Martha Jefferson: The Third First Lady
Introduction and Brief Life Sketch
Born to John and Martha Wayles October 19, 1748, on a plantation called “The Forest” in Charles City County, Virginia, Martha Jefferson married Bathurst Skelton when she was only eighteen but became widowed only two years later. She married Thomas Jefferson, with whom she produced seven children; only two lived to adulthood.
Martha Wayles Skeleton married Thomas Jefferson on January 1, 1771. At the time, Jefferson was a lawyer and member of the House of Burgesses from Albermarle County. The couple honeymooned at Monticello, the property that would later become widely known as the third president’s estate.
After marriage to Jefferson, Martha spent her time directing life at Monticello, proving to be a valuable partner to her husband in running the plantation. She administered the gardens and kitchens, harvesting and preparation of foods; she oversaw the feeding and clothing of each family member. In addition to caring for the family, Martha was in charge of caring for the well-being of the slaves and directing their labor.
Entertained with Poetry and Music
A mutual love of music likely brought Martha and Thomas together. Thomas was an accomplished violinist, and it is reported that the first piece of furniture he ordered for their home at Monticello was a piano, which the president purchased for his wife, who played piano and harpsichord.
Although Martha experienced health related issues throughout her lifetime, when she was well enough, she entertained enthusiastically, and her beauty and grace were noted and appreciated by guests. Both Jefferson and Martha entertained their many guests with poetry reading and playing musical duets together; he played violin, as Martha accompanied him on piano.
Martha Jefferson Randolph
Mary Jefferson Eppes
Daughters Served as in the Role of First Lady
The Jeffersons’ daughters, Martha and Mary, served in their mother's place the function of First Lady for their father, and Dolley Madison also served as hostess for Jefferson at the White House. Jefferson never remarried. According to legend, it was Martha’s last wish that he not marry after her death.
Mrs. Jefferson’s mother had died only two weeks after Martha was born. Likely educated at home as most girls were at that time, Martha probably studied literature and the Bible, taught by traveling tutors. She became skillful at playing piano and harpsichord. She also achieved proficiency in sewing and medicine preparations.
Martha, no doubt, served as hostess on her father’s plantation, of which she was capable of daily management, including procurement of household necessities. She also helped her father in accounting of the crop business. Thus, Martha's education was achieved through practical experience instead of mere book-learning.
Weakening Health and Death of Martha
As Jefferson served in the House of Burgesses, Martha traveled with him to Williamsburg and took part in that city’s social life. She remained at Monticello while he served as delegate to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1776, but as he served as Virginia’s governor from 1779-1781, she moved to Richmond to be with him. As the governor’s wife, Martha served admirably. At the request of Martha Washington, Mrs. Jefferson headed a large group of prominent women, who served as volunteers raising funds for the Continental Army.
Mrs. Jefferson moved to their Bedford County home “Poplar Forest” during the British attacks under Lord Cornwallis in 1781. Her young daughter Lucy died during this time, and Martha’s health was weakening.
Jefferson resigned his gubernatorial position because of Martha’s declining health, and he promised not to accept any further political positions that would require their separation and that would burden their family. He refused to accept a diplomatic mission to Europe.
Mrs. Jefferson died at only 33 years of age at Monticello on September 6, 1782, 19 years before her husband would be elected the third president of the young United States. Jefferson took the death of his beloved wife very hard. According to the White House life sketch of Mrs. Jefferson,
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.
Three other first ladies also died before their husbands were elected president: Rachel Jackson, wife of Andrew Jackson; Hannah Van Buren, wife of Martin Van Buren; and Ellen Lewis Herndon Arthur, wife of Chester A. Arthur. They all are honored with the title, "First Lady," despite the fact that they had died before having the chance to serve in that capacity.
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© 2019 Linda Sue Grimes