by Elissa Blattman, Project Assistant
Of the first four First Ladies, we know the least about Martha Jefferson. Though she died about 18 and a half years before Thomas Jefferson became president, she is still considered a First Lady because she is the only spouse he had. No portrait of her is known to exist and, like Martha Washington did with her letters to and from George, Thomas destroyed nearly all their personal communication after her death.
Martha Wayles was born in Virginia on October 19, 1748 to the well-off family of John and Martha Eppes Wayles. Her mother died shortly after she was born due to complications from the birth. She was raised by her father, two stepmothers, and tutors. As a child, she was well educated. She became an accomplished musician who played the pianoforte and spinet, and also sang. When she was 18, she married Bathurst Skelton with whom she had a child named John. Less than two years after the marriage, Bathurst became ill and died in 1768.
After the acceptable period of mourning was over, the wealthy and beautiful (all physical accounts of her describe her as such) new widow began attracting many suitors, including Thomas Jefferson. Thomas fell in love with Martha nearly straightaway, however, she did not share the same feelings for him when he first started calling on her. Neither did her father, who did not approve of the lower status Thomas Jefferson’s interests in his daughter. Thomas proposed to Martha in early 1771, but she did not accept. Thanks to an encouraging letter written to him by a friend, Mrs. Drummond, Thomas continued to pursue the relationship. According to family lore, two men waiting outside the Wayles’ house to see Martha heard her and Thomas, who got there before the other men, playing music and singing together. Upon hearing this, they gave up and went home. Bonding over things, such as their mutual love of music and literature, Martha accepted Thomas’ proposal by June, 1771. Unlike marriages of generations past that considered monetary and social reasons for tying the knot over romantic feelings, the couple was one of a growing number of couples getting married out of love. Read the rest of this entry »