Years after her death, Thomas Jefferson described his marriage to his wife, Martha, as ten years spent "in unchequered happiness." And while the historical evidence draws a portrait of strong mutual affection, Martha Jefferson's life had its share of tribulation and tragedy.

In this episode of "In the Course of Human Events," we look at Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson, a woman long viewed almost entirely through the lens of her husband, who was in reality a remarkable person in her own right.


Alison Kiernan: The other thing that's interesting is that Thomas Jefferson and his wife are third cousins as was not uncommon in Virginia at this time.

Emilie Johnson: That's like miles away in this period in Virginia. That's nothing.

Emilie Johnson: My name is Emilie Johnson. I'm the Curator of Arts and History.

Diane Ehrenpreis: Diane Ehrenpreis, Curator of Decorative Arts and Historic Interiors.

Katy Gehred: I'm Kathryn Gehred. I am the host of the podcast, Your Most Obedient and Humble Servant, a women's history podcast.

Alison Kiernan: My name is Alison Kiernan. I'm a Digital Hybrid Guide at Monticello. Welcome to In the Course of Human Events, a Monticello podcast. Today we're going to talk about Thomas Jefferson's wife, Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson.

Martha Jefferson is a bit of a mysterious figure. Very few documents in her handwriting survive, many of our descriptions of her come from second or third hand sources, and if a portrait of her was ever painted, it hasn't come to light. In his old age, Thomas Jefferson remembered his marriage to Martha Jefferson as, quote, "ten years in unchequered happiness." But looking at the details of her life, it's a little more complicated than that.

Let’s start with a quick overview. Martha Wayles was born in Virginia in October 1748. She was married Thomas Jefferson in 1772, when she was 23 years old and he was 28. They had six children together, but four of those children died at very young ages. After ten years of marriage, Martha too would pass away at age 33.And that's where we're actually going to start—her deathbed.

Martha Jefferson's Death

Katy Gehred: I used to be a tour guide at Monticello, and one of the ways to get an emotional response out of your tour group is to bring up Thomas Jefferson's relationship with his wife, Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson, and how he responded to her death,

because it is one of the moments where Thomas Jefferson is very raw and vulnerable.

One of the longest descriptions we have of the death comes from Martha Jefferson Randolph, her daughter. And when she described her father, she said, "As a nurse, no female ever had more tenderness or anxiety. He nursed my poor mother in turn with Aunt Carr and her own sister sitting up with her and administering her medicines and drink to the last." They said he was never out of her calling.

Alison Kiernan: Shortly before Martha Jefferson passed away, she and Thomas Jefferson must have been sitting near each other and they copied lines from a book, called Tristram Shandy, or The Life and Opinion of Tristram Shandy by Lawrence Stern. And this one fragment of paper survives. It actually begins with Martha Jefferson. She chooses to pull from this book, quote, "Time wastes too fast. Every letter I trace tells me with what rapidity life follows my pen. They're flying over us like clouds of a windy day, never to return, more everything presses on." And then, Thomas Jefferson picks up his own pen and completes the verse and he says, "And every time I kiss thy hand to bid thee adieu, they are preludes to the eternal separation that we are shortly to make. May God have mercy on us both."

This piece of paper, according to their great-granddaughter, was discovered after Thomas Jefferson's death. She said, quote, "in the most secret compartment of a desk." And it had been folded and unfolded so many times.

Diane Ehrenpreis: I personally believe that note was probably kept in the chest of drawers that you'll see in Jefferson's room today. The family always thought of it as Mrs. Jefferson's bureau. And that might be where the family found the Tristram Shandy love note, which is such a poignant passage of a love story and its ultimate sad ending. I think it also had her hair in it.

Alison Kiernan: Yes. And it was described as being a luxurious tinge of auburn.

Diane Ehrenpreis: Speaking of Martha Jefferson's glorious auburn hair, we have a watch key that we've recently brought back home. You can see her hair, plaited, under crystal on one side, and it has her name and life and death dates on the verso. And this is a treasure that we show in Jefferson's bed chamber. And of course, a watch key is something that he would've used every day. So it's interesting to think about the watch key as well as this intimate note, the most personal things that Jefferson kept about his wife.

Alison Kiernan: To think that with the first line of that note, it says, "Time wastes too fast." Jefferson writes shortly after the death of his wife and he said, the sun of his life had “already passed its meridian." Everything good in his life was over, right? He said, “but there was one pleasing expectation," which is this idea that maybe they would meet again in the future. I'm being romantic, but maybe every time he winds his watch, he's getting closer to her.

Diane Ehrenpreis: He's certainly thinking of her. And of course you wear it on your chain. So it's right next to him every day.

Katy Gehred: He seems like he was absolutely depressed after Martha's death, didn't leave the house for three weeks. And even Edmund Randolph, a friend, wrote, " I ever thought him to rank domestic happiness in the first class of the chief good, but I scarcely supposed that his grief would be so violent as to justify the circulating report of his swooning away whenever he sees his children."

After Martha passed away, Thomas Jefferson burned their correspondence. What was saved in the family was a housekeeping notebook and a few other household related documents. It wasn't uncommon at this time period for people to burn correspondence. It also happened to the writings between Martha Washington and George Washington. And it's a way to control the memories of a person, particularly people who are in a position like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, where they know that these papers are going to be pored over by people in the future. And for a relationship that was so personal, a lot of times people saw that as this is not to be shared with the public and that this is something that we'll keep private by destroying it.

Alison Kiernan: It's pretty clear that Martha and Thomas Jefferson had real affection for each other. Jefferson was devastated by her death, but Martha is almost silent in these stories. Who was this woman who inspired her husband to swoon away in grief?

Martha Jefferson Backstory

Katy Gehred: Martha Wayles was born in October of 1748 at The Forest, her father's plantation in Charles City County, Virginia. Her father, John Wayles, wasn't part of the Virginia elite in the way that Thomas Jefferson was. It seems as though he was a little bit more of a self-made man. He was a lawyer and a debt collector. He was going around to the richest families in Virginia and asking them to pay their debts on the part of the mercantile companies in England, but through this, he makes enough money that he has a plantation.

Jefferson said, he was "a lawyer of much practice to which he was introduced more by his great industry, punctuality, and practical readiness than to eminence in the science of his profession." So that's almost a little dig at John Wayles, actually. But also he said he was, "a most agreeable companion full of pleasantry and good humor and welcomed in every society."

 Martha's mother is Martha Eppes.

Diane Ehrenpreis: Who is gentry . . .

Katy Gehred: She is. Marrying John Wayles, she is possibly a little concerned that he's not part of this gentry. And so she has it written in their marriage agreement that if he passes away, she keeps everything that she brings to that marriage and that goes to her daughters as well.

Diane Ehrenpreis: The Eppes family were very well established along the Tidewater and they were concerned about their daughter. It was the men in the Eppes family who said, "All right, but this is the way this is going to go down. We're going to protect you." And she didn't live very long.

Katy Gehred: Yes. Martha's mother passes away, tragically, very shortly after Martha's born. And then her father ends up marrying three times. So Martha, in her youth, has multiple stepmothers and half-siblings, but she is still promised, as the oldest daughter, this property and inheritance that she's going to get no matter what.

After the death of his third wife, John Wayles didn't remarry, but he did continue to have children. He had six children with a woman he enslaved, Elizabeth Hemings. It was one of those things that everybody would probably know about but not talk about and certainly not leave written accounts of. So it seems as though Martha would know that these were her half siblings. And Elizabeth Hemings was a caretaker for her, probably longer than any of her stepmothers, but what was that relationship like? We just simply don't know.

Martha's first marriage is to Bathurst Skelton, who was the youngest brother of her stepmother's first husband, Ruben Skelton. And so he's technically her step uncle. So it's one of those Virginia family ties. How old was she when they married?

Alison Kiernan: 17, 18.

Emilie Johnson: Even for this period, she's pretty young.

Katy Gehred: Yeah. So they marry and they settle. They get their own plantation, Elk Hill Plantation in Goochland County.

Alison Kiernan: They had a son named John. But less than two years after their marraige, Bathurst Skelton died suddenly. We're not sure how but it seems like it may have been in an accident. So Martha Wayles Skelton became a widow just before her 20th birthday.

Alison Kiernan: And one of the interesting things, if you read the Will of Bathurst Skelton, there's an addendum and it says, his wife Martha has the full use of his horses and Phaeton. This is highly unusual for a young woman to have almost like her own car at 18 years old. So she's able to drive herself wherever she would like. She could go into Williamsburg, she could go to the shops.

Emilie Johnson: Skelton was very young when he died. Is it curious for somebody to have a will that young?

Diane Ehrenpreis: When I read that will I got the sense that he knew he was dying.

Alison Kiernan: Yes.

Emilie Johnson: Something happened. . .

Diane Ehrenpreis: You're about to meet your maker. You should make a will. And Martha said, don't forget the phaeton.

Katy Gehred: That's what it sounds like to me.

Martha Skelton Meets Thomas Jefferson

 Katy Gehred:

We know that Jefferson took on John Wayles as a legal client in 1768 before Bathurst died. So some people have suggested that maybe he met Martha while she was still married to Bathurst.

Alison Kiernan: The first time that he actually brings up a documented visit to The Forest is on October 6th, 1770. And it seems that he stopped there because he needed the work of a blacksmith. Maybe his horse has cast a shoe. I like to think that maybe while he's waiting, he would've been invited inside, and maybe he would've encountered the daughters of John Wayles. We don't know.

Katy Gehred: The courtship—she was a musical person and Jefferson was a musical person. And one of the famous stories has it that her two other suitors showed up at the same time to try to pay a visit to the widow Skelton, and they walked in, heard her playing music with Thomas Jefferson, just looked at each other, put their hats back on and went back outside.

 We do have letters where Jefferson is writing about buying a clavichord. He says he wants " the workmanship of the whole to be very handsome and worthy of the acceptance of a lady for whom I intend it." And so he's purchasing her gifts and he's also clearly referencing the fact that they both appreciate music.

Alison Kiernan: Jefferson writes to one of Martha's sisters about his love for Martha and he said, "In every scheme of happiness, she is placed at the foreground of the picture. Take that away and there's no picture for me."

She was described as being of "lithe, exquisite figure." She walked, rode, and danced with admirable grace and uncommon skill.” And then they said that her eyes were hazel. She had a “graceful queen-like carriage.” So she described as being a beautiful woman.

Katy Gehred: When Thomas Jefferson is courting her, she has a son. And she's going to get married and start over again. And then as they're planning the wedding, her son dies, and they have to postpone the wedding for her to grieve.

Emilie Johnson: Jefferson and Martha Skelton marry on January 1st, 1772. So that gave about six months for her to grieve. They get married at The Forest. And when they traveled up to Monticello, the story is, and again this is published much later on in the 1850s, but there's three feet of snow on the ground. It's still dark outside and they're on horseback. Martha Jefferson, who's been down in the most populated part of Virginia, she's riding through this landscape that is devoid of any discernible landmarks. There are very few buildings, there are very few people living out here, and she's confronted by an 18x18 foot brick structure standing alone on a hilltop, probably with some other wooden buildings around, but it's a construction site. Surprise honey, we're home!

Katy Gehred: Her father was well to do. She grew up in a nice plantation. She already had her own plantation that she was planning on living in with Bathurst. She knows the best of the best. And then she moves into a one-room brick house. And the family legend has it that, “Oh, she just took it on the chin and they opened up a bottle of port or something and they had a great time.” And maybe that's true, but maybe that's something that was exaggerated in later years.

Diane Ehrenpreis: I'm sure he was explaining and gesturing and pointing of what was to come.

I looked at Jefferson's memorandum book and they went all that way and they only stayed about a week or 10 days. I can see Martha saying, “All right, I've seen it. We're going back to my father's home, or we're going to go and stay with my sister.” And that's essentially what happened. They were often traveling.

One other thing I noticed, which struck me as very meaningful, is that they came back in the height of summer for the birth of their first child. Martha Jefferson Randolph was born in this two-story brick building.

Katy Gehred: So, their daughter Martha Jefferson was born on September 27th, 1772, almost exactly nine months from when they got married.

Alison Kiernan: If you look up the Washington-Jefferson snowstorm, it's exactly nine months before that.

Martha Jefferson as Mother and Plantation Manager

Alison Kiernan: All joking aside, think about Martha Jefferson, now almost 24 years old, giving birth in a one-room house on a mountaintop in the middle of nowhere. Who was there to help her? This is where we start to glimpse the connections between Martha Jefferson and the enslaved women at Monticello.

Emilie Johnson: Someone who's really important is Ursula Granger, who's a pastry cook and somebody that Martha knew from her life in the Tidewater. Martha asks Thomas Jefferson to purchase Ursula. And then, I can only imagine that Ursula Granger says, “You also need to buy my husband and my son” because Jefferson does. And in so doing, Ursula Granger affects the reuniting of her family under this new owner, even though it entails a move away from their existing family structures and their kinship networks.

But it's Ursula Granger who's called upon as a wet nurse because Martha Jefferson, it seems like maybe her pregnancies were difficult. She was having trouble with milk. And so, Ursula Granger, who also had a child at that time, was called upon to help feed Martha Jefferson, who would become Martha Jefferson Randolph.

Katy Gehred: I pulled up the quote because that also struck me that she really wants Jefferson to purchase Ursula Granger. And Jefferson says, "Mrs. Jefferson was very desirous to get a favorite house woman of the name of Ursula. I attended the sale, therefore, and purchased her and two young boys, her sons. Merriweather Skelton, who attended the sale and purchased largely, run me up to 210 pounds, an exorbitant price, as the woman was old and the boys infants." 

I like pulling these direct quotes when we talk about the way Thomas Jefferson talks about slaves because it is so fiscal and dehumanizing. But I think it does say a lot that she was like, "No, we need Ursula at the house and you will pay 210 pounds to get Ursula here."

Emilie Johnson: There's a lot of men at Monticello at this point because it's under construction. It's full of workmen, both hired and enslaved. But it's also a woman's world of people like Ursula Granger. So Martha Jefferson is coming into this landscape of enslaved women, and her daughter is being born also into this landscape of enslaved women and these connections will last throughout all of these women's lifetimes.

Alison Kiernan: One year later, in 1773, Martha's father John Wayles passed away and the Jeffersons inherited 11,000 acres of land and 135 enslaved men, women, and children. This is roughly when members of the Hemings family began to come to Monticello en masse, including Elizbeth Hemings and some of her children. Martha Jefferson’s father, John Wayles, had fathered six of these children: Robert, James, Thenia, Critta, Peter, and Sally Hemings. These were Martha Jefferson’s half-siblings.

In 1774, Martha gave birth to a daughter named Jane, who would die at the age of one. In 1777, three years after that, she had an unnamed son who lived only two weeks. In 1778, she gave birth to Mary, who the family called Polly and later Maria, who would go on to live into adulthood.

Meanwhile, during these same years, Thomas Jefferson attended the Continental Congress, drafted the Declaration of Independence, and was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates. He was often away from Monticello leaving Martha Jefferson to manage the plantation and care for their family.

Diane Ehrenpreis: The other important document that you can mine over and over again is this account book of Martha's. She has lists of all of Thomas Jefferson's wardrobe in one given year.

Emilie Johnson: We have his clothes, we have her clothes, we have their daughter's clothes.

Diane Ehrenpreis: How many sheets they had. . .

Emilie Johnson: How many geese they ate. How many gallons of beer she brewed eight months pregnant. . .

Katy Gehred: One of my favorite sources about Martha Wayles.Skelton Jefferson is the Life of Isaac Jefferson of Petersburg, Virginia. That's Ursula's son Isaac, talking about Martha, saying that she would come out with a cookery book in her hand and read out of it to Isaac's mother how to make cakes, tarts and so on. And I think that is an interesting description that shows what the plantation mistress role was, which is she is managing the household. But a lot of it is telling other people what to do on her behalf.

Emilie Johnson: Martha Jefferson is sitting in the kitchen telling these enslaved women who've been cooking since they were children and are incredibly highly trained and have cooked under any number of circumstances and situations and environmental challenges. But yet, it's the plantation manager who is sitting, again, sitting telling people what to do. Plantation management—it's a way to quantify a woman's value in how good of a manager she is. And I feel like, in the family, Martha Jefferson gets held up as being a good manager.

Katy Gehred: There's so few descriptions of people's personalities and women of this time period, you only get the vaguest descriptions. So, it is exciting that we do have a quote about her from Ellen, who is Jefferson's granddaughter, but she must have gotten it from her mother, which she says, "My grandmother Jefferson had a vivacity of temper, which might sometimes border on tartness, but which in her intercourse with her husband was completely subdued by her exceeding affection for him." She did say, "This little asperity, however, sometimes showed itself to her children, and of course more to my mother, her oldest child, than to the others who were much younger." So it seems like there is a little bit of friction between Martha Jefferson Randolph and her mother, Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson, but even Ellen immediately backpedals after writing this and says, but of course she was wonderful and perfect and an angel.

Diane Ehrenpreis: It makes me reflect on the times when my husband has gone away for a long time. Jefferson, as the political scene heats up and he's off in Philadelphia for weeks at a time, Martha Jefferson has a lot of responsibility and a lot of worries and that's often when mothers feel stressed and are not their perfect selves. And I could imagine what that might've been like in that scenario, where you're not so patient or you need your children to do what you ask them to do. 

Emilie Johnson: I believe there's a letter from 1776, when Jefferson is up in Philadelphia and they want him to stay on longer, but Martha Jefferson is not very well at the time. And he decides to return to Virginia rather than staying in Philadelphia.

Katy Gehred: I've got a quote from a letter on July 29th, so the famous July of 1776. Later in that month, he writes to Richard Henry Lee, "For God's sake, for your country's sake, and for my sake, come. I receive by every post such accounts of the state of Mrs. Jefferson's health, that it will be impossible for me to disappoint her expectation of seeing me at the time I have promised." He's like, “I've got to get back immediately.” And he uses such dramatic language.

It does seem as though there's a period of that time where they're married at Monticello as things are being built where she's just pregnant and losing pregnancies and losing children for years, which if you just see it all lined up, it does look absolutely brutal.

Emilie Johnson: We believe that Thomas and Martha Jefferson could have moved into the house probably around 1775. So this is almost three years in the quote unquote “honeymoon cottage,” the 18x18 foot space. And then when they move into Monticello I, the original eight room structure, it's unfinished. As late as the 1790s, there's a description of the walls being unplastered. So basically a construction site that she never saw finished in any real way, shape, or form. It adds to the sense of this life, the adventurous parts of it but also the really challenging parts and the things that might raise your blood pressure and cause you to be a little snippy at times, as you're going around, probably, a drafty, unfinished place.

Katy Gehred: Unchequered happiness.

Diane Ehrenpreis: Unchequered happiness.

The American Revolution

Alison Kiernan: Next on the Jeffersons’ happy adventure was the American Revolution, fought from 1775 to 1781. During the later years of the war, from 1779 to 1781, Thomas Jefferson served as Governor of Virginia and the Jeffersons were living in the capital city of Richmond. It was during this time that Martha Jefferson became involved in a campaign to raise money for the war effort.

Diane Ehrenpreis: The Continental Army was always underfunded. They didn't have enough food, clothing pay. And up in Philadelphia, there's a campaign that's started by upper class women who are spouses of politically active people. And a woman named Esther Reed writes a lengthy broadside called the "Sentiments of American Women." It's a rousing call to battle for women, what women can do on the home front. And their goal is to raise money.

Martha Washington, wife of General Washington, asked Mrs. Jefferson, as First Lady of Virginia, Jefferson's governor at this point, to launch this campaign. And four letters that she wrote in regards to this lady's campaign survive, all on the same date. I think it's August 8th, 1780. She's about six months pregnant. It's got to be hot and steamy there and she's at the writing table taking care of this assignment.

Emilie Johnson: How did the Broadsides work?

Diane Ehrenpreis: These broadsides, clearly Martha Washington must have included a sheaf of them to Mrs. Jefferson in Richmond. And then in these letters, I don't know how many she sent to each recipient, but the instructions are there will be sermons preached on a specific Sunday, we would like you to bring your donations. And then also instructions like, don't give us your small change roundup. So make the math easy, which I personally appreciate. And then there would be one woman, called the treasuress, in each area, and the treasuress would collect this money. And that's how the campaign was to work.

And so off these letters go. And funds start to come in. Women are really giving of themselves personally. They're sending their wedding rings, diamond earrings. And it was successful. For example, this bundle of species and guineas and pisterines that came from Alexandria, the total was $75,812. And what I love about this letter that I found is that this treasuress from Alexandria, she's very specific that Mrs. Jefferson is to receive this money. This was not to go to Governor Jefferson. This was to go to Mrs. Jefferson in Richmond.

So during the war, Martha Jefferson's experience was one of action. She was a leader. And we have evidence that's really opening a door to the whole story of women's history during the revolution, at least for elite women.

Emilie Johnson: It's a story about these female connections, friendships, and relationships. Cousins and sisters and so all of these women are taking this network and activating it.

Alison Kiernan: A few months after she sent these fundraising letters, in November of 1780, Martha Jefferson gave birth to a daughter named Lucy Elizabeth. In December of that year, the British would invade Virginia and it became a war zone. Baby Lucy died in the Spring of 1781. Then in June, Martha would faced what must have been one of the most frightening moments of her life, with her two young daughters, Martha, age 9 and Mary, age 3.

Emilie Johnson: The war really starts to heat up in Virginia. Richmond has become a dangerous place and the government decides to leave Richmond. While armies are moving around this landscape, Jefferson and Mrs. Jefferson and their children and probably a small group of enslaved people come back to Monticello. This is the spring of 1781.

And then there's the famous story of Jack Jouett, who hears that the British are planning a raid to capture Jefferson, the sitting governor of Virginia. Jouett then rides over towards Monticello to warn Jefferson. Jefferson gets word. And with the help of many people in the enslaved community, probably members of the Hemings family, probably members of the Granger family, they pack Martha Jefferson and the children into a wagon and they flee Monticello.

Jefferson rides off. And according to some of the stories, about 10 minutes later, British armies under Colonel Tarleton arrive at Monticello, and they're looking for Jefferson, but they're also looking for silver.

And the story is that the British meet Martin Hemings, and Martin Hemings is described as having a very powerful personality, somewhat intimidating. And the British soldier asked Martin Hemings where the silver is. And Martin Hemings basically says, “You're not going to find it.” And the British soldier, according to the story, takes out a gun and points it at Martin Hemings and says, “Tell me where it is.” And Martin Hemings says, "Do your worst." The British do not find the family silver, which members of the enslaved community had collected and, according to the stories, had hid under a porch.

But of course, what's also happening is that Martha Jefferson is in a carriage with very young children running from the British who are actively trying to imprison her husband. They're separated. She doesn't know when or if she'll see him again. She doesn't know when or if she will escape. The fear that must have been experienced in these hours and days while you are running away from an invading army, it's remarkable to think about and it's really the one time where the war touches us here at Monticello.

They traveled down to Poplar Forest, which was just remote enough to keep them safe. This is all happening in June of 1781. And so this group of British soldiers decide to stop chasing Thomas Jefferson and get down to some business in the rest of Virginia, which culminates in the battle at Yorktown, in October of 1781. And of course that's the final major battle of the war.

Deathbed Promise

Alison Kiernan: The Jeffersons were back at Monticello in May of 1782, when Martha Jefferson gave birth to a daughter that would again be named Lucy Elizabeth. This child would live only to the age of two before dying from the whooping cough. Martha Jefferson herself, however, was struggling, it appears, to recover from the birth of this child. She died on September 6, 1782.

Now let's return to that deathbed scene where we started.

Emilie Johnson: The other fascinating reference to Martha Jefferson's death is actually from Edmund Bacon. Edmund Bacon was an overseer at Monticello from about 1806 until 1822. He has his recollections of Monticello published in about 1862. He's getting his information from his wife, who's getting her information from members of the enslaved community.

He describes that Betty Brown, Sally Hemings, Critta Hemings, Elizabeth Hemings, Nance Hemings, and Ursula Granger, all enslaved women, were present with Martha Jefferson at her deathbed and that they told his wife about their experiences.

He says that she's giving Jefferson lots of instructions, which from what we know about her personality, that kind of tracks. But he says when she came to the children, "She wept and could not speak for some time.” Finally, told him she could not die happy if she thought her children “were ever to have a stepmother brought in over them."

Now, from what we can tell, she had pretty good experiences with stepmothers. But again, thinking about property, especially because she had girls. Gendered property ownership is something to be deeply thought about in the 18th century. If Thomas Jefferson had remarried and had a son who survived, then his daughters, who become Martha Jefferson Randolph and Maria Jefferson Eppes, would have had very little claim to Jefferson's property. They would've had whatever was designated for them as, perhaps, a dowry or a marriage portion. But they would not have had assets in their own name. And she felt like she had to protect her daughter's interests going into the future in the way that her interests had been protected.

Katy Gehred: And then the other women who are in this room are, in a lot of cases, members of the Hemings family, enslaved women. And so to get a promise from Jefferson that he will never have a stepmother for the children, that has serious implications for their lives as well, which I think would come immediately to mind to Elizabeth Hemings because after Martha stops having stepmothers is when Elizabeth Hemings starts having children with John Wayles. It seems as though by making a promise to never remarry, the first thing they would think is that he's going to start having children with enslaved women. That's going to be the first thing that comes to mind for them in that situation.

Emilie Johnson: Absolutely. This idea of things happening again and again over generations is another very powerful aspect of this story.

Alison Kiernan: Enslaved women had no legal right to their bodies. Sally Hemings bore children fathered by her owner, like her mother and countless other enslaved women. By law, children born to enslaved women would inherit their mothers’ status as being enslaved, regardless of who their father was or their complexion.

You can read more about Sally Hemings, her family, and her remarkable life and legacy at our website.

8.                      Conclusion

Emilie Johnson: In his autobiography, it's a partial autobiography, which was written in 1821. So we are almost 40 years from her death when Jefferson is writing this, he calls their marriage, "ten years of uncheckered happiness." I'm never going to say it was a smooth 10 years. I'm never going to say it was an easy 10 years. But I do think that Jefferson was very happy with his choice of a wife. And I can only hope that Martha Jefferson, despite the challenges and the fears and the struggles that she withstood, also felt some of that joy.

Katy Gehred: It's a shame that she died so young that she didn't get to see the new United States, but her brief life was also very significant and interesting. If you really dig in and you take the history seriously, there are sources you can use. There are things like writing desks and housekeeping notebooks that you can use to flesh out the story and it really expands our understanding of history.

Alison Kiernan: Something that we can think about is we know that Thomas Jefferson, after his wife died, designs her gravestone. Years of grave hunters, curiosity seekers in the 19th century would chip off pieces of Jefferson's grave but also the graves of his family members.

Diane Ehrenpreis: In 1839, a visitor account published in the newspaper discusses the stone. And it was what they call a table stone. So it was a big flat stone. And he says it was right next to the obelisk. And then he says on the neighboring obelisk are the two daughters.

Emilie Johnson: And didn't he say that it was in really bad condition?

Diane Ehrenpreis: At this point, Martha Jefferson's stone was still there, but it was broken.

Alison Kiernan: And I believe it was the 1920s when the current obelisk that we have today in the Jefferson graveyard was reinstalled. It’s interesting that they didn’t choose to renew the graves of the wife and the daughters. And so I think one of the things about women's history, it's who gets remembered and what context do they get remembered? We often think of the wives of presidents as a way to understand the man they were married to, but she was obviously, as we discussed today, remarkable in her own right and deserves her place in the historical record.

Emilie Johnson: It's been a fabulous conversation. I want to thank everybody who gathered for this conversation and we want to thank you for listening. It's always a pleasure to bring you along with us as we talk about our research and we talk about the fascinating people who lived at Monticello and who continue to touch us and shape us today.

Katy Gehred: Thank you so much for having me. It's been so fun to talk to you.

Alison Kiernan: This has been great. It's been thrilling.

Diane Ehrenpreis: As always, I have an epiphany when I speak with this group and thank you so much for being included. I always enjoy it.

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Co-hosted by Diane Ehrenpreis, Katy Gehred, Emilie Johnson, and Alison Kiernan

Direction and editing by Joan Horn

Sound design by Dennis Hysom

Production by Chad Wollerton and Joan Horn

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