Thomas Jefferson’s Love Affair with Maria Cosway

Thomas Jefferson’s love affair with the Italian-English Maria Cosway began after Jefferson’s wife, Martha Wayles Skelton, died. He had married the widowed Martha in 1772 and they had several children, but weakened by childbirth, she died several months after the birth of her last child in 1782. Of the six children the couple had only two daughters, Martha (called Patsy) and Mary (called Polly in childhood) survived to adulthood.

Thomas Jefferson's love affair with Maria Cosway

Thomas Jefferson in 1791 at 49 by Charles Willson Peale. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

While his wife was alive, Jefferson had vowed to her that he would never remarry, and, apparently, after her death he decided a self-imposed period of isolation would help him recover from his grief. Friends thought a change of scenery was a better cure and Jefferson was soon sent to join John Adams and Benjamin Franklin (who was living near the Princesse de Lamballe) in Paris. He was given the position as Minister Plenipotentiary for Negotiating Treaties of Amity and Commerce and departed in July 1784. His daughter Patsy and two servants went with him and they arrived in Paris the following month. He would send for Polly some years later. Less than a year after his arrival, Jefferson, who later became president, was assigned Benjamin Franklin’s duties as Minister to France in 1785:

“Old Dr. Franklin is preparing to return to America. He has obtained his Dismission from the Service of the Congress. … Mr. Jefferson is appointed the American Minister at the Court of France.”[1]

In Paris, Jefferson soon began living an upscale lifestyle commensurate with his appointment. Patsy was enrolled at the Pentemont Abbey (considered to be one of the most prestigious educational institutions in Paris), he was presented at the French court, and he moved to a fashionable and expensive residence on the Champs Elysées, having moved from a more modest house on the rue Têtebout. Because of his charm, Jefferson soon made many friends and found himself popular and in demand.

Among those whom Thomas Jefferson became friends with was John Trumbull, an American artist who was in Paris to create portraits of French officers for his painting, the Surrender of Lord Cornwallis. Trumbull knew many European artists, among them the English miniature portrait artist Richard Cosway and his wife, Maria Louisa Catherine Cecilia Hadfield, an artist and educationalist. The couple had traveled to Paris because Richard had a commission for the Duke d’Orléans and Maria had been ill for a time and hoped to recover.

Self-portrait by Richard Cosway circa 1770. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Sometime after 2 August 1786, 43-year-old Jefferson accompanied Trumbull to the wooden domed Halle Aux Bleds where he met the Cosways. Maria had married Richard on 18 January 1781, but the marriage appears to have been a marriage of convenience. Richard was 20 years older than his wife and a well-known libertine who was consistently unfaithful to her. Thomas Jefferson’s love affair began almost immediately with Marie Cosway as some say it was love at first sight on his part and that he was completely smitten by the 26-year-old.

Thomas Jefferson's love affair with Maria Cosway

Portrait of Maria Cosway by her husband, Richard Cosway. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

When Jefferson suggested the foursome not part, Maria agreed, and although each person had another engagement, excuses were sent, and the four left Paris to dine in nearby St. Cloud. They then returned to Paris and experienced Ruggieri’s pleasure garden where they watched fireworks that probably represented to Jefferson the unexpected emotions of love bursting within his heart. The brilliant fireworks were followed up by a visit to Johann Baptist Krumpholtz, a Czech composer and harpist. Of the experience, Thomas Jefferson later wrote to Maria noting:

“You were dilating with your new acquaintances, and contriving how to prevent a separation from them. Every soul of you had an engagement for the day. Yet all these were to be sacrificed, that [we] might dine together. Lying messengers were to be dispatched into every quarter of the city with apologies for your breach of engagement. You particularly had the effrontery [to] send word to the Dutchess Danville that, in the moment we were setting out to d[ine] with her, dispatches came to hand which required immediate attention. You [wanted] me to invent a more ingenious excuse; but I knew you were getting into a scrape, and I would have nothing to do with it. Well, after dinner to St. Cloud, from St. Cloud to Ruggieri’s, from Ruggieri to Krumfoltz, and if the day had been as long as a Lapland summer day, [we] would still have contrived means, … to have filled it.”[2]

Maria’s looks may have contributed to Thomas Jefferson’s love affair with her as descriptions at the time state she was “in the bloom of youth, with a profusion of light hair dressed after the then prevailing mode … wonderful beauty in [her] large soft eyes, and the artless innocence that beams in their expression.”[3] Jefferson’s impression of her led him to tell her that she had “qualities and accomplishments, belonging to her sex, which might form a chapter apart for her: such as music, modesty, beauty, and that softness of disposition which is the ornament of her sex and charm of ours.”[4]

On 10 August, Jefferson, Trumbull, and the Cosways travelled together to the Luxembourg Palace. Although Maria intrigued Jefferson, he had promised his wife never to remarry and he probably knew that any relationship with a married woman would be scandalous. It is also likely that if he had openly pursued a relationship with her, he would never have become President of the United States. Still Maria was hard to resist.

Richard and Trumbull initially accompanied Maria and Jefferson on various outings. Nonetheless, it soon became obvious that the two men had other interests and more pressing appointments that needed their attention. They soon left Maria and Jefferson alone, and the couple quickly became constant companions for about a six-week period.

Self-portrait by John Turnbull. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Despite their age difference, Thomas Jefferson and Maria Cosway had plenty in common. Both were interested in art and architecture and there were many such treasures that could be seen in and around the city of Paris and throughout the French countryside. They therefore visited many such interesting spots, which caused Jefferson to note of these wondrous adventures:

“Paint to me the day we went to St. Germains. How beautiful was every object! the Port de Neuilly, the hills along the Seine, the rainbows of the machine of Marly, the terras of St. Germains, the chateaux, the gardens, the [statues] of Marly, the pavillon of Lucienne. Recollect too Madrid, Bagatelle, the King’s garden, the Dessert. How grand the idea excited by the remains of such a column! The spiral staircase too was beautiful. Every moment was filled with something agreeable. The wheels of time moved on with a rapidity of which those of our carriage gave but a faint idea, and yet in the evening, when one took a retrospect of the day, what a mass of happiness had we travelled over!”[5]

Those were not the only sites and exhibits that Maria and Jefferson visited:

“The “couple” took whirlwind tours of the Paris jardins (gardens comparable to a public park), including the Tuileries, and numerous other buildings and sites, such as the Louvre, Les Invalildes, Val de Grâce, and the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Of particular interest was the palace of King Louis XV. On one quadrant was the Hôtel de la Marine that had a facade that Jefferson later recommended to Pierre L’Enfant for Washington, D.C., possibly for the president’s house. On a tour of the left Bank, they visited the Church of Sainte Geneviève, known to the contemporary visitors as the Panthéon. Nearby, they found an eclectic array of enjoyments including bookstores … Close by the Pont St.-Michel, a bridge across the Seine, was the bookseller Barrois who published Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia that same year. Jefferson later presented Maria with a copy. On the left, Jefferson also visited the French Royal Mint to have some commemorative coins struck.”[6]

During Thomas Jefferson’s love affair with Maria, he acted like a lovesick schoolboy and on 18 September in an unguarded moment, perhaps hoping to impress her, he unexpectedly and uncharacteristically jumped over a fence. It could not have been more stupid as he dislocated his right wrist at the “petit cours,” which was the Cours la Reine, a promenade that extended along the Seine westward from the Place de la Concorde. The injury happened because his foot caught on the fence, and he fell face first towards the ground. To protect himself he threw his hand out to stop his fall and that is when his wrist was dislocated. Undoubtedly embarrassed by his unorthodox behavior, he pretended nothing was wrong, but the pain intensified as the day wore on.

Thomas Jefferson's love affair with Maria Cosway

Self-portrait by Maria Cosway in 1781, age twenty-one. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The local doctor who repaired the injury was a man whom Jefferson would thereafter refer to as an “ignoramus” for setting his wrist incorrectly. Of the painful injury he would later state to Maria:

“I have passed the night in so much pain that I have not closed my eyes. It is with infinite regret therefore that I must relinquish your charming company for that of the Surgeon whom I have sent for to examine into the cause of this change. I am in hopes it is only the having rattled a little too freely over the pavement yesterday.”[7]

At her husband insistence, the Cosways left Paris on 12 October 1786, and Thomas Jefferson’s love affair essentially ended with her departure. He wrote her a remarkably emotional letter with his left hand as his right wrist was still healing and this letter is considered by many people to be one of the most famous love letters of all time. Now known as “A Dialogue between the Head and Heart,” it reveals how much Jefferson struggled against his yearning for Maria and his desire to maintain his integrity. It begins:

“Having performed the last sad office of handing you into your carriage at the Pavillon de St. Denis, and seen the wheels get actually into motion, I turned on my heel and walked, more dead than alive, to the opposite door, where my own was awaiting me. Mr. Danquerville was missing. He was sought for, found, and dragged down stairs. [We] were crammed into the carriage, like recruits for the Bastille, and not having [sou]l enough to give orders to the coachman, he presumed Paris our destination, [and] drove off. After a considerable interval, silence was broke with a ‘je suis vraiment affligé du depart de ces bons gens.’ This was the signal for a mutual confession [of dist]ress. We began immediately to talk of Mr. and Mrs. Cosway, of their goodness, their [talents], their amability, and tho we spoke of nothing else, we seemed hardly to have entered into matter when the coachman announced the rue St. Denis, and that we were opposite Mr. Danquerville’s. He insisted on descending there and traversing a short passage to his lodgings. I was carried home. Seated by my fire side, solitary and sad. … I am indeed the most wretched of all earthly beings. Overwhelmed with grief, every fibre of my frame distended beyond it’s natural powers to bear, I would willingly meet whatever catastrophe should leave me no more to feel or to fear.”[8]

The following day Jefferson sent Maria another letter that in part stated:

“To show how much I think of you I send you the enclosed letter of three sheets of paper, being a history of the evening I part with you. … I will even allow you twelve days to get through it, holding you rigorously to one condition only, that is, that at whatever hour your receive this, you do not break the seal of the encolsed till the next toilette … I send you the song I promised.”[9]

The promised song Jefferson mentioned was “Happy Days” (Jours heureux), an aria that Maria and Jefferson likely heard when they attended the opera two days before her departure. A few weeks later he was still thinking of her when on 24 December 1786 he wrote:

“I am determined not to suppose I am never to see you again. I will believe you intend to go to America, … that I shall meet you there … I had rather be deceived, than live without hope. It is so sweet! It makes us ride so smoothly over the roughnesses of life. When clambering a mountain, we always hope the hill we are on is the last. But it is the next, and the next, and still the next. Think of me much, and warmly. Place me in your breast with those who you love most: and comfort me with your letters. Addio la mia cara ed amabile amica!”[10]

Unfortunately, Jefferson saw Maria only one other time and nothing came of it. It happened the following year in Paris after Jefferson had sent for his 9-year-old daughter Polly, who arrived accompanied by a young slave from Monticello, Sally Hemmings. However, Maria and Jefferson did exchange letters sporadically until 1822. In his letters you could still see that Thomas Jefferson’s love affair with her was still on his mind. He made several requests that she join him at Monticello but that never happened. Perhaps hoping to renew his romantic relationship with Maria, he helped her younger brother, the architect George Hadfield, be hired when Washington, D.C. was being planned. Hadfield then designed numerous buildings in and around Washington between 1798 and 1826.

One letter that perhaps best sums up Thomas Jefferson’s love affair for Maria was dated 26 September 1788. At the time he was making plans to return to the U.S. and his disappointment that they would not be together could hardly be contained:

“I am going to America, and you to Italy. The one or the other of us goes the wrong way, for the way will ever be wrong which leads us farther apart. Mine is a journey of duty and of affection. I must deposit my daughters in the bosom of their friends and country. This done, I shall return to my station. … But why go to Italy? You have seen it, all the world has seen it, and ransacked it thousands of times. … Adieu ma tres chere et excellente amie.”[11]

Thomas Jefferson by John Turnbull in 1788. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Although Maria never seemed to reciprocate Jefferson’s strong feelings or outwardly declare her love for him, she always thought of him tenderly. After her husband died on 4 July 1821, she returned to Italy where she devoted the remainder of her life to a Lodi school she founded for the education of girls. She also kept a portrait of Thomas Jefferson next to her bedside until the day she died in 1838. This portrait was later donated to Monticello, where it is now displayed along with Jefferson’s miniature of her.

Thomas Jefferson at age 78. Portrait by Thomas Sully. Courtesy of Wikipedia.


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