Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson (October 19, 1748 O.S. – September 6, 1782) was Thomas Jefferson's wife. She was born at The Forest, the plantation home of her father John Wayles. Her mother, Martha Eppes Wayles (1721-1748), died just a week after her daughter was born.
Martha Wayles was married first to Bathurst Skelton on November 20, 1766. Their son, John, was born the following year, on November 7, 1767. Bathurst died on September 30, 1768. Although Thomas Jefferson may have begun courting the young widow in December 1770, while she was living again at The Forest with her young son, they did not marry until January 1, 1772, six months after the death of John on June 10, 1771.1
There are no known portraits of Martha Wayles Jefferson, and descriptions of her appearance are scant. In his Memoirs of a Monticello Slave,Isaac Granger Jefferson described Mrs. Jefferson as small and said the younger daughter, Mary, was pretty, "like her mother."2 Granddaughter Ellen Randolph Coolidge voices the family's oral history by describing her grandmother as "... a very attractive person ... a graceful, ladylike and accomplished woman."3 As to her disposition, the Marquis de Chastellux described her as a "mild and amiable wife ....,"4 and her sister's husband, Robert Skipwith, assured Jefferson that she possessed "... the greatest fund of good nature ... that sprightliness and sensibility which promises to ensure you the greatest happiness mortals are capable of enjoying."5
Martha Jefferson was apparently talented in music. A Hessian officer who visited Jefferson at Monticello in 1780 noted, "You will find in his house an elegant Harpsichord Piano forte and some Violins. The latter he performs well upon himself, the former his Lady touches very skilfully and who, is in all Respects a very agreable Sensible and Accomplished Lady."6
Over the course of her lifetime, Martha Jefferson bore seven children. Her son John, born during her first marriage, died at the age of three the summer before she married Thomas Jefferson. Of the six children born during her ten year marriage with Jefferson, only two daughters, Martha and Mary, would live to adulthood. Two daughters (Jane Randolph and Lucy Elizabeth) and an unnamed son died as infants, and her last child, also named Lucy Elizabeth, died at the age of two of whooping cough.7 Martha herself lived only four months after the birth of her last child.
Before her death in September of 1782, Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson copied the following lines from Laurence Sterne's Tristam Shandy:
Time wastes too fast: every letter I trace tells me with what rapidity life follows my pen. The days and hours of it are flying over our heads like clouds of windy day never to return– more. Every thing presses on–
One of just four documents in Martha's hand known to survive, this incomplete quotation was completed by Jefferson, transforming the passage into a poignant dialogue between husband and wife:
and every time I kiss thy hand to bid adieu, every absence which follows it, are preludes to that eternal separation which we are shortly to make!
The exact cause of Martha's death is not known; however, a letter from Jefferson to the Marquis de Chastellux would indicate that she never recovered from the birth of her last child. Lucy Elizabeth was born May 8, and Martha died the following September. In his letter, Jefferson refers to "... the state of dreadful suspence in which I had been kept all the summer and the catastrophe which closed it." 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."8 Edmund Randolph reported to James Madison in September 1782 that "Mrs. Jefferson has at last shaken off her tormenting pains by yielding to them, and has left our friend inconsolable. 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."9 Jefferson buried his wife in the graveyard at Monticello, and as a part of her epitaph added lines in Greek from Homer's The Iliad. A modern translation reads:
Nay if even in the house of Hades the dead forget their dead, yet will I even there be mindful of my dear comrade.10
Below the Greek inscription, the tombstone simply reads:
To the memory of Martha Jefferson, Daughter of John Wayles; Born October 19th, 1748, O.S. Intermarried with Thomas Jefferson January 1st, 1772; Torn from him by death September 6th, 1782: This monument of his love is inscribed.
Primary Source References
Robert Skipwith, brother-in-law. "My sister Skelton, Jefferson I wish it were, with the greatest fund of good nature has all that sprightliness and sensibility which promises to ensure you the greatest happiness mortals are capable of enjoying."11
Isaac Granger Jefferson, slave. "Mrs. Jefferson was small .... Polly low like her mother & longways the handsomest: pretty lady just like her mother."12
Philip Mazzei. "... his angelic late wife ... his angelic wife's death."13
Jacob Rubsamen. "You will find in his House an Elegant Harpsicord Piano forte 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 agreable Sensible and Accomplished Lady."14
Marquis de Chastellux. "A mild and amiable wife ...."15
Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge. "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. This little asperity however sometimes shewed itself to her children, & of course more to my mother, her oldest child, than to the others who were much younger. (Again after 'These are trifling details but they shew character' I went on to say,) It would be doing injustice to my grandmother, having spoken of her small defects, not to say that they were entirely redeemed by her good qualities. All the family traditions were greatly in her favour. She had been a favorite with her husband's sisters,—(we all know that this is a delicate & difficult relation—) with his family generally, and with her neighbours. She was a very attractive person and my grandfather was tenderly attached to her. She commanded his respect by her good sense and domestic virtues, and his admiration & love by her wit, her vivacity, and her most agreeable person and manners. She was not only an excellent housekeeper and notable mistress of a family, but a graceful, ladylike and accomplished woman, with considerable powers of conversation, some skill in music, all the habits of good society, and the art of welcoming her husband's friends to perfection. She was greatly liked by them all. She made my grandfather's home comfortable, cheerful, pleasant, just what a good man's home should be. As a girl I have amused myself in looking over some of her old papers which were in my mother's possession. Her receipt book written in a light, straight, somewhat stiff Italian hand, her book of family expences regularly kept, her manuscript music book with the words of songs all fairly copied out and free from blot and blemish. Things that told of neatness, order, good housewifery and womanly accomplishment. Her loss was the bitterest grief my grandfather ever knew, and no second wife was ever called to take her place."16
Sarah N. Randolph. "Mrs. Jefferson is said to have been a singularly beautiful woman, and a person of great intelligence and strength of character; and certainly, if the attractions of a woman can be measured by the love borne her by her husband, hers must have been great indeed, for never was a wife loved with more passionate devotion than she was by Jefferson."17
Sarah N. Randolph. "She is described as having been very beautiful. A little above middle height, with a lithe and exquisitely formed figure, she was a model of graceful and queenlike carriage. Nature, so lavish with her charms for her, to great personal attractions, added a mind of no ordinary calibre. She was well educated for her day, and a constant reader; she inherited from her father his method and industry, as the accounts, kept in her clear handwriting, and still in the hands of her descendants, testify. Her well-cultivated talent for music served to enhance her charms not a little in the eyes of such a musical devotee as Jefferson."18
Henry Randall. (From testimony of her grand-daughters). "The youngest daughter, Mrs. Skelton, left a widow when scarcely advanced beyond her girlhood, was distinguished for her beauty, her accomplishments, and her solid merit. In person, she was a little above medium height, slightly but exquisitely formed. Her complexion was brilliant—her large expressive eyes of the richest shade of hazel—her luxuriant hair of the finest tinge of auburn. She walked, rode, and danced with admirable grace and spirit—sung, and played the spinet and harpsichord (the musical instruments of the Virginia ladies of that day) with uncommon skill. The more solid parts of her education had not been neglected. She was also well read and intelligent; conversed agreeably; possessed excellent sense and a lively play of fancy; and had a frank, warm-hearted, and somewhat impulsive disposition. Last, not least, she had already proved herself a true daughter of the Old Dominion in the department of housewifery."19
- Text from Gaye Wilson, 10/10/98; references compiled by KKO, 11/21/90
5. Skipwith to Jefferson, September 20, 1771, in PTJ, 1:84. Transcription available at Founders Online.
6. A "German Officer's Letter," quoted in Jacob Rubsamen to Jefferson, December 1, 1780, in PTJ, 4:174. Transcription available at Founders Online. During courtship Jefferson had ordered a German clavichord for Martha, then changed his order to a pianoforte, "worthy the acceptance of a lady for whom I intend it."Jefferson to Thomas Adams, June 1, 1771, in PTJ, 1:71-72. Transcription available at Founders Online.
7. For vital statistics on Martha and Thomas Jefferson's children, see Thomas Jefferson's Prayer Book, published in facsimile by the Meriden Gravure Company in 1952.
8. Jefferson to Chastellux, November 26, 1782, in PTJ, 6:203-04. Transcription available at Founders Online.
9. Randolph to Madison, September 20, 1782, in The Papers of James Madison, ed. William T. Hutchinson and William M. E. Rachal (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1967), 5:150-52. Transcription available at Founders Online.
10. In the original Greek, "Εί δέ φανόντων περ καταλήφοντ ειν Αίδαο, Αύτάρ έγω κάκείθι φίλσ μεμνήσομ' έταίρσ."
11. Skipwith to Jefferson, September 20, 1771, in PTJ, 1:84. Transcription available at Founders Online.