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MARTHA JEFFERSON. EARLY DEATH THWARTS A FUTURE AS AN AMERICAN FIRST LADY

Six United States Presidents entered the White House unmarried; four were widowers – Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, and Chester Alan Arthur. Two others were bachelors – James Buchanan and Grover Cleveland.

Martha Jefferson was the first woman to die before her husband was elected President.

Popular media have linked Thomas Jefferson romantically with his light-skinned mixed-race slave Sally Hemings. This scandal has had the unfortunate consequence of obscuring the wonderful marriage between the third U.S. president and Martha Jefferson. Martha bore six children during ten years as Thomas’ wife. Of the six Jefferson children, only two reached adulthood. Infant mortality was severe during the eighteenth century.  Their daughter Jane died within a year; daughter Lucy died before her fourth birthday; a third daughter died before the age of two. One infant, sex unlisted and unnamed, died within two weeks of birth. Four Jefferson babies perished out of six pregnancies.(Craig Hart, “A Genealogy of the Wives of the American President, Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc. 2004)

Martha Wayles was born October 20, 1748. Her mother died post partum. Martha first married Bathurst Skelton at age eighteen and soon gave birth to a son. Death stalked Martha since both her first husband and son died a few years later. The widow married for the second time, to Virginia planter/politician Thomas Jefferson, on January 1, 1772.

“She had great affection for her husband. She was a little over five feet tall, with a lithe figure, auburn hair, and hazel eyes. She was an accomplished needlewoman. Her music book and several examples of her embroidery survive.(Robert P. Watson and Richard Yon, “The Unknown Presidential Wife: Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson”, Jefferson Legacy Foundation, 2003)

Martha’s health was never robust during her ten year marriage to Thomas Jefferson. In addition to the exhaustion that resulted from her many pregnancies, she may have suffered from diabetes. She became very ill in Virginia during the summer of 1776 while her husband was tasked by John Adams in Philadelphia to write the draft of the Declaration of Independence. Two songs from the musical “1776”:  “But Mr. Adams” and “He Plays the Violin”  describe the affection and longing between Martha and Thomas.

Martha Jefferson died on September 6, 1782. Thomas Jefferson was inconsolable for weeks. He never remarried.

Lud Historian
ludmhist@comcast.net
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