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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
Separated from him, Maria found that she missed Jefferson’s company very much. She was “wont to think with satisfaction about the excellent qualities of the persons for whom one has esteem, of our happiness in being able to savour of their value. …”
By mid-November Jefferson was beginning to use his right hand once more, and he wrote to Maria: “… you are by promise, as well as by inclination entitled to it’s first homage.” (Jefferson stretched truth here; he had written with his right hand to others.) However, the wrist still pained him, he told her, and the letter would be short. This was just as well, in Jefferson’s opinion, because “were the hand able to follow the effusions of the heart, that would cease to write only when this shall cease to beat.” Then he spoke of a friend, Madame de Corny, who was soon to leave for London. “I wish she could put me into her pocket, when she goes, or you, when she comes back.”
On Christmas Eve of 1786, Jefferson again wrote to his Maria, and it is apparent that Heart predominated on that occasion. Jefferson referred to the legend of Fortunatus, who possessed a magic cap permitting him to wish himself wherever he might want to be. If he had such a cap, Jefferson said, “I question if I should use it but once. I should wish myself with you, and not wish myself away again … I am always thinking of you. If I cannot be with you in reality, I will in imagination.”
The broken wrist continued to be troublesome, and Jefferson decided to accept his surgeons’ advice and take the waters at Aix. He stayed at Aix only a little while, long enough to be certain that the mineral waters were not going to help his wrist. Then he toured large areas of France and spent three weeks in Italy. Following his return to Paris, he found a large accumulation of official business.
Not until July 1, 1787, did Jefferson finally get around to telling Maria of his trip. He described Italy and what he had seen there, calling it “a peep only into Elysium,” and added, “I am born to lose every thing I love. Why were you not with me?” Jefferson acknowledged that he had received a letter from Maria, dated February 15, on the eve of his departing on his trip, and longed to receive another, “lengthy, warm and flowing from the heart.”
Now Maria was provoked, knowing that the American had received her letter but had not answered it throughout the entire trip: Do you deserve a long letter, My dear friend? No, certainly not, and to avoid temptation, I take a small sheet of paper … I was glad to know you was well, sure of your being much engaged and diverted … oh! if I had been a shadow of this Elysium of yours! how you would have been tormented!”
Jefferson’s only immediate reaction to this was to advise John Trumbull wryly, “My love to Mrs. Cosway. Tell her I will send her a supply of larger paper.”
Regarding a trip to France, Maria was still not sure. Richard had agreed to it early in the year and then began to have doubts when the time for departure neared. “You cannot believe how much this uncertainty displeases me, when I have everything to fear against my desire,” she told Jefferson. But at some time during the days that followed, doubt disappeared. On August 28, 1787, Maria turned up in Paris.
There were differences between this and the visit the previous year, however. Her husband and John Trumbull were not in the city, for one thing, both having remained in London. This should have offered bright prospects for the two lovers, especially since Maria’s stay was to last four whole months. But she perceived that there was another notable change. For some reason the relationship between her and Jefferson was not the same as it had been the summer before.
What made the difference? That question could only be answered by Maria Cosway and Thomas Jefferson. For the Virginian, perhaps Head was restraining the natural inclinations of Heart. On Maria’s part, the absence of a husband may have proved a restraining factor. Or perhaps for both of them, the realities of being together again could not match the anticipation they had carried in their hearts throughout the long months of separation.
Whatever the reason, they spent little time together. Maria knew that the days were slipping by and she was seeing the American all too seldom. She felt that he was responsible. “If my inclination had been your law I should have had the pleasure of seeing you More then I have. I have felt the loss with displeasure. …”
As the time for Maria to leave drew closer, Jefferson began to regret the lost days and opportunities that might never be recovered. Finally, Maria could delay no longer and set December 8, 1787, as the day of departure. She invited Jefferson to a farewell breakfast that morning, but he reached her home to find the lady gone. Only a note was left behind, written the night before: “I cannot breakfast with you to morrow; to bid you adieu once is sufficiently painful, for I leave you with very melancholy ideas.”