The dangerous liaison that broke Thomas Jefferson’s heart – and wrist.
In the autumn of 1786, America was a fledgling nation, post-Revolution but pre-Constitution and plagued by the revolt known as Shays’ Rebellion. 3500 miles away, serving as the American minister to France, Thomas Jefferson was getting busy with his own rebellion.
Jefferson’s rebellion was not ignited by a band of angry citizens, but by a single woman: Maria Cosway. The battleground was his own head and heart, and the casualties numbered two broken hearts and one broken wrist.
Maria Luisa Caterina Cecilia Hadfield Cosway was such a total package of sexiness and brilliance that she needed six names. With eyes as blue as violets, curly golden hair, a slim figure, and (according to biographer Dumas Malone) “kissable” pouting lips, Maria Cosway was the perfect femme fatale.
She spoke several languages, played and composed music, and was raised in Florence as a real-life Catholic school girl. When she was young, an insane nursemaid murdered four of her siblings but was caught before she could get to Maria. I’m pretty sure God stepped in and said, “Not that one! I want to watch her sexy life play out. Go forth, hot Maria, and drive men crazy.”
Just how hot was Maria Cosway? This is a painting of her:
that she painted herself. On top of her other talents, she was also an accomplished artist. And judging by her pose, she is not amused by the way you’re objectifying her.
Thomas Jefferson’s wife Martha had died four years earlier, and he grieved inconsolably for months before accepting an appointment to France to remove himself from the pain. He was sightseeing in Paris when his friend John Trumbull (painter of the famous fantasy version of the signing of the Declaration of Independence) changed his life forever by introducing him to Maria Cosway.
There were instant sparks. The 43-year-old widower called the sight of the 26-year-old bombshell “the most superb thing on earth.” The electricity was mutual. Plans were canceled on both sides so Jefferson could spend the rest of the day with Maria…and her husband.
Unfortunately, Maria was married, to the famous miniature artist Richard Cosway. But you shouldn’t waste any pity on him, because no one else ever did. Contemporaries describe Richard as an absurd, ridiculous little man who cheated on Maria with other women (and men) and looked “very like a monkey in the face.”
After their meeting, Thomas and Maria spent nearly every day together (without Richard) taking in all that France had to offer. And, quite possibly, making sweet Parisian love. Several biographers insist their romance was never consummated, but that old stalwart Dumas Malone wrote, “Illicit love-making was generally condoned in that society…if he as a widower ever engaged in it, this was the time.” Malone seems to yell back though time, “Now’s your chance, TJ!”
Their frolicking came to a sudden, painful end around September 8, 1786 when Jefferson somehow broke his right wrist. We know very little about the cause of the injury due to Jefferson’s mysterious secrecy, but he was almost certainly with Maria at the time.
When a friend asked him how it happened, Jefferson wrote back with his left hand:
How the right hand became disabled would be a long story for the left to tell. It was by one of those follies from which good cannot come, but ill may. As yet I have no use of that hand, and as the other is an awkward scribe, I must be sententious and not waste words.
What a long-winded way of saying “It’s none of your business.” I wouldn’t accept a non-answer like that. I’d write back saying, “Listen, Tommy. I didn’t ask you to waste words, and I didn’t ask you to wax poetic either. I asked how you broke your damn wrist. Could your left hand maybe string together three or four words into a complete thought? ‘Fell off skateboard’ or ‘Texting, didn’t see manhole.’”
But that’s the only explanation we have in Jefferson’s words about what happened, and it’s worse than no explanation because he’s so damn coy about it, practically teasing that it’s a really great story he’s not telling.
So what’s the truth behind this wrist mystery, or wristery, if you will? (I understand if you won’t.) There are a few possibilities.
William Franklin (Ben’s son) wrote that Jefferson “dislocated his right wrist when attempting to jump over a fence in the Petit Cours.” This led historians to believe Jefferson may have been jumping a fence to greet Maria or impress her. An odd mistranslation in a subsequent letter changed the fence into both a fountain and a “large kettle,” so some sources believe Jefferson broke his wrist trying to jump over a tea pot. Unless Jefferson was tea-bagging the fence when he broke his wrist, I’m not sure how you could confuse a fence with a kettle. Something is awry.
The Merchant-Ivory film Jefferson in Paris had another theory. The filmmakers must have thought fences and kettles were too…iron or something, so they imagined Jefferson broke his wrist while trying to impress Maria in another way. By jumping over a pile of logs.
Maybe they forgot to add the special effect of a raging bonfire or something, or maybe I just don’t understand what it takes to impress 18th century women. I’d love to imagine Maria and Thomas strolling through the French countryside and her saying, “So you regurgitated John Locke and wrote the Declaration of Independence? That don’t impress me much. How ’bout jumpin’ them logs?”
In spite of his failure to complete whatever folly no good could come from, Maria still loved him. When her monkey finished his painting gig and made her go back to England, it was heartbreaking for both her and the injured Jefferson to part. “We shall go I believe this morning,” she wrote him. “Nothing seems ready, but Mr. Cosway seems more dispos’d than I have seen him all this time…It will be with infinite pleasure I shall remember the charming days we have past together, and shall long for next spring.”
Jefferson’s heartbreak inspired him to write an epic love letter to Maria – his famous Dialogue of the Head and the Heart. Writing “slowly & awkwardly” with his left hand, he cranked out 12 pages of a playful, passionate chat between his head and his heart. His head was upset with his heart for letting them get too involved with Maria, but his heart reveled in the memory of the experiences while they lasted. He said in 4000 words what Alfred, Lord Tennyson said in 14 words sixty years later, “’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”
He should have just kept his best quotes and sent her a PowerPoint deck instead.
Jefferson asked Maria to read his magnum opus in at least six sittings, each morning “at toilette.” I was excited at first, thinking that’s exactly how I read my mail, but then I realized he was actually referring to her daily hairdressing.
She didn’t take his advice. “I could not resist the desire to read it at once,” she wrote, “even at the cost of committing an act of disobedience. Forgive me, the crime merits it… I honestly think my heart is…full or ready to burst with all the variety of sentiments… Oh, Sir, if my correspondence equaled yours how perfect it would be!”
Jefferson’s head is supposed to represent logic and reason, but it comes off as melodramatic and grumpy. His heart swerves from savoring every moment to wanting to throw itself off a bridge. So basically, Thomas Jefferson was human.
This letter gives us a glimpse into a humanity and self-awareness of his own contradictions we don’t see anywhere else. Jefferson is famous and fascinating for his contradictions – fighting for states’ rights vs. expanding federal power, writing about abolishing slavery vs. living off of it, appearing above the political fray while being deeply entrenched in it. His life was a battle between what he thought ideal and what he thought necessary.
Unlike his letters with the late Martha which he burned, Jefferson carefully saved his copy of this letter for posterity. The always-calculating man who cared so much about his image wanted us to see both sides of him – his intelligence and his passion – and the mad literary skills it took to poetically pit these contradictory parts of himself against each other.
Or maybe he just wanted to show off how well he could write with his left hand.
Jefferson set a very high standard with the Dialogue of the Head and the Heart, one even he couldn’t live up to. Upset with the comparable shortness of Jefferson’s subsequent letters, Maria scolded him, “Are you to be painted in future ages sitting solitary and sad, on the beautiful Monticello tormented by the shadow of a woman who will present you a deformed rod, twisted and broken…”
He may have been tormented by her and his wrist may have been a deformed rod, but he was not “solitary” when he returned to Monticello. In fact, it was just a few months later that Jefferson’s 8-year-old daughter Polly arrived in France with her maid, the 14-year-old slave known as Sally Hemings.
The following year, Jefferson wrote Maria a letter that may have alluded to his scandalous liaison with the young Sally. He described a beautiful painting he saw called “Sarah Presenting Hagar to Abraham” where a nude slave woman is presented to Abraham to birth his children. He called the painting “delicious” and said he would have gladly taken Abraham’s place.
He wrote this after the start of his relationship with Hemings, the slave woman who would go on to bear several of his children and serve him for the rest of his life. If Jefferson already found the idea of being with a slave “delicious,” he may have found Sally even more tempting, as it’s likely she resembled Jefferson’s late wife, Martha. Because (are you sitting down?) Martha Jefferson and Sally Hemings had the same father.
Excuse me a moment, I have to write a letter back in time.
Dear Pulitzer-Prize winning Jefferson biographer Dumas Malone,
When you referred to Maria Cosway and said if Jefferson ever engaged in illicit love-making “this was the time,” I think you were a little off. I know the compelling DNA evidence that Jefferson fathered Sally Hemings’s children didn’t come out until 1998, and you yourself passed away in 1986, but I wanted to send this letter back in time to tell you the good news about Thomas Jefferson.
It turns out his only chance at illicit love-making was not just in the fall of 1786 with Maria Cosway! That is, of course, if you consider “illicit love-making” to include intercourse with your 15-year-old slave who also happens to be your dead wife’s half-sister. If you do, then there were actually many, many more times over 40 years. If you don’t consider that to be illicit love-making (and instead consider it, say, rape), then yes, Maria was probably his best opportunity for naughty intercourse.
Your most humble servant,
Nobody ever painted Sally Hemings’s portrait. She wasn’t an accomplished artist or a celebrated member of high society, and she may not have known how to read or write. But she was a product of Jefferson’s beloved home and reminded him of his late wife.
The relationship or at least its formation is as inexcusable as the institution of slavery itself, but the choice makes sense for the man who said life was about avoiding pain and he couldn’t bear parting with those he loved. Maria could never be his and her departure left him “overwhelmed with grief.” That pain could be avoided with Sally, who was his and his alone.
His relationship with Sally Hemings didn’t stop Jefferson from thinking about Maria. Just before his departure from Europe, he wrote to her, “I am going to America and you are going to Italy. One of us is going the wrong way, for the way will ever be wrong that leads us further apart.”
In 1789 Jefferson returned to America to serve as the first Secretary of State under George Washington. Back in Europe, Maria’s marriage to Richard Cosway was annulled. How and why is unclear, but things went downhill for our monkey friend after that. He went insane and spent most of his time in institutions after he lost the use of his right hand. His right hand.
I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that two men who were intimate with Maria ended up with similar grave injuries, but I don’t want to rule anything out so I’ll add it to the list.
After leaving a trail of limp-wristed men in her wake, Maria went on to found a convent in Italy. She lived there for the rest of her life and served as its director. She and Jefferson continued corresponding sporadically until his death.
Each kept these images of the other in their homes.
Jefferson soon regained the use of his right hand for writing, but not much else. French surgeons botched the setting of the bone, and the injury never completely healed. The pain served as a lifelong reminder of Maria Cosway, the breaker of hearts and wrists whom he loved with his head and his heart – a woman he could never own.
Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham, Jefferson and the Rights of Man by Dumas Malone, Jefferson: A Revealing Biography by Page Smith, John Adams by David McCullough, Head and Heart Letter on pbs.org, Monticello.org, Richard Cosway, “The Macaroni Miniature Painter” from The Art Amateur, Vol. 8, No. 2 (January 1883), The Franklin Papers