Thomas Jefferson And Maria Cosway


Why is it that American history books contain so few romantic episodes? Aside from occasional references to John Rolfe and Pocahontas, or to Abraham Lincoln and Ann Rutledge, general histories have little to say about the love affairs experienced by our famous forefathers, or about the effect of such affairs on the course of the nation’s history.

As a case in point, consider Thomas Jefferson. It isn’t easy to think of the lofty, idealistic author of the Declaration of Independence as a lover, especially when most accounts of his life ignore his relationship with a pretty, blue-eyed blonde named Maria Cosway. Yet the Virginian did fall in love with a young married lady, write stirring love letters to her, even suffer a foolish accident while trying to act the gallant in her presence. This love affair could easily have changed Jefferson’s life so drastically that the American public would never have accepted him as a candidate for President of the United States.

On New Year’s Day in 1772, Thomas Jefferson married a young widow, Martha Wayles Skelton. He loved Martha deeply, but their marriage ended tragically when she died in September of 1782. The loss of his beloved wife sent Jefferson into a self-imposed period of isolation. Offers of positions in the new American government reached Monticello, but the Virginian declined them. “… for ills so immense,” he said, “time and silence are the only medicines.”

Jefferson’s friends did not agree. They thought a change of scene was what the despondent man needed most and urged him to re-enter public life. Jefferson finally gave in to their pleas and in May, 1784, accepted an appointment as minister plenipotentiary to France. He reached Paris in early August, accompanied by his eldest daughter, Patsy.

Once in France, Jefferson committed himself fully to la vie parisienne . Patsy entered one of the finest convent schools available. Her father first took a modest house on the rue Têtebout and then moved to a more elegant and expensive establishment on the Champs Elysées. He hired servants, began his ministerial duties, was presented at court, haunted the bookstalls along the Seine, collected furniture and paintings, and made an increasing number of friends. Soon the Virginian was much in demand because of his personal charm and knowledge of America.

The new American minister believed in the Virginia reputation for southern hospitality, and his home was always open to guests. One of these was John Trumbull, an American artist studying in France. Trumbull and Jefferson became close friends. The painter circulated in Parisian art circles and was acquainted with many European artists. Among them was Richard Cosway, an Englishman who specialized in miniature portraits, and Cosway’s wife, Maria. One Sunday in August, 1786, Trumbull and the Cosways visited a small village outside Paris. At Trumbull’s invitation, his friend Jefferson joined them. It was on that occasion that Thomas Jefferson first met Maria Cosway.

Maria Louisa Catherine Cecilia Hadfield was born in Florence, Italy, in 1759. Her parents were English and Protestant, but Maria spoke better Italian than English and was a devout Catholic. When her father, Charles Hadfield, died in 1778, Maria’s mother was barely able to dissuade her from becoming a nun. Instead, Mrs. Hadfield took Maria home to England.

In London, Angelica Kauffmann Church, well-known painter of miniatures, sponsored Maria’s introduction to society. The young lady had beauty and artistic talent. She conquered London without half trying. Her acquaintances included many famous people: Charles Townley, Sir Joshua Reynolds, William Parsons, Lord Erskine, James Boswell, and the miniaturist Richard Cosway. Many of these distinguished gentlemen were eager to establish a close and permanent relationship with Maria. Under the influence of her mother and Angelica she accepted a proposal from Richard Cosway. They were married in 1781.

It is easy to understand why Maria’s mother and patroness favored a union with Richard Cosway, who had amassed fortune and reputation as an artist. Why Maria acceded to their wishes is not easy to understand. Richard was seventeen years his young wife’s senior, a vain and foppish little man with few redeeming qualities. He fawned on his socially superior clients, particularly the Prince of Wales, whose mistresses Richard had painted.

Richard Cosway was short on inches, but long on pretensions. For a honeymoon cottage he leased a majestic palace built by the Duke of Schomberg. There the newly married couple began a series of lavish entertainments. “Bushels of little Italian notes of invitation,” Horace Walpole noted, went out to bring in the cream of the artistic world. Maria, a talented hostess, performed on the harp or the pianoforte; she was also a fine singer. Richard, her coxcomb of a husband, bounced around the ballroom, ogling pretty ladies and flattering rich gentlemen who might give him a commission.