Monday, January 01, 2007

January 1, 1772:

The Marriage of Thomas & Martha Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson had a wife. She’s part of the historical record, of course, but Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson is a shadowy figure in the historic imagination of the United States. For one thing, she didn’t live long enough to be a First Lady. In fact, she didn’t quite live to be 34, with her husband surviving her by nearly 44 years. Also, no portraits of her survive, beyond a silhouette (pictured) – making her literally a shadowy figure.

Then there’s the matter of Sally Hemings. A founding father (and Enlightenment thinker) and his slave mistress: now that’s a story with sex appeal, far eclipsing the Jefferson marriage in popular renown. But whatever happened between Thomas and Sally, it was still in the future when Thomas and Martha were married on January 1, 1772, at her father’s plantation, The Forest, near Williamsburg, Va.

It was a match within their class, he a landowner and member of the Virginia House of Burgesses and she the daughter of a landowner and prominent attorney. Yet it’s astonishing how precarious life was, even for the upper class, in the days before public health or germ theory or any of the other medical advances we know well.

Martha was a young widow – her husband, Bathurst Skelton, had died in an accident (that’s a seriously deep bit of trivia, the name of Martha Jefferson’s first husband). Her son by Skelton died before he turned four years old. Thomas and Martha had five children, three of whom died in infancy, and one of whom died at 22 when Jefferson was president. And the stress of all those babies apparently helped push Martha herself into the grave on September 6, 1782.

A well-written short biographical sketch of Martha Jefferson appears at, even though technically she wasn’t a First Lady. It also contains a discussion of the complicated relationship between her father’s family, the Wayles, and the Hemings family, since it was Martha who brought Thomas into contact with them.

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