Jefferson in Love

[Today’s post is sponsored by S.A. Stacy, RN, a dear friend, and the most insistent of those who suggest that I write “about love… and not gross macabre stuff all the time.” It took a while, but here it is, Ms Stacy, along with congratulations on your recent professional accomplishments]

For a man of unparalleled intellect and vision, Thomas Jefferson developed a knack for getting himself in sticky messes with members of the fair sex.

Yes, there was the whole Sally Hemings Affair, and the mounting evidence that he fathered children with his slave (in fairness to TJ, it could have been another male of the Jefferson clan). But that wasn’t the only time he found himself in a difficult moral situation.

Maria Cosway

Maria Cosway

When TJ served as U.S. Minister in Paris in 1786, he met one Maria Cosway, an Englishwoman who had studied extensively in Italy and had developed into an accomplished painter and musician. The recently widowed Jefferson, 43, was enraptured, and all evidence suggests that the attraction was mutual. The only problem was that Cosway, 27, was already married to someone else.

There is no proof that their relationship became physical, though there is strongly circumstantial evidence to that effect. Either way, the letters exchanged by the two were far from merely friendly notes. And TJ is recorded on more than one occasion behaving like a giddy schoolboy in Maria’s presence – once jumping over a stone wall in a fit of joy while out walking with her… and falling, breaking his right wrist in the process.

Jefferson wrote what later became known as his ‘Head and Heart’ letter to Cosway in October 1786 as she and her husband were preparing to leave for London. In it, he lamented his aching with the knowledge that he loved a woman he could not have. The dialogue reflected TJ’s struggle to balance his desires with his (and her) integrity. Even though he opted for the proper course – on paper – months later his letters to Cosway still expressed an undampened unrequited longing. For example, in late 1787, Jefferson wrote to Cosway and painted an idyllic if increasingly unlikely picture of the two of them together one day in the future. He wrote to her again in mid 1788 from Paris and expressed his affection, wishing for her presence though he knew he had no right to ask for it.

Once TJ returned to America in 1789, the ardor and frequency of his letters lessened, though his increasing responsibilities as President Washington’s Secretary of State likely played a role. Cosway, however, continued to write to him, regretting what she perceived as his growing emotional distance.

Interestingly, it wasn’t long before Cosway’s husband expired. She left England… but not for America. Instead, she went back to Italy and opened a convent school for girls.

In addition to directly corresponding, TJ continued to inquire of Cosway through mutual friends well into the 19th century. He and Cosway wrote to each other for the remainder of their lives; in one of his final letters, TJ spoke more of his scientific studies than matters of the heart, finally admitting that his love for her had been relegated to fond memories of when their relationship “had been pure” (?)

TJ died in 1826. Cosway died in 1838. After having parted in Paris in 1786, they never saw each other in person again.

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