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A widow of her first marriage, Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson was the wife of the third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson. Dying of ill health during the Revolutionary War, she did not live to see her husband become President.
When Thomas Jefferson came courting, Martha Wayles Skelton at 22 was already a widow, an heiress, and a mother whose firstborn son would die in early childhood. Family tradition says that she was accomplished and beautiful–with slender figure, hazel eyes, and auburn hair–and wooed by many. Perhaps a mutual love of music cemented the romance; Jefferson played the violin, and one of the furnishings he ordered for the home he was building at Monticello was a “forte-piano” for his bride.
They were married on New Year’s Day, 1772, at the bride’s plantation home “The Forest,” near Williamsburg. When they finally reached Monticello in a late January snowstorm to find no fire, no food, and the servants asleep, they toasted their new home with a leftover half-bottle of wine and “song and merriment and laughter.” That night, on their own mountaintop, the love of Thomas Jefferson and his bride seemed strong enough to endure any adversity.
The birth of their daughter Martha in September increased their happiness. Within ten years the family gained five more children. Of them all, only two lived to grow up: Martha, called Patsy, and Mary, called Maria or Polly.
The physical strain of frequent pregnancies weakened Martha Jefferson so gravely that her husband curtailed his political activities to stay near her. He served in Virginia’s House of Delegates and as governor, but he refused an appointment by the Continental Congress as a commissioner to France. Just after New Year’s Day, 1781, a British invasion forced Martha to flee the capital in Richmond with a baby girl a few weeks old–who died in April. In June the family barely escaped an enemy raid on Monticello. She bore another daughter the following May, and never regained a fair measure of strength. Jefferson wrote on May 20 that her condition was dangerous. After months of tending her devotedly, he noted in his account book for September 6, “My dear wife died this day at 11:45 A.M.”
Apparently he never brought himself to record their life together; in a memoir he referred to ten years “in unchequered happiness.” Half a century later his daughter Martha remembered his sorrow: “the violence of his emotion…to this day I not describe to myself.” For three weeks he had shut himself in his room, pacing back and forth until exhausted. Slowly that first anguish spent itself. In November he agreed to serve as commissioner to France, eventually taking “Patsy” with him in 1784 and send for “Polly” later.
When Jefferson became President in 1801, he had been a widower for 19 years. He had become as capable of handling social affairs as political matters. Occasionally he called on Dolley Madison for assistance. And it was Patsy–now Mrs. Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr.–who appeared as the lady of the President’s House in the winter of 1802-1803, when she spent seven weeks there. She was there again in 1805-1806, and gave birth to a son named for James Madison, the first child born in the White House. It was Martha Randolph with her family who shared Jefferson’s retirement at Monticello until he died there in 1826.
The biographies of the First Ladies on WhiteHouse.gov are from “The First Ladies of the United States of America,” by Allida Black. Copyright 2009 by the White House Historical Association.
Learn more about Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson’s spouse, Thomas Jefferson.