My Booking It Through History: First Ladies focus for the month of March centered on Thomas Jefferson’s presidency, which is where we run into our first issue with studying the first ladies. The third president was a widower who lost his wife eighteen years before becoming president. As such, he didn’t have a technical first lady with his eldest daughter serving as his hostess on occasion. I spent this month learning more about these fascinating women that loved a man who was complicated and full of contradictions. Both women were named Martha, so to make it easier to distinguish them, I’ll refer to them by their nicknames, Patty and Patsy.
Each month, I’ll detail the life of the first lady and their legacy. Then I’ll share what I learned while studying them, along with ways you can travel in their footsteps through historical sites and museums. I’ll also share books, podcasts, TV shows, and websites where you can learn even more about that first lady. Read all of the way through the blog post or click on the links below to go straight to those sections.
Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson
Martha Wayles (called Patty), Jefferson’s wife, was born in 1748 at The Forest, a plantation home along Virginia’s James River owned by her father, John Wayles, a lawyer, debt collector, slave trader and planter. Her mother, Jane, died a week after her birth, a family legacy Patty was to inherit. She grew up at The Forest among her father’s remarriages and relationship with the enslaved Betty Hemings, with whom he had six children. Patty became the official mistress of the house at the young age of thirteen when her second stepmother passed away.
At eighteen, Patty married Bathurst Skelton, and their son, John, was born the following year. However, less than two years after their marriage, Bathurst and eventually John both died, leaving Patty a young widow. As a wealthy woman, her hand was much sought after, and it’s thought that young Thomas Jefferson’s musical ability aided his wooing. In fact, there is one story I read where two suitors heard Patty and Thomas playing instruments and singing together so beautifully that the men left, knowing Thomas had bested them for her hand.
Patty and Thomas married at The Forest on January 1, 1772, six months after the death of her young son. I can only imagine the heartache the young mother must have felt, and one hopes that the thought of a new start in life must have raised her spirits. They traveled to Monticello, Jefferson’s unfinished mountaintop home near Charlottesville, trudging through huge snow drifts to arrive at the one completed room at the site (now called the South Pavilion).
It was in this one-room cottage that Patty and Thomas began their married life, living here for years until the house was completed. Their first child, Martha (called Patsy), was born in this room in September of 1772. Patty went on to have six children with Thomas Jefferson, but only two survived until adulthood, Patsy and Mary (also called Polly and Maria – lots of nicknames in the 18th century!).
We have no portraits of Patty, but she was described as small and well formed, intelligent with a lively temperament. As a busy plantation mistress, she was strong willed and well read, and most importantly, she was good at soothing Jefferson’s sometimes prickly nature.
After her father’s death in 1773, Patty inherited his property and brought the Hemings family to Monticello. Members of the family included Patty’s half siblings, many of whom were skilled craftsmen and household workers. One of these half sisters was the young Sally Hemings.
In her ten years as Mrs. Jefferson, Patty was the home stability Jefferson needed when he attended Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death” speech in 1775 or when he penned the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Her pregnancies and the injurious effect on her health was the case for most of the marriage, and one can only imagine how torn Jefferson was between his duty as a husband and father and his desire to form a new country. He traveled back and forth between Philadelphia and Monticello and turned down offers to represent the rebelling colonies in France, all due to his worry about his wife’s health.
As Governor of Virginia from 1779-1781, Patty and the family joined Thomas at the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg and then in Richmond. As the governor’s wife, Patty heeded Martha Washington’s call to raise funds for the Continental Army and joined forces with Nelly Madison (James Madison’s mother) in 1779 to raise over $100,000 for the troops.
In early 1781, the British army, led by Benedict Arnold, invaded Richmond, forcing Patty and her children, including newborn Lucy, to flee to Fine Creek in Powhatan (now a beautiful wedding venue!) and then on to Monticello. Little Lucy died in April, and in May, the British were on the heels of the family again, forcing them to flee to Poplar Forest while Jefferson watched the British invade Monticello from a nearby mountaintop. How scary it must have been for Patty to be on the road with the children while grieving for her baby and wondering if her husband had been taken prisoner.
In May of 1782, Patty had her last child, a daughter they named Lucy after her recently deceased sister. Patty never recovered from this birth and died in September. On her deathbed, she made Jefferson promise to never remarry because she didn’t want her three daughters to have to live under a stepmother’s rule.
One of the few surviving documents in her hand is from her deathbed where she wrote down her favorite passage from the book, Tristam Shandy.
Time wastes too fast: every letter
I trace tells me with what rapidity
life follows my pen. The days and hours
of it are flying over our heads like
clouds of windy day never to return–
more. Every thing presses on–
When she grew too weak to finish it, Jefferson wrote the last few lines:
and every time I kiss thy hand to bid adieu, every absence which follows it, are preludes to that eternal separation which we are shortly to make!
Jefferson was inconsolable on her death and destroyed all of their correspondence. The only time he left his rooms was to ride over his property with his ten year old daughter, Patsy. Their relationship was one that would sustain them both over the next tumultuous decades.
Martha Jefferson Randolph
Martha Jefferson (Patsy) was born in the small south pavilion cottage at Monticello in 1782 and was Jefferson’s only child with his wife to survive him. She spent her early life at Monticello and followed her famous father to Philadelphia, Williamsburg, and Richmond where she fled with her family during the British invasion.
After her mother died, Patsy took on an even larger role in Jefferson’s life, traveling with him to France in 1784 where she was enrolled in an exclusive convent school. Unlike most girls in the United States, Patsy received an excellent education and could speak several languages. She was joined in France by her sister, Mary in 1787 (who had been left with family in Virginia four years earlier). When both girls contracted typhus, they left the convent and moved in with their father, spending their time among the elite and becoming excellent conversationalists. As she matured, Patsy fell in love with Jefferson’s secretary, William Short, but their connection was broken when the family left France in 1789 at the beginning of the French Revolution.
Patsy had left the United States as a young girl but arrived back as a young woman of marrying age. She quickly was matched with her distant cousin, Thomas Randolph of Tuckahoe, and they wed in February of 1790 at Monticello. She moved to his family’s farm in Varina (just east of Richmond and site of John Rolfe and Pocahontas’ farm), but it was an unsuccessful farm that caused her husband to be sickly. They also were uneasy with the thought of having so many slaves as both hoped the institution would be eliminated or ended.
Unlike her mother, Patsy was of robust health and didn’t have any difficulties in childbirth. Her first child, Anne, was born at Monticello in January of 1791, and over the next 27 years, she gave birth to eleven more children at regular intervals. Amazingly, all survived to adulthood except one.
Patsy spent most of her time either at Monticello or her husband’s new farm at Edgehill, just down the mountain from her father’s home. Unfortunately, her husband’s farm was never a huge success, and they were saddled with enormous debts from his father’s estate and from his family’s entanglements. They also were acutely aware that their largest financial stores were in the enslaved population but neither she nor her husband wanted to be involved in selling people and separating families, especially the favored Hemings family. She had to be aware of her father’s involvement with Sally Hemings, half-sister of her mother, and the children from this relationship.
Patsy knew the importance of education and made sure all of her children, including her daughters, were well educated, often taking on the role of teacher herself. She served as the plantation mistress for both Edgehill and Monticello and was a busy and devoted wife, mother, and daughter. Her relationship with her father was extremely close, and one can imagine the resentment her husband must have felt as she chose to spend more time at Monticello rather than with him. He is quoted as feeling like an “ugly duckling” among the swans, and his later alcoholism and mental health struggles could be related to this feeling of inadequacy.
When her father was elected president, Patsy stayed at Monticello rather than moving to Washington City. She and her sister did visit Washington for six weeks from late November of 1802 through January of 1803 where Patsy fulfilled the role as acting First Lady, serving as Jefferson’s hostess. Before her arrival, any parties were hosted by Dolley Madison, wife of Secretary of State, James Madison, as both President Jefferson and Vice-President Aaron Burr were widowers. Jefferson was not a huge fan of entertaining, especially with women present, and did not ascribe to the usual protocols so the official parties were few and far between.
Sadly, her sister followed in the footsteps of their mother, dying in childbirth in 1804, leaving Patsy as Jefferson’s only child from his marriage (he had 7 children with Sally Hemings – only 4 survived to adulthood). She traveled back to Washington in November of 1805 with her children and gave birth to James Madison Randolph – the first child to be born in the White House! Once again, she hosted many dinners during her stay, helped by her daughter, Anne, when she was incapacitated due to childbirth.
Like the vivacious Dolley, Patsy knew that politics is personal and thought by having her family there, Jefferson would be seen in a better light, especially with the ever-present scandal of Sally Hemings threatening his presidency. She loved talking with educated and erudite women and became friends with Dolley, Hannah Gallatin (Treasury secretary’s wife), Dorcas Dearborn (War secretary’s wife), and Margaret Smith (wife of prominent newspaperman).
Even though she enjoyed Washington, she was happy to get back to Monticello and spent the rest of Jefferson’s presidency on the mountaintop, spinning cloth due to the Embargo Act and seeing her children grow and marry.
When Jefferson retired to Monticello in March of 1809, he was in bad financial straits. Patsy’s growing family (she gave birth to her last child in 1818!) strained the finances, especially the costs of their education and marriages. Her husband’s financial and employment concerns continued to worsen, and he entered the military in the War of 1812 to achieve some prominence and to earn a living.
The next decade was difficult for Patsy as she saw her children experience disappointments (Anne was stuck in an abusive marriage and several of her other daughters had difficulties finding a husband due to their financial issues) and as her husband continued to spiral into the bottle. Thomas Randolph eventually moved out of Monticello and became estranged from his family, resenting his own son’s management of the estates and his wife’s devotion to her father.
Patsy endured a family tragedy when Anne’s husband stabbed Jeff, her oldest son, and continued to experience financial difficulties, all the while her father entertained guests and spent hours with his books. Patsy and her husband had a brief reconciliation when he became governor in 1819 but it was short-lived and ineffectual. It seems that both of the men in her life let her down, and it was up to her to find a way to survive.
1826 had to be her “Annus horribilis.” Her oldest child, Anne, died in February of complications from childbirth, and then on July 4th, the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, her father died in his bedroom at Monticello. Now Patsy was left with over $100,000 in debt (over $3 million in today’s money!) and several children still at home, including an eight year old! The writing was on the wall – Monticello had to be sold and she would have to move away from her beloved mountaintop. Monticello sold in 1831 for $7,500.
Martha spent time in Boston with her daughter, Ellen, but went back to Monticello to nurse her husband through his final illness in 1828. She spent time with Jeff at his nearby estate, Tufton, and then moved to Washington City with her daughter, Virginia, staying with her family on 17th Street near Lafayette Square. She became a venerated person in Washington society and was honored by both Presidents Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren. Two state legislatures, South Carolina and Louisiana, sent her funds to support her during these lean years. She also helped her unmarried daughters open a school at Edgehill, and she died there in October of 1836, just ten years after the death of her father.
Both Marthas are buried in the Jefferson family cemetery at Monticello.
Martha Jefferson (Patty) seems to have made Thomas Jefferson happy and fulfilled. Who knows what would have happened if she had been healthy throughout the revolutionary period? Would Jefferson have gone to France earlier? Would he have been as stubborn or recalcitrant as Secretary of State if she had been by his side? Would he have entertained more as president with her serving as first lady? We will never know. She is an enigma, for the most part, with no surviving portraits or letters. Judging by her influence on the plantation and her daughters, she seems like a strong woman that would have been a wonderful first lady had she survived.
Her daughter, Martha (Patsy), showed incredible strength and intelligence in her work at the plantations, Washington City and Paris, and in her involvement in education. She had to be incredibly busy with eleven children at home and with the enormous burden of serving as the plantation mistress for Monticello and Edgehill. Just thinking about all she had to do in a day exhausts me!
Her most important relationship was not with her husband, but with her father which seems to have caused heartache in her marriage. She enabled Jefferson to focus solely on his political work, and seemed to see herself as the “fixer” in his life. It allowed him to be more philosophical and less practical, which is good for political theory but not in sustaining a livelihood!
She emphasized education and especially wanted her daughters to learn more than the typical Virginia housewife. Forming a school at Edgehill had to be very gratifying!
Slavery was a sore point for Patsy her entire life. As early as her childhood in France, she said that she detested slavery, but upon her return to Virginia, she was forced to utilize slave labor at her plantations. Her husband was also against slavery, but they both perpetuated the institution once they inherited their own land. I am sure her knowledge of the Hemings family and her father’s relationship with Sally had to be hard to digest, but she did give Sally “her time” upon Jefferson’s death (there is a long, complicated legal reason Sally wasn’t officially freed).
Patsy was a dutiful daughter, wife, and mother who gave her all to her family. Her sheer strength and will to live enabled her to ensure that Thomas Jefferson’s family and legacy continued well into the 19th century.
My Time with the Marthas
Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson is like a ghost who leaves feathery touches as you read about Thomas Jefferson’s life. So much is not known about her that it made it difficult to get to know the real Patty. However, I believe the one action that helps me to understand her the most is her request for Jefferson to not marry again. When I think about that, I find myself feeling empathy for this poor young woman who endured so much physical and emotional pain in her short life.
From losing her own mother at her birth to seeing two stepmothers die to losing her own husband and several children, her life is one of great loss. I believe she was trying to protect her daughters from the pain of loss and from the worry that a second family would “replace” them as she must have felt when her father had additional children. Ironically, this deathbed promise led to the very thing she had endured, with her daughters knowing their father had a second family with Sally Hemings. Patty tried to keep them from this pain but actually created the situation that led to it.
In learning more about Jefferson’s daughter, Patsy, I marvel at her strength amidst so much financial, political, and personal turmoil. How did this woman bear TWELVE children in a day and age with no real medical knowledge? Just that fact alone leaves me in awe of her!
When I visited Monticello and spent time in her bedroom, I could feel her busy fingers constantly at work, either sewing or writing in her account book or caressing a child’s brow. Her bedroom is right beside the nursery and the girls’ bedroom, and I could feel the constant state of worry she must have been under with never-ending illnesses and accidents befelling her brood. How many sleepless nights did she pace the floor of her room, worried about their health or education? I also chuckled when I saw that the boys’ bedroom was on a completely different floor – having two boys and knowing how loud they are, I could definitely understand!
My heart broke for Patsy when I read about the sale of Monticello, the place she so dearly loved. I think she would be happy to see how it has been preserved and is still a place that honors her beloved father. She would be gratified to see the guests visiting her father’s grave where she lies directly beside him, along with her mother, sister, and husband. Even in death, she is her father’s daughter.
Travels with the Marthas
There are many places you can visit to walk in the Marthas’ footsteps. While Thomas Jefferson is the main attraction at these historical sites, Patty and Patsy are definite highlights.
Monticello – Jefferson’s masterpiece where he brought his young bride and where Patsy grew up, married, and served as mistress for decades. You can visit the South Pavilion where Thomas and Patty began their marriage, Patty’s original chest in Jefferson’s bedroom, and Patsy’s office and bedroom (bedroom only accessible on the behind-the-scenes tour). Don’t miss Patty’s engraved spoons and Patsy’s household account book and Parisian ring in the museum. You can also visit the cemetery where both are buried right beside Thomas Jefferson. Note the house is not where Patty lived – Jefferson tore down the original home and built the one we see today after seeing the domed buildings in Paris. You can view a model of the original home in the museum.
Edgehill – just a few miles from Monticello, Edgehill’s home is closed to the public but you can view the historical marker near it.
Poplar Forest – Jefferson’s plantation where Patty and the children fled from the British. It’s also where Jefferson often brought his granddaughters for a visit. It’s a lovely site and so unique! Its foundation is celebrating its 40th anniversary on April 28th, which would be the perfect time to visit!
Tuckahoe – home where Thomas Jefferson spent his childhood and where Patsy’s husband, Thomas, grew up. It’s an especially pretty place to visit in the spring! On April 15, 2023, Tuckahoe will host its annual Thomas Jefferson’s Birthday Bash.
Eppington Plantation – home where Patsy visited many times; it’s also where her sisters were left when she and her father went to France. It’s closed most of the year but has an open house in the fall.
Varina – you can drive to the site where Thomas Randolph and Patsy began their marriage. None of the 18th century buildings survive but the area is rife with history from Pocahontas through the Civil War.
The Forest – along historic Route 5, you can see the historical marker designating the location of Patty’s childhood home where she married Thomas Jefferson.
Patsy lived and entertained in the President’s House for a few months over her father’s eight year term.
Thomas Jefferson lived in Philadelphia many times during the Revolutionary and early America eras. See this list of his homes. Both Marthas were with him in Philadelphia at various times (of note is Mrs. House’s home which was a boarding house where Patsy lived under the care of Mrs. House and her daughter, Eliza House Trist, who was a good friend of her father’s and an amazing woman in her own right!).
Hotel de Langeac – Patsy’s home during her time in France, the house is no longer standing but a commemorative plaque is installed on the site (corner of Rue de Berri and at number 92 Avenue des Champs Elysees); there are also several Jefferson statues in Paris, including one in the Square Thomas Jefferson. You can also visit the building that once housed her convent school, the Abbaye Royale de Panthemont.
To Learn More
Books to Read:
All links are Amazon affiliate links. You can also purchase the books through my affiliate link to Bookshop.org which supports independent bookstores.
Not many books exist about Jefferson’s wife so you have to rely on books about him. Thankfully, there is one excellent book about his daughter’s life.
Martha Jefferson Randolph, Daughter of Monticello: Her Life and Times by Cynthia A. Kierner is my top pick in the nonfiction category. This excellent book details the life of Jefferson’s oldest daughter and is very readable.
The Women Jefferson Loved by Virginia Scharff
Mr. Jefferson’s Women by Jon Kukla
Jefferson’s Daughters: Three Sisters, White and Black, in a Young America by Catherine Kerrison
The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family by Annette Gordon-Reed
Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham
America’s First Daughter by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie is a wonderful novel about Patsy and her life. I love how they bring women from history to life!
Monticello by Sally Cabot Gunning is a propulsive book about Patsy. I absolutely loved it and can’t wait to read more by this author!
- Also where you can purchase the official White House Christmas ornament in honor of Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson was surrounded by strong women for his entire life. His wife and his daughter both provided the support that allowed him to become the Founding Father we know today. While not a traditional First Lady, his daughter served as his acting First Lady two different times, using entertainment as a distraction from Jefferson’s political troubles. I think both of these women would be amazed at Jefferson’s impact on our country today.