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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
My friend, you must mend your manners. This is not a world to live at random in as you do. To avoid these eternal distresses, to which you are for ever exposing us, you must learn to look forward before you take a step which may interest our peace. Everything in this world is a matter of calculation. Advance then with caution, the balance in your hand.
But Heart was unwilling to accept cold logic where Maria was concerned and recalled to mind the loneliness suffered since Martha’s death: Let the gloomy Monk, sequestered from the world, seek unsocial pleasures in the bottom of his cell! Let the sublimated philosopher grasp visionary happiness while pursuing phantoms dressed in the garb of truth! Their supreme wisdom is supreme folly: and they mistake for happiness the mere absence of pain.
Besides, continued Heart, there are times when emotion must prevail over cool logic: “If our country when pressed with wrongs at the point of the bayonet, had been governed by it’s heads instead of it’s hearts, where should we have been now?”
In this dialogue, which after all was prepared for Maria to read, Heart had the final word: You confess that in the present case I could not have made a worthier choice. You only object that I was so soon to lose them. … True, this condition is pressing cruelly on me at this moment … I comfort myself with expectations of their promised return … in the spring, said the lady: and I should love her forever, were it only for that !
Shortly after the dialogue had been prepared for dispatch, news of the Cosways arrived in a letter from John Trumbull. He reported that Richard and Maria had reached Antwerp on October 9, after a miserable, rainy trip. Jefferson skipped over other comments made by the artist to a short note following Trumbull’s. Maria wrote in Italian, a language of romance, but the words were far from what Jefferson had hoped to see. “I am adding a couple of lines to ask you how you are. I hope the trip to St. Dennys did not cause you to remember us painfully, [and that] I shall soon receive news of your complete recovery, which will give infinite pleasure to your always obliged and affectionate Friend, Maria Cosway.”
Irked at Maria’s brevity and apparent coldness, Jefferson wrote her that he had examined TrumbulPs letter repeatedly, only to find that her name was signed to four lines rather than four pages. “I thank you for the four lines however because they prove you think of me. Little indeed, but better a little than none.” Then he relented and ended the letter by stating that his right hand was much indignant because his left had all the pleasure of writing to her. However, the first letter written by the healed right hand would be to her.
The dialogue was received warmly byMaria in London. “Why do you say so Many kind things? Why present so many opportunities for my feeling undeserving of them, why not leave me a free consolation in admiring a friend, without the temptation … to my Vanity? … Oh, Sir, if my correspondence equalled yours how perfect it would be!” Then she described her trip to London and the sadness she felt there in comparison with France. She told Jefferson that his letters could never be long enough and that she could hardly wait to receive a letter from his right hand. Of her brevity in Trumbull’s letter and Jefferson’s complaint about it, there was no word of explanation or apology.
At home once more, the Cosways reentered the social life they had abandoned for France some months before. Richard painted, flirted, and entered into some notorious love affairs. Wagging tongues also spoke of Maria, who was linked to the Prince of Wales. Gossip swirling around her, Maria threw herself into her painting and composing. One of her songs may have reflected the romantic attachment to Jefferson:
Days became weeks, and the post brought nothing from Paris. Maria was discovering that she was more committed to the affair with Jefferson than she had thought and became impatient and somewhat petulant, wondering if the Virginian had already forgotten her.
She wrote to him, asking what his silence meant: “I am really worried … I think of a thousand things at once except that my friends should so soon have forgotten me. …” What was she to do? she asked. Complain? Reprove? Implore patience? Or should she express mortification and anxiety at his silence?