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Thomas Jefferson And Maria Cosway
It was a romance in which the statesman found his Head at war with his Heart
August 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 5
He wrote her a brief note: “It is with infinite regret … that I must relinquish your charming company. … If you do not go to day I shall still have the pleasure of seeing you again. If you do, God bless you wherever you go. … Let me know if you do not go to day.”
Maria answered immediately: “We shall go I believe this Morning, Nothing seems redy, but Mr. Cosway seems More dispos’d then I have seen him all this time.” The thought of not seeing Maria one more time proved unbearable. Jefferson ordered his carriage for a fast trip to the Cosways’. He arrived to find the artists’ home in chaos and their packing far from completed, but even this opportunity to spend additional time with Maria proved too short. He determined to accompany them to the outskirts of Paris on the first part of their journey. Later, at St.-Denis, the time of parting could be postponed no longer. In lonely silence Jefferson returned to Paris.
That evening Jefferson sat musing in his bedchamber. He knew full well what had happened to him. After all, he was not the first man to fall in love with a young woman married to someone else. Maria, he thought, reciprocated his feelings. What could the future hold for them? Jefferson’s reason told him that they faced nothing but trouble and grief in view of Maria’s circumstances, but his emotions called loudly for his ladylove. He was in the prime of life, a widower who had remained constant to the memory of his wife for four long years. Surely he now deserved to hold close something more substantial than a fading memory.
Slowly, clumsy still when writing left-handed, Jefferson began to describe for Maria the conflict that was taking place between his reason and his emotions in the form of a dialogue between his “Head” and his “Heart.” The result must rank as one of the most unusual love letters ever written:
H EAD . Well, friend, you seem to be in a pretty trim.
H EART . I am indeed the most wretched of all earthly beings. Overwhelmed by grief… I would willingly meet whatever catastrophe should leave me no more to feel or to fear.
H EAD . These are the eternal consequences of your warmth and precipitation. This is one of the scrapes into which you are ever leading us. …
H EART . Oh my friend! This is no moment to upbraid my foibles. I am rent into fragments by the force of my grief! If you have any balm, pour it into my wounds: if none, do not harrow them by new torments. Spare me in this awful moment! At any other I will attend with patience to your admonitions.
H EAD . On the contrary I never found that the moment of triumph with you was the moment of attention to my admonitions. While suffering under your follies you may perhaps be made sensible of them, but, the paroxysm over, you fancy it can never return. …
H EART . … Sir, this acquaintance was not the consequence of my doings. It was one of your projects which threw us in the way of it. … You, then, Sir, and not I, have been the cause of the present distress.
H EAD . It would have been happy for you if my diagrams and crotchets had gotten you to sleep on that day, as you are pleased to say they eternally do [but] 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 you might dine together. …
H EART . Oh! my dear friend, how you have revived me by recalling to my mind the transactions of that day! How well I remember them all, and that when I came home at night and looked back to the morning, it seemed to have been a month agone. Go on then, like a kind comforter, and paint to me the day. …
And so it went, point and counterpoint between reason and emotion. Head admitted that Maria and her husband were of “the greatest merit, possessing good sense, good humour, honest hearts, honest manners, and eminence in a lovely art.” Yet the voice of reason also knew “that all these considerations would increase the pang of separation … and that the separation would in this instance be the more severe as you would probably never see them again.”
“But they told me they would come back again the next year,” answered Heart. Head admitted that such a promise was made, “but in the mean time see what you suffer. …” Maria’s return was something which could not be counted on, “therefore you should abandon the idea of ever seeing them again.” “May heaven abandon me ifl do!” cried Heart.
Trying to induce a line of logic, Head stated :