Guest Author - Linda Sue Grimes
Martha Jefferson was born to John and Martha Wayles October 19, 1748, on a plantation called “The Forest” in Charles City County, Virginia. She married Bathurst Skeleton when she was only eighteen but became a widow only two years later. In 1771 she married Thomas Jefferson. The couple produced seven children of which only two lived to adulthood.
Their two daughters Martha and Mary actually served the function of First Lady for their father, because Mrs. Jefferson died nineteen years before her husband was elected to the office of president. Dolley Madison also served as hostess for Jefferson at the White House. Jefferson never remarried. According to legend, it was Martha’s last wish that he not marry after her death.
Martha Jefferson never knew her own mother who died only two weeks after Martha was born. Martha was probably educated at home as most girls were at that time. It is likely she studied literature and the Bible taught by traveling tutors. She became a skillful piano and harpsichord player. She was also proficient in sewing and medicine preparations.
She no doubt served as hostess on her father’s plantation; she was capable of daily management of the plantation, including procurement of household necessities. She also helped her father in accounting of the crop business.
Marriage to Jefferson
After Martha Wayles Skeleton married Thomas Jefferson, who was a lawyer and member of the House of Burgesses from Albermarle County, the couple honeymooned on the property that would later become the widely known Monticello.
After her marriage to Jefferson, she spent her time directing life at Monticello. She managed the gardens and kitchens, harvesting and preparation of foods; she made sure the family and the slaves were fed and clothed. She proved to be a valuable partner to her husband in running the plantation.
Although her health was delicate, when she was well she entertained actively, and her beauty and grace were appreciated by guests. Both Jefferson and his wife entertained by reading poetry and playing musical duets together; he played the violin.
Jefferson in Politics
As Jefferson served in the House of Burgesses, Martha traveled with him to Williamsburg and took part in that city’s social life. She remained at Monticello while he served as delegate to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1776, but as he served as Virginia’s governor from 1779-1781, she moved to Richmond to be with him.
As the governor’s wife Martha served admirably. At the behest of Martha Washington Mrs. Jefferson headed a large group of prominent women who served as volunteers raising funds for the Continental Army.
Mrs. Jefferson moved to their Bedford County home “Poplar Forest” during the British attacks under Lord Cornwallis in 1781. Her young daughter Lucy died during this time. Martha’s health was weakening.
Because of Martha’s declining health, Jefferson resigned his gubernatorial position, promising not to accept any further political positions that would require their separation and cause hardship on their family. And true to is word, he turned down a diplomatic mission to Europe.
Thomas Jefferson served as president of the United States from 1801 until 1809. He personally directed most of the White House business that usually falls to the First Lady. He planned the entertainment, choosing the food and the form the dinner parties would take. As one might expect the dinners were less formal than most presidential dinners had been. Because his vice-president Aaron Burr was also a widower, he invited Dolley Madison, the wife of his secretary of state, to accompany him for more formal dinner parties.
Martha Jefferson died at age 33 at Monticello on September 6, 1782, nineteen years before her husband would be elected the third president of the young country. She is one of five first ladies to die before their husbands became president.
For more information:
White House First Ladies Biography