Thomas Jefferson’s Unforgettable Love Letter … to a Married Woman - OZY | A Modern Media Company
Richard Cosway (British, 1740-1742 - 1821), Maria Cosway.
SourceSepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because the heart wants what it wants, even if you have the head of Thomas Jefferson.

By Sean Braswell

It makes sense that the man who penned the Declaration of Independence — perhaps the most eloquent breakup note in history — could write one hell of a love letter. Even knowing that, however, won’t prepare you for the missive titled “The Dialogue Between My Head and My Heart” that Thomas Jefferson wrote 10 years later, in 1786.

That year, while serving as the U.S. minister to France, Jefferson did what so many middle-aged men in Paris do … he fell in love with a much younger woman. In this case, one who was also quite married. After a magical six-week romance in the City of Light, Jefferson, 43, escorted 27-year-old Maria Cosway on a crisp October morning to the carriage waiting to take her back to her husband and home in England. He then sat down to write a 4,000-word masterpiece of passion and unrequited love … left-handed (more on that later).

“My Dear Madam,” the letter begins, “having performed the last sad office of handing you into your carriage … and seen the wheels get actually into motion, I turned on my heel and walked, more dead than alive, to … where my own was awaiting me.”

Maria brought Jefferson back to the world of the living.

John Kaminski

It’s not hard to see what the multitalented Virginian saw in Maria Cosway. She was a true Renaissance woman: fluent in six languages, adept at the harpsichord and the harp, and a gifted painter, who had been elected into the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence at 19. She was slim and graceful with long golden hair, blue eyes and an Italian accent picked up from a childhood in Tuscany where her English father owned three inns. As Jefferson confided in a friend, Cosway had “qualities and accomplishments … such as music, modesty, beauty and that softness of disposition which is the ornament of her sex and charm of ours.”

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson, circa 1790.

Source Kean Collection/Getty

Maria’s father had died when she was 18, and to support her family she entered into an “advantageous marriage” with a man twice her age, a prominent portrait artist named Richard Cosway, known for his sexual escapades and the pornographic miniatures he liked to paint on the inside of wealthy Englishmen’s snuff boxes. Cosway was jealous of his wife’s artistic ability and prohibited her from painting portraits. Maria became a kept woman, resigned to using her talents to entertain guests at their Pall Mall mansion in London. She hated London and resented her husband, so she jumped at the chance for an extended vacation in Paris, where she would meet a charming, intelligent American diplomat who would turn her world upside down.

Jefferson was at a very different stage in his life. After his wife had died in 1782, he had fallen into what to modern eyes looks like clinical depression. His old friends John Adams and Benjamin Franklin convinced him to join them in France to help negotiate treaties with European countries. But another tragedy befell the new U.S. minister to France during his first winter in Paris when his 2-year-old daughter died back home. Meeting the engaging Maria Cosway the following year was tonic for his soul, says John Kaminski, director of the Center for the Study of the American Constitution and editor of Jefferson in Love. “Maria brought Jefferson back to the world of the living.”

After meeting through the American artist John Trumbull, Cosway and Jefferson saw each other almost daily for six weeks. They dined together and went for long walks. They talked for hours. During one outing, a smitten Jefferson tried to leap over a hedge, falling and dislocating his right wrist. No one knows why he made such a leap — he wrote a friend only that an explanation of the injury “would be a long story for the left [hand] to tell.”

Jefferson’s injury, however, did not prevent him from using his left hand to pen a long and unusually personal letter after Cosway’s departure from Paris. Most of that remarkable letter (which you can read here in its entirety), is a conversation between Jefferson’s reason and his emotions that he recounts for Maria’s benefit. “This is one of the scrapes into which you are ever leading us,” his Head chides his Heart, warning it, “Do not bite at the bait of pleasure till you know there is no hook beneath it.” But his Heart cannot shake the memory of those days with Maria: “Every moment was filled with something agreeable … what a mass of happiness had we traveled over!”

Cosway was overwhelmed by the missive, telling her suitor that she could spend “an hour to consider every word, to every sentence [she] could write a volume.” But, alas, it was not to be for these star-crossed lovers. Maria was a staunch Catholic, so divorce was unlikely, says Kaminski, and she was also fearful of oceanic travel, which was a problem after Jefferson was called back to America, where he would have an affair with another influential woman in his life, the slave Sally Hemings.  

They continued their correspondence for the rest of their lives as Jefferson became U.S. president and Cosway founded a school for girls. “I am always thinking of you,” Jefferson wrote. “If I cannot be with you in reality, I will be in imagination.” Thirty-five years after his “Dialogue,” Cosway, 62, wrote to Jefferson, 78, expressing regret over their unrequited love. “In your Dialogue, your head would tell me, ‘That is enough,’” she wrote, [but] “your heart perhaps will understand, I might wish for more.” 

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