Tag Archives: Martha Jefferson

One daughter died. I fear the other will die, too.

… I have had the inexpressible misfortune to lose my younger daughter, who has left me two grandchildren, & my elder one has such poor health, that I have little confidence in her life. she has 6 children. determined as I am to retire at the end of 4 years, I know not if I shall have a family to retire to. I must learn philosophy from you, & seek in a family of plants, that occupation & delight which you have so fortunately found in them …
To Madam de Tesse′, March 10, 1805

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
What private fears do our leaders labor under?
de Tesse′ was the aunt of the French hero of the American revolution, Marquis de Lafayette. She was an accomplished woman and became friends with Jefferson during his service in France in the mid-late 1780s. The two shared a strong interest in horticulture, exchanging plants and seeds for years. All the rest of this letter pertained to that subject. At the end came this surprisingly personal and unusual observation.

Jefferson’s daughter Maria died the year before, leaving his firstborn Martha as the only surviving child of the six born to him and his late wife. Martha was well-educated and capable. Her husband was not an emotionally stable man, and the responsibility for managing the family and estate (and some of her father’s estate, Monticello) fell on her. Everything I have read about Martha has given the impression that she inherited her father’s genes for good health and long life. Here, her already grieving father feared for her life, too. Jefferson confided that his love of plants might be the only the only family he had left when his Presidency ended four years hence.

His fears were unfounded. Martha outlived her father and presented him with 12 grandchildren, 11 who survived him.

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Daniel Boone Regional Library
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Can tragedy resurrect a leader?

Mrs Jefferson has added another daughter to our family. She has been ever since & still continues very dangerously ill. It will give me great pleasure to see you here whenever you can favor us with your company. You will find me still busy but in lighter occupations. But in these & all others you will find me to retain a due sense of your friendship & to be with sincere esteem, Dr Sir
Your mo ob & mo hble servt.
To James Monroe, May 20, 1782

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Lucy Elizabeth Jefferson was born 12 days before this letter. That was Martha Jefferson’s 7th pregnancy in 15 years. She was widowed with a young son when she and Jefferson began courting. That child died the summer before she-remarried. She bore six children to Thomas during their 10 year marriage.

Little is known about Martha, but she was an intelligent and resourceful woman. She was not physically strong and recovery from her pregnancies was difficult. She did not recover from Lucy’s birth and died four months later.

Jefferson was inconsolable for weeks in his grief. Toward the end of the year, his friends helped him escape Monticello by renewing his appointment to the team negotiating peace with England. That position wasn’t realized, but Jefferson was elected to Congress the next year and sent as minister to France in 1784.

Martha’s death set in motion the events that would draw Jefferson back onto the public stage for the next nine years. Would he have remained retired and content at Monticello had Martha not died? Anybody’s guess.

Lucy Elizabeth would die two and a half years later.

“Thank you so much for the great job you did as Thomas Jefferson.”
Missouri Mappers Association
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Out of a death came a new future

It [your letter which arrived October 17] found me a little emerging from the 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 …
Before that event my scheme of life had been determined. I had folded myself in the arms of retirement, and rested all prospects of future happiness on domestic & literary objects. A single event wiped away all my plans and left me a blank which I had not the spirits to fill up. In this state of mind an appointment from Congress found me, requiring me to cross the Atlantic…

To The Marquis de Chastellux, November 26, 1782

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Great tragedy can destroy leaders … or make them greater.

This French scholar and officer visited Monticello in the spring of 1782 shortly before Martha Jefferson gave birth to Lucy Elizabeth on May 8. This was Martha’s seventh childbirth, and she never recovered from the toll. She died on September 6, shortly before her 34th birthday. Her husband suffered an emotional breakdown and was disconsolate for weeks. Chastellux’s letter helped pull Jefferson out of his stupor.

Although his plans to remain retired among his family, farms and books “had been determined,” her death wiped his future clear. His friends in Congress, hoping to re-energize him, appointed his as a commissioner to help negotiate the final peace settlement with England. For several reasons, it would be almost two years before Jefferson sailed for Europe on a different diplomatic mission.


If Martha had lived, Jefferson might have remained content for the rest of his life in a relatively private world atop his little mountain.

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What a wonderful thing to be learning history and at the same time be so entertained.”
Executive Director, Illinois Court Reporters Association
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TOO MUCH for an 11 year old?

With respect to the distribution of your time the following is what I should approve.

  • from 8. to 10 o’clock practise music.
  • from 10. to 1. dance one day and draw another
  • from 1. to 2. draw on the day you dance, and write a letter the next day.
  • from 3. to 4. read French.
  • from 4. to 5. exercise yourself in music.
  • from 5. till bedtime read English, write &c.

… I expect you will write to me by every post. Inform me what books you read, what tunes you learn, and inclose me your best copy of every lesson in drawing. Write also one letter every week either to your aunt[s] … and always put the letter you so write under cover to me. Take care that you never spell a word wrong. Always before you write a word consider how it is spelt, and if you do not remember it, turn to a dictionary. It produces great praise to a lady to spell well. I have placed my happiness on seeing you good and accomplished, and no distress which this world can now bring on me could equal that of your disappointing my hopes.
To Martha Jefferson, Nov. 28, 1783

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Even wise leaders can expect too much!
Eleven year old Martha, Jefferson’s eldest of 3 girls, had been placed in the care of another woman while he was away in Congress, following the death of her mother a year before. The widowed father always put unrealistically high expectations on his children. Here, he dictates her school schedule from 8 AM until bedtime! His final sentence could seem suffocating.
Yet, Martha rose to the challenge. She probably did not follow this rigid schedule as a pre-teen but she lived her life with an intense devotion to her father. She was an extraordinarily accomplished woman. She was well-educated, raised 11 children, often by herself, and managed her household and sometimes her father’s. Her husband was a troubled man, and Martha received inconsistent support from him. That missing support came from her father, the one who had set such high standards for her as a child.

“It is amazing how the thoughts, words and events of over 200 years ago
transcend time and are as relevant today as they were then.”

Iowa League of Cities
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