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1783 Two Hundred “fears Ago

March 2023
1min read

On the sixth of June, Thomas Jefferson was again elected to Congress and began to plan his trip to Philadelphia (if Philadelphia it was to be: the Congress had fled to Princeton to escape a band of mutinous Continental Army soldiers demanding immediate discharge and back pay). But he also had responsibilities as a single parent. His wife had died the year before, and there were the children to think about, particularly the education of eleven-year-old Martha, whom he called Patsy. He inquired about boarding schools in the city although he didn’t much like the idea.

Patsy never went to boarding school. She went to live in Philadelphia with Mrs. Thomas Hopkinson, the mother of Jefferson’s friend Francis Hopkinson, and her father arranged for her instruction by a battery of tutors. Music, dancing, and drawing were the subjects first laid on: “The acquirements which I hope you will make under the tutors … will render you more worthy of my love; and if they cannot increase it, they will prevent its diminution. … The following is what I should approve. From 8 to 10 practise music. From 10 to 1, dance one day, draw another. From 3 to 4 read French. From 4 to 5 exercise yourself in music. From 5 till bedtime, read English, write, etc. … Inform me what books you read, what tunes you learn, and enclose me your best copy of every lesson in drawing.”

The most interesting of his thoughts on the education of young American girls appear in a letter to the Marquis de Marbois, thanking him for finding a tutor in French. We learn something of what Jefferson, a supremely cultivated man, thought of his countrymen: “The plan of reading I have formed for her is considerably different from that which I think would be most proper for her sex in any country but America. … The chance that in marriage she will draw a blockhead I calculate to about fourteen to one, and of course the education of her family will probably rest on her ideas and direction without assistance. With the poets and_prose writers I shall therefore combine a certain extent of reading in the graver sciences.”

But perhaps fourteen to one are the odds any father would make when contemplating the day he must turn his daughter over to another man.

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