Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson
Martha Wayles Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson’s wife, was very skillful in welcoming and dealing with her husband’s steady stream of frequent prominent visitors at Monticello, often lavish affairs, sometimes numbering more than 50 at a time, who were fed fine foods and expensive French wines. This required her to plan large dinners and provide accommodations for many demanding guests. Martha also provided substantial business assistance to her husband in running Monticello, supervising the plantation’s daily affairs while Jefferson attended to his writings and public duties, often away weeks at a time. During the Revolutionary War, Martha was a political activist, and at the request of Martha Washington, led the drive among women in Virginia to raise funds and donate necessary supplies for Virginia’s militia in the Continental Army. Martha also was talented in music, particularly with the harpsichord and violin, and Martha and Thomas often played and sang music together. In Jefferson’s memoir he referred to their 10 year marriage as “unchequered happiness”. (Autobiography, pg 80)
Apparently, he never brought himself to record their life together. After Martha’s death, the couple’s letters to one another were said to be burned by Jefferson. Even letters to others, such as their Coles neighbors, were later sought out, apparently with the same object. Aware of his own inevitable role as a public figure, Jefferson took great pains to keep his personal life private. Jefferson biographer Dumas Malone observed that Jefferson “carefully preserved and deeply cherished small souvenirs of his dead wife, but eventually he also saw to it that none of their letters should ever be open to prying eyes…He was determined that the sacred intimacies of a lover and husband should remain inviolate. His wife did not belong to posterity; she belonged to him.” (Dumas Malone, pg 397) Only one letter by Martha survives, and an impersonal one that reveals very little. Fortunately, there remains a household journal in her hand, and for several of the early years of their marriage, Jefferson copied Martha’s yearly household accounts into his own account books. There is also Jefferson’s own daily record in his farm book of his financial transactions during their marriage, and valuable reminiscences by family members and guests. Jefferson also rarely spoke of her publicly, so Martha remains somewhat of an enigmatic figure.
According to Jefferson family oral history, Martha apparently was not a physically strong woman. She was a little over 5 feet tall, small in stature, and delicately featured being “slightly but exquisitely formed,” with a “brilliant” complexion, “expressive eyes of the richest shade of hazel,” and “luxuriant hair of the finest tinge of auburn.” (Randall, pg 63) She walked, rode, and danced “with admirable grace and spirit,” (Ibid) and was “frank, warm hearted, and somewhat impulsive.” (Ibid) Her granddaughter, Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge, observed that Martha “was a person of great intelligence and strength of character…and had a vivacity of temper which might sometimes border on tartness.” (Ellen Coolidge Letterbook) She possessed many qualities that appealed to Jefferson. She was better educated than the average Virginia belle of the day, and her mind was superior. She read more widely than most, and could discuss books with intelligence and discrimination. From her father, she inherited a capacity with business, and he entrusted her to keep the accounts at his plantation; thus, she was well qualified to help run a large estate. But nothing appealed more to Jefferson than her love of music. Throughout their courtship in 1770 and 1771, the young couple frequently harmonized together, she singing while he played accompaniment on piano. She naturally also was courted by many other eligible gentlemen. One family history recalls an incident when two rival suitors happened to approach the front door of her father’s house simultaneously. Ushered into a sitting room, they heard Martha’s harpsichord and soprano voice wafting through the house in harmony with Jefferson’s violin and tenor. The two rivals listened for a few minutes and then “took their hats and retired, to return no more on the same errand.” (Randall, pg 64) As Thomas was having Monticello built, he obtained a piano forte from England for Martha as a wedding present. For some years after their marriage, they both took lessons from the Italian musician Alberti, whom Jefferson had persuaded to come to Albemarle County, Virginia. A German officer wrote of his impressions of Martha “as all Virginians are fond of music, she is particularly so. You will find in the House an elegant harpsichord, piano fort, and some violins. The latter he performs well upon himself, the former his Lady touches very skillfully and who is in all respects a very agreeable, sensible and accomplished Lady.” (German Officer’s Letter)
Martha had great affection for her husband Thomas, and by all accounts they were well matched and deeply in love. Years later, Jefferson described his wife as lively, good-natured, and wise, and encouraged his daughters and granddaughters to look to her example when shaping their own behavior. His granddaughter Ellen Coolidge recalled that when Jefferson would speak of Martha “whose memory he cherished with deep and tender affection…he often quoted to us her sayings and opinions, and would preface his own advice with ‘your grandmother would have told you,’ and ‘your grandmother always said.’” (Ellen Coolidge Letterbook) Ellen Coolidge also noted that “she made my grandfather’s home comfortable, cheerful, pleasant, just what a good man’s home should be.” (Ellen Coolidge Letterbook)
Martha Wayles was born at her father’s estate, the “Forest,” in Charles City County, Virginia—near Williamsburg, Virginia—on October 30, 1748. Her parents were John Wayles and his first wife, Martha Eppes, wealthy plantation owners. Martha’s mother was the daughter of Francis Eppes of Bermuda Hundred, a large Virginia plantation and early Virginian colony established along the Appomattox River. Martha’s mother, “Patsy,” died when Martha was only three weeks old. No record of Martha’s early years exist, but in light of her father’s wealth and prominence, Martha was likely educated at home by visiting tutors in literature, poetry, French, and Bible study; she also likely received considerable training in music. A young woman of her region, era, and wealth would also likely be trained in sewing and home medicinal treatments. Martha probably played a social role at the Wayles plantation; her later skills at Monticello also would suggest she received basic training on running a plantation, making household staples, and assisting her father with the management and accounting of his agriculture business.
Martha Wayles initially married Bathurst Skelton in 1766, a classmate of Thomas Jefferson at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg. They had one son, John Wayles Skelton, who died suddenly of a fever on June 10, 1771. Her husband, Bathurst Skelton, died in September 1768 in Williamsburg after an accident, leaving Martha a rich widow. She moved back into her father’s house, the Forest. As an attractive young widow, she was naturally sought out by suitors she met in plantation drawing rooms, and in the ballrooms and parlors of Richmond and Williamsburg. Sometime in 1770, probably in Williamsburg, Martha met a rather tall, shy, awkward, freckled and sandy-haired attorney named Thomas Jefferson, who was then serving in the House of Burgesses. Jefferson biographer Henry Randall offered an appealing picture of the young man—“Mr. Jefferson was generally…rather a favorite with the other sex, and not without reason. His appearance was engaging. His face, though angular, and far from beautiful, beamed with intelligence, with benevolence, and with the cheerful vivacity of a happy, hopeful spirt…He was an expert musician, a fine dancer, and dashing rider…There was a frankness, earnestness, and cordiality in his tone—a deep sympathy with humanity—a confidence in man, and a sanguine hopefulness in his destiny.” (Randall, pg 33-34) Jefferson began courting Martha in December 1770 and they were married on New Year’s Day, 1772, at the Forest. The land is now privately owned and the house no longer exists. A historical marker on Route 5 commemorates the scene of Jefferson’s wedding.
The Jefferson’s honeymooned there for about 2-1/2 weeks before setting out in a multi-day, 100 mile, 2-horse carriage ride to Monticello. They made this long trip in what ended up to be one of the worst snowstorms ever to hit Virginia at that time. When they left a light snow was falling, but by the time they reached Blenheim, the home of Col. Edward Carter, the snow became very heavy, and their carriage bogged down in some 2 feet of snow, with snow drifting as high as their horses’ breasts. They left their carriage there and continued the remaining 8 miles on horseback on a trail through the silent forest and the unbroken snow. (Both Martha and Jefferson were accomplished riders, both having been taught expertly by their fathers). Pressing forward as the sun disappeared behind the Blue Ridge Mountains to the west, they arrived at Monticello very late at night after the slaves had banked the fires and retired for the night. The first Jefferson-designed building and only habitable part of Monticello at that time was a small 1 room brick structure, 20 feet square that now comprises the South Pavilion of Monticello. So the couple settled into this freezing brick building that was to be their home for several years (until 1775) until completion of Monticello’s main house. As the story was told to their children and friends, Jefferson lit a fire, pulled out a bottle of wine from its hiding place behind several books on a shelf, and they toasted their new home, and according to Martha, the “horrible dreariness was lit up with song, merriment, and laughter.” (Randall pg 65) As a result, this room became known as the “honeymoon cottage”. It was a night that would become one of Martha’s most cherished memories.
Their daughter Martha was born in September 1772. Within 10 years, Martha gave birth to five more children. Because of Martha’s own frailty, of the six children Martha bore in less than 10 years during her marriage with Jefferson, all were weak as infants, and only two survived to adulthood: Martha (called Patsy), and Maria (called Polly). Martha was in frail health for much of her marriage, and with each succeeding pregnancy, Martha grew weaker and weaker. This was a time when three out of four children failed to survive childhood, and women accepted the need to have many children as a fact of life. Through much of her 10 year marriage to Jefferson, she was either pregnant, nursing, grieving the death of an infant, or sick herself from the complications of childbirth. She is generally believed to have suffered from diabetes, the cause of her problems bearing children, and also had endured at least one bout of smallpox. Jefferson tried to remain by Martha’s side as best he could, preferring to work at home near her, often declining or postponing numerous political appointments further away.
In 1773, the death of Martha’s father, John Wayles, brought the Jeffersons a great increase of fortune—40,000 acres of land and 135 slaves—which doubled Jefferson’s estate. In the 18 months between his marriage and the death of his father-in-law, Jefferson had watched as the Wayles fortune turned sour amidst a series of bad business deals, many of them negotiated on credit. By then, Jefferson was left with the majority of Wayles’ holdings, but also the majority of his debt, and the overwhelming debt led to Thomas Jefferson’s eventual financial ruin. Added to his prior holdings, this still put Jefferson in the upper echelon of landed and slave-owning gentry in Virginia. Such a distinction must have come as a mixed blessing to Jefferson, who had already gone on record with his philosophical objections to slavery. He would continue to condemn the “peculiar institution” in the abstract throughout his life, all the while functioning as a large-scale slave owner. In order to pay down Wayles’ debts, Jefferson sold off a portion of the inherited lands and slaves, and funneled what few resources he could muster into improvements at Monticello. Throughout his life, Jefferson would seem to value the improvement of lands and the possession of slaves over the retention of capital. The constant additions and renovations to Monticello, coupled with Jefferson’s extravagant tastes and passion for playing host, would keep him in a constant circle of debt that apparently did not seem to bother him that much.
Jefferson was deeply devoted to Martha, so much so that he tended at times to neglect his professional career in favor of his family matters. Yet, despite her frequent poor heath, she was devoted to Jefferson as well. Much as she did for her father during his periods of widowhood, Martha ran the plantation life at Monticello. It was a considerable responsibility—reading recipes to slaves and overseeing food preparation and preservation in the kitchens, clothing needs for the family and household slaves, and managing all the other slaves and their responsibilities. Martha maintained a collection of notes regarding her household duties and recipes, such as butchering and curing meat and the creation of large batches of soft and hard soap, candles, butter, making other household staples of the 18th century, as well as homemade remedies for treating illnesses. During her first year of marriage, she also began the practice of brewing beer, producing 170 gallons that year. Among the few remaining examples of her handwriting is a precise ledger of the plantation’s main cash crop, tobacco, suggesting she worked with Jefferson more as a full partner in the business aspects of Monticello. In one entry, we are fortunate to see her drawing of little birds, revealing her joyful spirit.
Jefferson was elected as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia in June 1775, soon after the beginning of the Revolutionary War. The following year, on June 11, 1776, Jefferson was appointed to head the Committee of Five in preparing a Declaration of Independence from Great Britain. The committee selected Jefferson to write the first draft, probably because of his reputation as a talented writer. At the age of 33, he became the document’s principal author, and later counted it among his three proudest lifetime achievements (along with being the Author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and the Father of the University of Virginia). During that famous summer of 1776, Martha suffered a miscarriage and was very ill, and Jefferson was desperate to get out of Philadelphia as soon as possible to be by her side. In September 1776, Jefferson returned to Virginia and was soon elected to the new Virginia House of Delegates, where he served until 1779. During the opening years of the Revolutionary War, while serving in the Virginia Assembly, Jefferson preferred to compose his legal briefs and policy proposals from the comfort of his own home. He skipped many legislative meetings to be by Martha’s side, and was frequently fined for his absence. This seemingly cavalier approach to public service became much more difficult while he was Governor, and he returned to Monticello permanently in June 1781, promising his wife that he would refuse any more political posts. Martha’s final pregnancy proved to be the most burdensome. She bore daughter Lucy Elizabeth, on May 8, 1782, who died at the age of two of whooping cough. Lucy was an astonishing 16 pounds at birth. Only the eldest of two surviving daughters, Martha (Patsy) Jefferson, lived past the age of 25. Martha never regained a fair measure of strength, and on May 20, 1782, Jefferson wrote that her condition was dangerous, and she fought death off for another four months.
On her deathbed, Martha asked Jefferson to promise that he would never remarry. Her father, John Wayles, married three times, and while he loved his daughter Martha, he nevertheless exposed her to two apparently loveless and cold stepmothers. Thus Martha’s request to Jefferson sprung from a desire to shield her own children from the influence of an unsympathetic stepmother such as the two she herself had endured in childhood. Jefferson was despondent from the moment Martha slipped into her final coma, at which time he fainted and had to be carried out of the room. Martha Jefferson died at Monticello on September 6, 1782, at the age of 33, leaving three daughters, the youngest four months old, who later died at age two. The exact cause of Martha’s death is not known, however a letter from Jefferson to the Marquis de Chastellux indicates that she never recovered from this last birth. Jefferson refers to “the state of dreadful suspense in which I had been kept all the summer and the catastrophe which closed it.” (Jefferson to Chastellux) He goes on to say, “a single event wiped away all my plans and left me a blank, which I had not the spirits to fill up.” (Jefferson to Chastellux)
Jefferson buried his wife in the family graveyard at Monticello that he already had set aside on his mountaintop plantation nine years before. The graveyard had been cleared from the surrounding forest to receive the body of his best friend and brother in law, Dabney Carr, Sr., who died suddenly at age 30 in 1773 of bilious fever, probably typhoid fever. The spot Jefferson selected for the graveyard was a very sentimental one. Sarah Randolph of Edgehill recalled “as boys they had loved each other; and when studying together it was their habit to go with their books to the well-wooded sides of Monticello, and there pursue their studies beneath the shade of a favorite oak. So much attached did the friends become to this tree, that it became the subject of a mutual promise, that the one who survived should see that the body of the other was buried at its foot.” (Sarah Randolph, pg 45) Dabney Carr, Sr., and Jefferson’s younger sister Martha had three sons and several daughters. The Carr brothers (Thomas Jefferson’s nephews) were said to resemble Jefferson, and he raised them at Monticello after their father Dabney Carr, Sr., died.
Jefferson placed on Martha’s grave a slab of white marble with her birth date and the lines: “To the memory of Martha Jefferson, daughter of John Wayles: born October 19th, 1748, intermarried with Thomas Jefferson January 1st, 1772, torn from him by death September 6, 1782. This monument of his love is inscribed. If in the House of Hades men forget their dead, yet will I even there remember you, dear companion.” (This last sentence, translated from Greek, comes from a quotation in the Iliad). For weeks he was inconsolable and distraught, and for months suffered from deep depression. He spent three weeks in mourning in his library, pacing back and forth until exhausted, followed by a period of seclusion, when his only activity was a series of long horseback rides with his daughter Patsy Randolph. He struggled for months to recapture a sense of normalcy in his life. Over time, Patsy became her father’s comfort and close advisor, perhaps the single most important personal factor that stabilized him during his two terms as our third President of the United States.
Martha clearly had a very strong influence over Jefferson that came from being his close partner and confidante. It must be more than simple coincidence that Jefferson’s most brilliant writings came during his 10 year marriage to Martha. His Summary View of the Rights of British America was published in Williamsburg in 1774, launching his reputation in Virginia. His Declaration of Independence, written in Philadelphia in 1776, established his subsequent fame throughout America and the world. In three years of labor revising Virginia’s legal code between 1776 and 1779, Jefferson wrote the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (adopted a decade later in 1786), and he drafted the legislation that was ultimately passed in 1819 to create the University of Virginia. And, finally, in the last years of their life together, Jefferson began the compilation of his book, Notes on the State of Virginia. All of these writings were political masterpieces, establishing Jefferson as the greatest political theorist in the history of the United States. His unique capacity to project inspirational words and ideas onto American as well as global political life has made him all things to all people, and his legacy continues to be reinterpreted by every succeeding generation. There is no doubt Martha can take significant credit in contributing to Jefferson’s greatness.
–John Hamilton Works Jr., 7th generation descendant
- Autobiography of Thomas Jefferson, 1743-1790
- Life of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 1, Henry S Randall (1858)
- The Domestic Life of Thomas Jefferson, Sarah Nicholas Randolph (1871)
- Jefferson the Virginian, Volume 1 of 6, Dumas Malone (1948)
- A “German Officer’s Letter”, quoted in Jacob Rubsamen to Jefferson, December 1, 1780, in the Papers of Thomas Jefferson, https://www.worldcat.org/title/papers-of-thomas-jefferson/oclc/16353926 4:174. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-04-02-0207
- Jefferson to Chastellux, November 26, 1782, in
- Ellen Coolidge Letterbook, pp. 66-67
- The Family Letters of Thomas Jefferson, Edwin Morris Betts & James Adam Bear Jr (1966)
- Monticello, a Family Story, Elizabeth Langhorne (1987)
- The First Ladies of the United States of America, Allida Black, White House Historical Association (2009)
- The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers, Thomas Fleming (2010)
- The Women Jefferson Loved, Virginia Scharff (2010)
- Martha Jefferson: An Intimate Life with Thomas Jefferson, William G Hyland Jr (2015)