U.S. President Thomas Jefferson Personal Life

About the U.S. President Thomas Jefferson, personal life, marriage, and relationship with Sally Hemmings, history and biography.


3rd President



Personal Life: Jefferson was a passionate and romantic young man, and later in life he actually admitted a youthful attempt to seduce the wife of one of his close friends. There was also an infatuation with an unmarried Virginia belle before his attentions settled on a young widow named Martha Wayles Skelton. An elegant, auburn-haired heiress, Martha's skill at the harpsichord matched Jefferson's accomplished violin playing. The two were married in 1772, when Jefferson was 28 and Martha 23. As a honeymoon, he took his bride to the unfinished mansion Monticello ("little mountain" in Italian) that he was building on a hilltop of his estate. The marriage was a happy one, despite the fact that only two of their six children lived past childhood. In 1782 Martha herself, worn out after her last pregnancy, died at the age of 33. Her death, following closely upon Jefferson's humiliating experience as governor of Virginia, plunged him into the most acute depression of his life. He stayed in his room for three weeks and then went out only to accompany his daughter Patsy on silent, all-day rides on horseback. Jefferson had reportedly assured his dying wife that he would never remarry, and he meant to keep the promise.

As a widower, he developed a passionate, sometimes hysterical attachment to his two daughters. But he also had other interests. In Paris, though he expressed disgust at French immorality in sexual matters, he managed to fall deeply in love with the wife of an English portraitist, a famous beauty named Maria Cosway. While Mr. Cosway was away on business, Jefferson took time off from his duties as American minister and spent day after day touring Paris with Maria. Although much of their later correspondence was romantic in nature, it seems unlikely that their relationship was consummated.

Nevertheless, by the time Jefferson returned home from France, he appeared to have worked out an arrangement that helped him avoid loneliness and frustration. Among the 135 slaves left to him by his father-in-law was a beautiful quadroon named Sally Hemings, with long, straight dark hair and olive-colored skin. Though publicly opposed to slavery, Jefferson owned slaves all his life, and he had special reason to hold on to this particular slave. She was actually the half sister of his late wife, born out of an illicit union between Jefferson's father-in-law and one of his mulattoes. At the age of 15, Sally accompanied Jefferson's daughter on a voyage to join Jefferson in Paris, and shortly thereafter she probably became the master's concubine. Before returning with Jefferson to America, Sally extracted the promise that he would free any children that she might bear him before they reached the age of 21. Over the years, she gave birth to five children, some if not all of whom were likely Jefferson's. Visitors to Monticello reported that the resemblance between Jefferson and one of his "black" sons was so strong that it was impossible to tell them apart from a distance. Ultimately, stories about Jefferson's involvement with his young slave found their way into the newspapers and were used against him while he was president.

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