and possessed a graceful singing voice. 

There is, however, the distinct possibility that Mrs. Jefferson wrestled with some degree of depression. Evidence of this might be found in her account books, which suggest long periods during her pregnancies and after the death of her children when she stopped spending money on household items and ceased acting as hostess and household manager, such as when daughter Lucy Elizabeth died in 1781 (33). She was often alone and in bed and excused herself early from guests.  How much of this was the result of being pregnant almost continually for ten years or whether something else was at work we will probably never know. Either way, Martha Jefferson emerges as a worthy companion for Jefferson, especially insofar as she loved reading, preferably fiction, was a good conversationalist, and appeared to be a gentle, loyal, amiable, charming, and honest partner to one of the leading men of his time.


Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson died on 6 September 1782, weakened from the birth of her seventh child only months before.  Both the child (Lucy Elizabeth) and mother had lingered on in a weakened state throughout the summer months.  Jefferson did not leave his wife’s side during her final weeks.  According to accounts, “for four months that she lingered he was never out of Calling.  When not at her bed side he was writing in a small room which opened immediately at the head of her bed” (34). Eldest daughter “Patsy,” who was ten years old when her mother passed, would later in life describe her grieving father as needing to be led from the deathbed to his library by his sister in “almost in a state of insensibility,” whereupon he then fainted (35). Jefferson “kept to his room for three weeks,” pacing constantly. According to Patsy Jefferson Randolph, “My Aunts remained constantly with him for some weeks” (36). After a three week period: 

    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 those melancholy rambles I was his constant companion, a solitary witness to many violent bursts of grief” (37).

Patsy’s description of her father’s condition included, “the violence of his emotion to this day I dare not describe to myself” (38).

Presumably Jefferson took until late September to come out from his deep withdrawal. It was around this time that notes appear in Jefferson’s account book and he composed what appears to have been his first letter since his wife’s death and possibly the most intimate writing on his family ever (39). In that letter, written to his late wife’s sister, Elizabeth Wayles Eppes (then living at The Forest), he speaks about the three daughters, reassuring that:

    They are in perfect health and as happy as if they had no part in the unmeasurable loss we have sustained. Patsy rides with me 5 or 6 miles a day and presses for permission to accompany me on horseback to Elkhill whenever I shall go there.  When that may be however I cannot tell; finding myself absolutely unable to attend to any thing like business. This miserable kind of existence is really too burdensome to be borne, and were it not for the infidelity of deserting the sacred charge left me, I could not wish it’s continuance a moment. For what could it be wished?  All my plans of comfort and happiness reversed by a single event and nothing answering in prospect before me but a gloom unbrightened with one cheerful expectation.  The care and instruction of our children indeed affords some temporary abstractions from wretchedness and nourishes a soothing reflection that if there be beyond the grave any concern for the things of this world there is one angel at least who views these attentions with pleasure and wishes continuance of them while she must pity the miseries to which they confine me” (40).

Jefferson remained “inconsolable” – a word used by many biographers and Jefferson’s contemporaries to describe his condition – for months (41). He sobbed deeply at night, broke down when he tried to appear in public and talk about his deceased wife, and news of his grief and shattered condition spread through the colony.  Friends, family, and political leaders worried about his emotions (42). Edmund Randolph wrote of Jefferson’s grief that “I ever thought him to rank domestic happiness in the first class of the chief good but scarcely supposed that his grief would be so violent as to justify the circulating report of his swooning away whenever he sees his children” (43). Later that fall Jefferson was still grief stricken.  He answered a letter from his dear friend the Chevalier de Chastellux with the admission:

    It [the letter] found me a little emerging from that stupor of mind which had rendered me as dead to the world as she was whose loss occasioned it.  Your letter recalled to my memory, that there were persons still living of much value to me…

Jefferson attributes his delayed reply to Chastellux to “the state of dreadful suspence in which I had been kept all summer and the catastrophe which closed it” (44).

Jefferson also apparently wrote to another close friend, the Italian Mazzei, who,upon hearing of Martha Jefferson’s death replied, “the memory of his saintly late wife saddened me, and the solitude rendered my sorrow even more profound” (45). On 13 November 1782, Jefferson was still hesitant to accept another public office from Congress, writing “I had two months before that lost the cherished companion of my life, in whose affections, unabated on both sides, I had lived the last ten years in unchequered happiness…”  This reply to Congress was penned much later in life when Jefferson was seventy-seven years old, memories obviously still quite strong.

“Never to Remarry”

 Much has been written about Jefferson’s alleged bedside pledge to his dying wife never to remarry (46). Edmund Bacon, long time overseer at Monticello, described the scene:

    The house servants were Betty Brown, Sally, Critta, and Betty Hemings, Nance, and Ursula…  They were in the room when Mrs. Jefferson died… They have often told my wife, that when Mrs. Jefferson died, they stood around the bed.  Mr. Jefferson sat by her, and she gave him directions about a good many things that she wanted done. When she came to the children, she wept, and could not speak for some time. Finally she held up her hand, and spreading out her four fingers, she told him she could not die happy if she thought her four children were ever to have a stepmother brought in over them.  Holding her other hand in his, Mr. Jefferson promised her solemnly that he would never marry again” (47).

The authenticity of this account is in question, as it was told many years after Bacon’s service with Jefferson and Bacon mistakenly states that there were four children when there were only three.

It is possible the vow was requested.  Martha lost a mother she never knew and endured two stepmothers. A poor relationship with these stepmothers might be reason to worry about another woman raising her surviving three daughters. It is also possible the vow was agreed to. Ellis calls Martha Jefferson’s death “the most traumatic experience of his [Jefferson’s] entire life.”  It struck Jefferson so powerfully that he vowed to himself never to fall in love again; never to “expose his soul to such pain again.” As such, he would rather be “lonely than vulnerable” (48). Jefferson was only thirty-nine when he became a widower and in spite of his wealth and notoriety, having three young daughters, and an apparent lifelong passion for the opposite sex, he never remarried.  But, there is no evidence to support any claim. Jefferson did keep locks of his late wife’s hair and each child’s hair and, as was stated at the outset of this paper, he may have burned all correspondence exchanged with his wife. 

 After the death of Patsy Jefferson Randolph in 1836, a folded sheet of paper was found containing a lock of her mother’s hair and a note. The note, in Patsy’s handwriting stated “A Lock of my Dear Mama’s Hair inclosed in a verse which she wrote” (49). A verse, written in Martha Jefferson’s handwriting, was enclosed:

    Times 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 a windy day never to return more – everything presses on –

The verse continues, but in Thomas Jefferson’s distinctive handwriting:

    -- 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 (50).

It has been suggested that Mrs. Jefferson penned the initial line – a verse from the book Tristan Shandy by Laurence Sterne, published in the mid-1700s. It was one of Thomas Jefferson’s favorite books, and likely a favorite of Martha Jefferson too. It is possible Mrs. Jefferson took pen in hand during her final hours or weeks and, with faded ink or weak touch, recalled the verse from memory (51). It is then possible Jefferson finished the verse, as he may have done when they recited verse together, either to share in the writing or to assist his wife’s weak hand (his writing is bolder and darker).  This note constitutes the only written exchange between Thomas and Martha Jefferson known to exist.  

Sara Randolph offers an assessment of her great-grandmother appropriate for considering her legacy: “if the attractions of a woman can be measured by the love borne her by her husband, hers must have been great indeed, for never was a wife loved with more passionate devotion than she was by Jefferson” (52). Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson is buried at Monticello, near her children, family friend Dabney Carr, and Thomas Jefferson’s sister, Jane. Jefferson placed a marble tombstone to mark her grave, with inscription stating she had been “torn from him by death.” The slab is engraved with the first two lines from the Iliad and written in Greek – the translation: “If in the house of Hades men forget their dead, Yet will I ever there remember you, dear companion.”

Robert P. Watson, Ph.D
Department of Political Science
Florida Atlantic University
777 Glades Road
Boca Raton, FL 33431
Phone: 561-297-3055
Richard M. Yon
Department of Political Science
University of Florida
Gainesville, FL


The authors wish to thank Bryan Craig, Research Librarian at Monticello, Lucia “Cinder” Stanton, Shannon Senior Research Historian at Monticello, Chip Stokes, Founder and Chairman of The Jefferson Legacy Foundation, and Melissa Buehler, Ph.D. student at Purdue.

1.   E.M.Halliday, Understanding Thomas Jefferson (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), p. 30. 

2.   See Jefferson’s “autobiography” – Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia, p. 7.

3.   The incorrect information appears at

4.   Claude G. Bowers, The Young Jefferson, 1743-1789 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1945), p. 

     47; Fawn Brody, Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History (New York,1974); and Andrew

     Burstein, The Inner Jefferson: Portrait of a Grieving Optimist (Charlottesville: University

     Press of Virginia, 1995).

5.   Ibid.

6.   Bowers, 1945, pp. 47-48. 

7.   As quoted in Willard Sterne Randall, Thomas Jefferson: A Life (New York: Harper

     Perennial, 1994, p.158.

8.   As quoted in Randall, 1994, pp. 159-160. 

9.   George Washington’s wedding was also held in January, but most marriages took place in

     spring or summer.

10. See Jefferson, p. 7.

11. Bowers, 1945, p. 48

12. See Thomas Jefferson’s Garden and Farm Books (Robert C. Baron, ed., Golden, Colo.:

     Fulcrum, 1987), entry for 26 January 1772; or see Jefferson, p. 34. 

13. Randall, 1994, p. 347.

14. Letter, Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 20 May 1782, Vol. VI, p. 186. 

15. Letter, W. Phillips to Thomas Jefferson, 31 March 1781, Vol. V, pp. 97-98.

16. Randall, 1994, p. 335.

17. Letter, General Riedesel to Thomas Jefferson, 19 March 19, 1781, Vol. V, pp. 184-185; see also Frederich Adolph von Riedesel, Memoirs, Letters, and Journals, during his Residence in America (Albany, NY: 1868).

18. Bowers, 1945, p. 232. 

19. Letter, George Gilmer to Thomas Jefferson, 13 April 1781, Vol. V, p. 431.

20. Halliday, 2001, p. 40.

21. See Jack McLaughlin, Jefferson and Monticello, Biography of a Builder (New York: Henry Holt, 1988).

22. Sara N. Randolph, The Domestic Life of Thomas Jefferson (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, pub in 1871, reprint in 1978), pp. 43-44; Gordon Langley Hall, Mr. Jefferson’s Ladies (Boston: Beacon Press, 1966), p. xiv.

23. Bowers, 1945, p. 47.

24. See Bowers, 1945.

25. See Julian P. Boyd, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press), Vol I, p. 63-64.

26. Ellen Randolph Coolidge, Letter Book, Vol. IV, pp. 66-67 (available at Monticello).

27. Halliday, 2001, p. 37; A.A. Lipscomb and A.E. Bergh, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson  (Washington, D.C.; 1903). available at the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. Vol. IV, p. 174. 

28. Lipscomb and Bergh, Vol. IV, p. 174

29. Philip Mazzei, Philip Mazzei:  My Life and Wanderings, p. 283.

30. Halliday, 2001, p. 48; Bowers, 1945, p. 308.

31. Sara N. Randolph, p. 10.

32. Ibid., p. 12.

33. Randall, 1994, p. 335.

34. John Page, “Autobiography,” Virginia Historical Register, Richmond, 1850.  See also Boyd, Vol. VI, p. 196.

35. Halliday, 2001, p. 48.

36. Boyd, Vol. VI, p. 200.

37. Halliday, 2001, p. 49.

38. Randall, 1994, p. 348.

39. Boyd, Vol. VI, p. 199.

40. Letter, Elizabeth Wayles to Thomas Jefferson, 3 October 1782, Vol. VI, pp. 198-199. 

41. Joseph J. Ellis, American Sphinx (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), p. 66.

42. Ellis, 1997, pp. 66-67. 

43. Letter, Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 20 Sept. 1782, Vol. VI, p. 199.

44. Letter, Thomas Jefferson to Chastellux, 26 November 1782, Vol. VI, p. 203.

45. Mazzei, p. 282. 

46. Randall, 1994, p. 348.

47. Halliday, 2001, p. 49.

48. Ellis, 1997, p. 66.

49. Halliday, 2001, pp. 50-51.

50. Boyd, Vol. VI, p. 197.

51. Boyd, Vol. VI, p. 196, no date known, the two frequently read and recited verse together. 

52. Sara N. Randolph, p. 10.

High Praise for Gary Hart's Book, by Sydney N. Stokes, Jr., Chairman. In his 4,000 book, Restoration of the Republic: The Jeffersonian Ideal in the 21st Century (Oxford University Press, 2002), former U.S. Senator Gary Hart examines Thomas Jefferson's vision of free society. The result is the most timely and relevant treatment of that vision ever published. It is about more than just citizen rights. It is about the responsibilities that accompany those rights—the responsibility of informed participation.
As America debates the troubling aftermath of 9/11, Hart succeeds in identifying what has been called "the revolutionary tradition and its lost treasure" — the town meeting system of self-government—and the failure to incorporate this system into our constitutional framework.  This failure was a direct result of Shays Rebellion in 1786, an event which caused fears of anarchy and violence.  In response to those fears, the United States adopted an elaborate check and balance scheme based on representation.
Hart's book focuses on this tragic oversight in our political development and re-establishes Jefferson as the primary exponent for a public space where the voice of the whole people can be, as Jefferson said, "fairly, fully, and peacefully expressed, discussed, and decided by the common reason of society." Jefferson believed that violence could be avoided by creating, along with public education, a place for a redress of grievances. A place, he thought, where citizens could be "participator[s] in the government of affairs, not merely at an election one day in the year, but every day."
Jefferson's vision of republican government has profound implications for the 21st century. Hart deserves high praise for identifying and bringing focus to the central legacy of Thomas Jefferson.

Thoughts on September 11th, by Clarence W. Leeds, III, Vice Chairman and President Emeritus.   An idea came under attack on September 11, 2001.  Those who planned and executed the terrorist assaults that destroyed the lives of thousands of people either understood, or failed to understand, the idea they attacked.   Either way, the attack called for an appropriate response. Our response should be in accordance with our individual and collective understanding of the idea under attack. That idea deals with issues of national and individual sovereignty, religious freedom, group-imposed authority or individual conscience, church and state separation or collaboration, education as indoctrination or education for enlightened participation.  Addressing the essence of all these issues is an idea articulated by Thomas Jefferson.  That idea is our national creed.  It has been evolving as the idea for the responsible use of freedom by people everywhere. Human beings currently in various stages of civilization, who initially banned together as warring tribes, now look to our nation as a working model of people coming together by virtue of subscription to an idea.  That idea is the legacy of Thomas Jefferson.
In all our projects, The Jefferson Legacy Foundation attempts to help people understand that idea and to employ that understanding to participate responsibly in a free and open society. With Daniel Boorstin, emeritus Librarian of Congress, we "confirm Jefferson's—and our—belief that the principles of a free society thrive only in the scrutiny of the free critical thought of every succeeding age." We also concur with Gary Wills in Inventing America, "The best way to honor the spirit of Jefferson is to use his doubting intelligence again on his own text. . .the pollster on the street wants us to 'endorse' Jefferson's Declaration. But Jefferson would be the first to ask what such an exercise could mean.  Despite his hostility to Plato, he liked Socrates and thought the unexamined life not worth living.  Even more, the unexamined document is not worth signing. The Declaration has been turned into something of a blank check for idealists of all sorts to fill in as they like. We had better stop signing it (over and over) and begin reading it.  I do not mean seeing it.  I mean reading it."

It is for each generation to reexamine our national creed. That is the lesson in dynamics of Thomas Jefferson. That is Jefferson's legacy.  That is what President George W. Bush was saying in his 2002 State of the Union Address:

America will lead by defending liberty and justice because they are right and true and unchanging for all people everywhere.   No nation owns these aspirations, and no nation is exempt from them.  We have no intention of imposing our culture.  But America will always stand firm for the non-negotiable demands of human dignity; the rule of law; limits on the power of the state; respect for women; private property; free speech; equal justice; and religious tolerance.  Our enemies send other people's children on missions of suicide and murder.   They embrace tyranny and death as a cause and a creed. We stand for a different choice, made long ago, on the day of our founding. We affirm it again today.  We choose freedom and the dignity of every life.

At The Jefferson Legacy Foundation, our response to events on, and subsequent to, September 11, 2001 is to help people understand the constancy and the dynamics of the idea under attack and to respond, in ways appropriate in light of that idea—the idea that is the legacy of Thomas Jefferson and will become our own legacy.  Our Jefferson Legacy Foundation board member, the greatest Jefferson scholar of our time, Merrill Peterson, says

There are many Jefferson legacies, but unquestionably the greatest is the philosophy of human rights so eloquently stated in the Preamble of the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln named those principles "the definitions and axioms of free society." They have done more to define the values and goals of the nation than any other act or statement.  But this "American Creed," as Gunnar Myrdal called it, and as Martin Luther King famously invoked it in 1963, was framed as an enunciation of the rights of all humankind. The universalism of the philosophy has made it one of the fountainheads of the international human-rights culture of our time. Jefferson is rapidly attaining the fame of world citizen. . .In the correspondence of their old age, John Adams liked to twit Jefferson on the exploded hopes of the Enlightenment and the age of democratic revolution through which they had lived.  Jefferson admitted the horizon was clouded, yet could not share Adams's pessimism. "I shall not die without a hope that light and liberty are on steady advance," he declared.  "And even should the cloud of barbarism and despotism again obscure the science and liberties of Europe, this country remains to preserve and restore light and liberty to them. In short, the flames kindled on the 4th of July 1776 have spread over too much of the globe to be extinguished by the feeble engines of despotism.  On the contrary, they will consume those engines, and all who work them."
Americans, it has been said, venerate Washington, love Lincoln, and remember Jefferson.  The long and myriad chain of memory has passed to this generation with its most vital links worn and abused, but still intact. "Nothing, then, is unchangeable but the inherent and inalienable rights of man." When so many of Jefferson's values have slipped away, he may yet go on vindicating his power in the national life as the heroic voice of imperishable freedoms. It is this Jefferson who stands at the radiant center of his own history, and who makes for the present a symbol that unites the nation's birth with its inexorable ideal.  But whether this and later generations will be able to repeat with earlier generations John Adams's deathbed deliverance, "Thomas Jefferson still survives," must depend on a power greater than Jefferson's historical momentum.  It must depend, in the final analysis, on the conscious knowledge of Jefferson's faith and the [our] responsible commitment to its survival. 

If the attacks of September 11 marked the beginning of a war, that war was one of ideology.  As Rabbi David Hartman has said (in Thomas Friedman's column in The New York Times), the opposing forces are religious totalitarianism and Jefferson's ideology of pluralism—an ideology that embraces religious diversity and the idea that one's faith can be nurtured without claiming exclusive truth.  The United States of America, with its Jeffersonian creed, is at once the legacy and the Mecca of that ideology.  Our interpretation, understanding, and responses to the attacks on September 11 will determine the future of all civilizations.

Lessons from a Close and Contentious Election. Alan Ehrenhalt wrote in the New York Times in December of 1998, "A pretty good argument can be made that the defining moment of American democracy didn't occur in 1776 or 1787, as commonly supposed, but...on the day that John Adams, having been beaten at the polls, quietly packed his things and went home. Only then did we know for sure that the system worked as advertised.  The routine transfer of power may not be the most dramatic feature of American democracy, but it is the most important."

In the election of 1800, a president was elected by one vote, and power was transferred peacefully between opposing parties. President John Adams and Vice President Thomas Jefferson fought for the presidency in a hostile contest that threatened the American experiment in self-government.  Adams lost, and there was a tie between Jefferson and Aaron Burr.  After 35 ballots in the House, Representative Lewis R. Morris of Vermont withheld his vote for Burr. Vermont's Matthew Lyon then cast his vote for Jefferson. A single vote from a small state made Jefferson our third President. On the 36th ballot, the deadlock was broken by one vote.  One vote.

Two hundred years later we have witnessed another close and contentious election. Then as now, one vote can make a difference.  The United States continues as a model for peaceful transfer of authority if we participate. Participation does make a difference, which is why the Jefferson Legacy Foundation is dedicated to fostering civil discourse and engaging people in addressing important social and political issues.

Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: Thoughts on Reason and Civility
by Sydney N. Stokes, Jr., Chairman, and Clarence W. Leeds, III, Vice Chairman and President Emeritus

Perceptions about the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings are controversial. Some people have formed opinions based on recent media presentations.  Artistic license is taken with the lives of historical figures.  Facts are few and far between. Fiction abounds. So-called documentaries are frequently undocumented. Conjectures are disguised as facts, then repeated until they are ingrained into our belief system.  Evidence presented so far appears to be incomplete. We are cautious about jumping to conclusions.  We remind ourselves that conclusions we do reach by our own reasoning must be placed in historical perspective.  We favor continuing exploration of the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings within the framework of Jefferson's achievements and the times in which he and Hemings lived.

To date, written and oral histories are inconclusive.  DNA evidence neither proves nor disproves that Thomas Jefferson fathered children with Sally Hemings.  Scientific advancements may permit us someday more fully to answer questions we have today. There may be some as yet undiscovered written testimony from Sally Hemings or Thomas Jefferson.  For years, it was suspected that Sally Hemings returned from Paris pregnant with Thomas Jefferson's child.  However, five male-line descendants of Hemings' first-born child (in 1790) tested negative to any connection with Jefferson DNA. Yet, some Jefferson DNA has been found in descendants of Hemings' youngest child, born 18 years later in 1808. The issue is complicated.  Truth-seekers are frustrated. Passions on all sides of the issue run high, particularly in reference to the question, "Which Jefferson was father to children of Sally Hemings?" Evidence to date still does not answer that question.

If solid evidence is someday presented to support the conjecture that Thomas Jefferson was the father of one or more of Sally Hemings' children, then we still have a quandary: People who look to our founders for guidance must decide if the Jefferson-Hemings relationship was a humanizing characteristic, or hypocrisy so severe it casts doubt on everything Jefferson did. 

We urge Jefferson and Hemings descendants to embrace one another as extended family in any case.  We encourage civil discourse and scholarly study of all known, and any new, evidence pertaining to this issue.  To foster a more civil discussion, we urge consideration of Pulitzer-Prize winning Jefferson scholar, Dumas Malone's admonition: "I don't like the adversary system in connection with scholarship of any sort." Cooperation should prevail over contentious competition.

We support reasoned and balanced dialogue on this subject in the context of Jefferson's life and accomplishments and America's shameful history of slavery.  We remain hopeful that the story of the Hemings and Jefferson families can be evaluated in an open, honest, and respectful way.

For additional viewpoints on the Sally Hemings controversy, refer to the Thomas Jefferson Heritages Society's site, and click on Quick Links: "The Truth About Jefferson," by Robert Turner, published in The Wall Street Journal.  Another opinion can be found in "Jefferson-Hemings DNA Testing:  An Online Resource" on the "Plantation" page of

This statement does not necessarily reflect the opinions of everyone associated with The Jefferson Legacy Foundation.



The Dilemma of Slavery.  It has become fashionable to portray Thomas Jefferson as a great enigma—a sphinx. Historians and publishers have a field day with Jefferson. Over the past several years books, novels, articles, and two major Hollywood movies have portrayed Jefferson as a man of contradictions.  He has been used as a scapegoat for our frustrations, especially racial conflict.  He has been called a racist, a sexist, a hypocrite. Some would expel him from the American Pantheon and destroy his memorial in Washington D.C.  Conor Cruise O'Brien believes that today's "multi-cultural society cannot indefinitely accept a racist as a prophet." (1)

Adding to the passions of discord, recent DNA analysis attempts to show a genealogical link between Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings. The reported DNA results are inconclusive, but the issue is powerful. The controversy became entwined with the dynamics of President Clinton's impeachment and has further complicated Jefferson's legacy.

A little noted event at Norfolk State University (NSU) in the past year illustrates a cynical view of  American history, a view which corrupts our spirit. The event points to a serious misunderstanding about Thomas Jefferson and his experience as a slave-owner. It is illustrative of America's inability to comprehend and embrace its own national purpose or creed. Understanding our founders' circumstances and vision is essential to our participation in fulfillment of the American Revolution.

The event at NSU featured public-radio celebrity Clay Jenkinson, who presented himself in costume as Thomas Jefferson.  At the end of his presentation, there were questions from the audience. One student, according to The Virginian-Pilot, "challenged Jefferson's contention that most slaves could not handle freedom because they had a child-like dependence on their white masters. If true [the student asked] why did Monticello continue to operate while Jefferson spent seven (sic) years in France? Who was really dependent on whom?" Jenkinson answered, "perhaps I should just say touché." (2)  Students gave Jenkinson a standing ovation and left the event thinking they had understood the truth.  But had they?

The operation of Monticello is a fascinating and complex story, yet the relevant issue is ignorance of what Jefferson actually faced as a slave-owner. Today, African-Americans seek justice and recognition for their ancestors' enormous contribution to the formation of America. Rightly so.  Martin Luther King Jr.  dreamed of the day when "this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed." The Jefferson Legacy Foundation shares that dream. However, before this can happen, we need to practice non-violence in the intellectual world as well as in the physical world.

With this in mind, Booker T. Washington offers a reasonable starting point from which the reality of slavery can be understood.  In his autobiography, Up From Slavery, Washington sheds light on America's dilemma:

Finally the war closed, and the day of freedom came ...We had been expecting it.  Freedom was in the air ... The grape-vine telegraph was kept busy night and day ... There was more singing in the slave quarters than usual ... they had sung those same verses before but ... 'freedom' ... referred to the next world, and had no connection with life in this world...

Word was sent to all slaves, old and young, to gather at the [master's] house ... There was a feeling of deep interest, or perhaps sadness on their faces, but not bitterness ...

We were told that we were all free, and could go when and where we pleased ... or some minutes there was great rejoicing, and thanksgiving, and wild scenes of ecstasy.  But there was no feeling of bitterness ...

I noticed that by the time they returned to their cabins there was a change in their feelings. The great responsibility of being free, of having charge of themselves, of having to think and plan for themselves and their children, seemed to take possession of them. It was very much like suddenly turning a youth of ten or twelve years out into the world to provide for himself.

In a few hours the great questions with which the Anglo-Saxon race had been grappling for centuries had been thrown upon these people to be solved.  These were the questions of a home, a living, the rearing of children, education, citizenship, and the establishment and support of churches.  Was it any wonder that within a few hours the wild rejoicing ceased and a feeling of deep gloom seemed to pervade the slave quarters?

To some it seemed that, now that they were in actual possession of it, freedom was a more serious thing than they had expected to find it.

Washington understood the "great questions." He observed first-hand, Jefferson's comment that "to give liberty to, or rather to abandon persons whose habits have been formed in slavery, is like abandoning children." (3)

Washington correctly identified the issues of education, of citizenship, and religious freedom that animated Jefferson's life.  Without these reforms, Jefferson could not imagine a free bi-racial society.  Although his temperament was sanguine, Jefferson possessed a deep sense of gloom about the effects of slavery.  Freedom would be only another form of slavery, leading to violence.

In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson expressed his fear:

Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites, ten thousand recollections by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained, new provocations, the real distinctions which nature has made, and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of one or the other race.

Jefferson's ambivalence and pessimism about the ability of whites and blacks to prosper together in America can be seen in the experience and ultimate death of James Hemings. A bright young man, Hemings became an accomplished French chef.  He learned his trade in Paris while Jefferson served as Minister to France (1784-1789). Jefferson freed Hemings in 1796, but Hemings's alcoholism and the reality of apartheid contributed to his suicide in 1801 at the age of 35. Historian Elizabeth Langhorne wrote that "more than other Hemingses, James had seen the promised land and found the gate barred."

This experience served to reinforce a sad reality in America, and Jefferson concluded:

 ... until more can be done for them, we should endeavor with those whom fortune has thrown on our hands, to feed and clothe them well, protect them from all ill usage, require such reasonable labor only as is performed voluntarily by freemen & be led by no repugnancies to abdicate them, and our duties to them.  The laws do not permit us to turn them loose, if that were for their good: and to commute them for other property is to commit them to those whose usage of them we cannot control. (4)

Isaac Jefferson remembered that his "old master [was] very kind to servants." (5)  Peter Fossett said Jefferson was "a master we all loved." (6)  Since Jefferson's time, and the time of Booker T.  Washington, a layer of bitterness has been added to Jefferson's legacy and to America's legacy as well.  The vision is not apparent. We must redirect our energy into the main themes and unfinished business of the American Revolution.  The very idea of self-government is in jeopardy. Especially now, when the rest of the world is discovering "the great responsibility of being free."


  1. "A Founding Father's Feet of Clay: An Interview with Conor Cruise O'Brien," Free Inquiry, Vol.18 No.2, Spring 1998.
  2. "Mr. Jefferson On Race," Mike Knepler, The Virginian-Pilot, March 17, 1999.
  3. TJ to Dr. Edward Bancroft, January 26, 1788.
  4. TJ to Edward Coles, August 25, 1814.
  5. "Memoirs of a Monticello Slave," in Jefferson at Monticello, ed. James A. Bear, Jr., University Press of Virginia, 1967,
  6. Monticello Archives (unpublished).

The Jefferson Legacy Foundation
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Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Jamie Wyeth.
 Used with permission of the artist. Copyright © Jamie Wyeth