August 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 5
It was a romance in which the statesman found his Head at war with his Heart
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.
When she was not entertaining, Maria worked on her painting. Richard had no intention of permitting any competition within the family and insisted she devote her efforts to portraits of close friends and landscapes. But Maria painted a fine portrait of the Duchess of Devonshire, establishing a reputation despite her husband’s efforts to hide her ability, and was soon exhibiting work in the Royal Academy.
Although Maria enjoyed London life, she could not accustom herself to the English climate, and her health deteriorated. In the summer of 1786 the Cosways travelled to France, where Richard could work on a commission for the Duc d’Orléans and Maria could recover. They visited galleries and exhibitions and made acquaintances among members of the art world in Paris, including John Trumbull. Then in August the Cosways arranged the jaunt with Trumbull and Trumbull’s friend, the American minister to France. For Maria Cosway and Thomas Jefferson it was a fateful journey.
The Virginian was smitten hard at this first meeting with Maria, a classic case of love at first sight. Maria was beautiful, vivacious, talented, and still young at twenty-seven. Her delicately rounded face held eyes so deeply blue that they often appeared violet. Her hair was golden blond. She was slim and graceful; she spoke in a soft and musical voice that held an attractive hint of Italian accent. Jefferson thought the lady had “qualities and accomplishments belonging to her sex, which might form a chapter apart for her: such as music, modesty, beauty and that softness of disposition which is the ornament of her sex and the charm of ours.”
What was Maria’s initial impression of Jefferson? She was not so taken with him as he was with her, but still was profoundly impressed. The Virginian was an important and famous public figure, ruggedly mature at forty-three, and a widower. Being thoroughly feminine, Maria could not help responding to the tall man whose eyes so plainly reflected his admiration of her. When Jefferson found himself unable to leave her company that August afternoon, Maria readily agreed that they should prolong their first meeting.
All four had other engagements, but they broke them and drove off to St.—Cloud for dinner. Returning to the city that evening, they stopped to watch a display of fireworks and then called on Johann Baptist Krumpholtz, composer and teacher of the harp. For Jefferson at least, where the party stopped was of little importance, as long as stops were made. “If the day had been as long as a Lapland summer day,” Jefferson and Maria Cosway would still have found excuses to fill it.
In the weeks following their first encounter Maria Cosway and Thomas Jefferson were constant companions. At first they were accompanied by Richard or by John Trumbull; but those gentlemen had their own interests, and soon Maria and the American were alone together. Maria fell into the habit of rushing into Jefferson’s house unannounced. When Jefferson called on Maria, Richard often excused himself and left his wife alone with her visitor.
The days passed swiftly. By mid-September Richard had nearly finished his work for the Duc d’Orléans. When that was completed, the Cosways would return to London. A few days remained for Maria and Jefferson to share each other’s company—but on September 18, 1786, Jefferson broke his right wrist. There are at least two versions of how the accident occurred. All Jefferson would ever say about it was that “it was by one of those follies from which good cannot come, but ill may.”
According to one account, the pair were walking together along the Seine. They came to a fence that the Virginian decided to jump, no doubt with the intention of helping his lady across from the far side. However, forty-three-year-old gentlemen often do not jump fences with the same agility they demonstrated twenty years earlier. In this case the attempt proved disastrous for Jefferson.
In another version, perhaps less romantic but probably more factual, Jefferson left his front door for a meeting with Maria. Exuberant at the prospect of seeing her again, he attempted to jump a small decorative pool on the way to his carriage, tripped, and fractured his wrist as he tried to break his fall.
However it happened, the wrist was obviously injured and doctors were summoned. They diagnosed the wrist as “dislocated” and did such a poor job of setting it that Jefferson was left in excruciating pain for many days to come. As it turned out, the wrist was to bother him for the rest of his life. During the weeks it was immobilized, he laboriously taught himself to write with his left hand. Even years later, writing normally was often awkward.
Painful wrist and all, Jefferson spent many happy hours with Maria, sightseeing and attending the theater. Now, however, the day of parting was fast upon them. On October 4, 1786, they spent one last day in each other’s company, riding about Paris. The carriage rocking over the rough cobbles of the Paris streets did Jefferson’s wrist no good. Next morning, after a night spent sleepless with pain, the Virginian found it difficult to accept the fact that Maria was to be separated from him.
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 :
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?
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.”
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?”
Maria Cosway and Thomas Jefferson continued to exchange letters. She never travelled farther from England than to her native Italy. Some years later, still devoutly religious, she retired to a convent in Lodi, where she established a girls’ college attached to the Church of Santa Maria délia Grazie. For her efforts the emperor of Austria created Maria the Baroness Cosway of Lodi.
As the years stretched out for Jefferson and Maria, so did the months between their letters. In April of 1819 she wrote to the then-retired President: “To the Length of Silence I draw a Curtain,” and told him of her life at Lodi and of the serious illness of her husband. She spoke of many deceased friends and the illness and age of those few who remained. Then, strangely after so long a time, she made reference to the Head and Heart dialogue. With her work in the school and nursing her husband, she was “Happy in self gratification of doing my duty, with no other consolation. In your Dialogue your head would tell me, ‘ that is enough ,’ your heart perhaps will understand, I might wish for more . God’s will be done.”
Jefferson, close to eighty and frequently ill, did not reply until late the following year. “Such is the present state of our former coterie—dead, diseased, and dispersed.” His turn was next, he told her, “and I shall meet it with good will. …” Maria had many good years yet before her, he continued, and he hoped that they would all be filled with health and happiness. The two of them would meet again, in another world. “… the religion you so sincerely profess tells us that we shall. …”
Maria wrote to the Virginian in June, 1823, and again in September of 1824. The last letter reached Monticello on February 21, 1825. It was never answered. Thomas Jefferson died on the fiftieth anniversary of the nation’s independence, July 4, 1826. Baroness Maria Cosway of Lodi went to join him on January 5, 1838. Her mortal remains were interred below the nun’s chapel in the Church of Santa Maria delta Grazie.