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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
Now, when it was far too late, Jefferson realized how strong was his disappointment that she was lost to him again. His disappointment intensified when he learned that Trumbull would soon arrive with Angelica Church. Angelica’s influence with Maria was such that Maria would undoubtedly have remained in Paris a much longer period had she not left before her patroness arrived.
Maria wrote to Jefferson as soon as she reached London: How I regreted not having seen More of you, and I cannot have even the Satisfaction to unburden My displeasure of [it] by loading you with reproches. Your reasons Must be Sufficient, and My forcing you woud have (been) unkind and unfriendly as it would be cruel to pretend on what is totally disagreable to you.
Then, affecting lightness, Maria appeared to change subjects. Had he met Angelica? she asked Jefferson. What did he think of her? “If I did not love her so Much I should fear her rivalship, but no I give you free permission to love her with all your heart, and I shall feel happy if I think you keep me in a little corner of it, when you admit her even to re[ign]ing Queen.”
Jefferson did not answer until the end of January, 1788. Yes, he told Maria, he had kept the appointment for breakfast but had found her gone: “This spared me indeed the pain of parting, but it deprives me of the comfort of recollecting that pain.” He also admitted to having met Angelica, but Maria had no cause for concern. She alone held a serious share of his affections.
Angelica and John Trumbull returned to England in March. Jefferson committed the unpardonable sin, as far as Maria was concerned, of not giving them a letter to carry to her. Maria was furious. She wrote to the Virginian threatening to “send a blank paper; as a Lady in a Passion is not fit for Any thing.” Still, she asked Jefferson to permit Trumbull to copy a portrait of him that the artist had used for painting The Declaration of Independence: “It is a person who hates you that requests this favor.”
Trumbull wrote: “Mrs. Cosway’s love to you. … She is angry, yet she teases me every day for a copy of your little portrait, that she may scold it no doubt.” Eventually both Maria and Angelica received copies of the “little portrait.”
When Jefferson did write, he complimented Maria on one of her engravings, then enjoying wide circulation in Paris, and asked her to work up something distinctive for him to use on his calling cards. What was it to be? “Cupid leading the lion by a thread? or Minerva clipping his wings?” Jefferson thought that it did not really matter, as long as it was in Maria’s hand.
Maria was now satisfied that Jefferson had not forgotten her. She was pleased with his compliments about the engraving, happy that Trumbull had provided the picture, and delighted over the idea of making an etching for Jefferson’s calling cards. However, a dark cloud had appeared on her horizon.
“I have been Made very uneasy with the news that you intend to return soon to America, is it true? and is it possible! Oh then I give up the hopes of ever seeing you again. …” She wondered whether he could not visit her on the way home and asked him to promise to do so. Then she spoke of a trip to Italy contemplated by both Cosways for the following year and asked Jefferson if he could resist joining them.
Jefferson had no choice: “I am going to America, and you to Italy. The one or the other of us goes the wrong way, for the way will ever be wrong which leads us farther apart.”
His journey was one of duty, Jefferson told Maria. He urged her to “join our good friend Mrs. Church,” who was about to go to America. But Maria, too, had obligations. In February she finally told the Virginian that his vision of her making a trip to America was but wishful thinking: “You are going to America, and you think I am going with you, I thank you for the flattering compliment, I deserve it for I shall certainly be with you in spirit. …”
Jefferson had to accept the inevitable. He disembarked from the Clermont at Norfolk, Virginia, on November 23, 1789. He never returned to France and he never again saw Maria Cosway.
The love affair between Thomas Jefferson and Maria Cosway leaves some questions that may remain unanswered forever. Just what kind of relationship did exist between the two lovers so long ago? The ambiance of Paris was, after all, morally liberal by American standards, even in the late eighteenth century. But the affair by all evidence appears to have been unconsummated. Maria was devout and virtuous, Jefferson was a gentleman. At only one point is there any hint that things may have tended to escape proper bounds. In the dialogue, Heart at one point admitted: “The day we went to St. Germains was a little too warm, I think, was it not?”