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Eternally Yours

Liberty was not the Founders’ only passion. Here are some of their love letters … and the stories behind them

By Paul Aron


The Head and the Heart

Thomas Jefferson to Maria Cosway, Paris, Oct. 12, 1786

Seated by my fireside, solitary and sad, the following dialogue took place between my Head and my Heart. Head. Well, friend, you seem to be in a pretty trim.

Heart. I am indeed the most wretched of all earthly beings. Overwhelmed with grief, every fiber of my frame distended beyond its natural powers to bear, I would willingly meet whatever catastrophe should leave me no more to feel or to fear.

Head. These are the eternal consequences of your warmth and precipitation. This is one of the scrapes into which you are ever leading us....

...Thou art the most incorrigible of all the beings that ever sinned! I reminded you of the follies of the first day, intending to deduce from thence some useful lessons for you, but instead of listening to these, you kindle at the recollection, you retrace the whole series with a fondness which shows you want nothing but the opportunity to act it over again. I often told you during its course that you were imprudently engaging your affections under circumstances that must cost you a great deal of pain...that the lady had moreover qualities and accomplishments, belonging to her sex, which might form a chapter apart for her: such as music, modesty, beauty, and that softness of disposition which is the ornament of her sex and charm of ours. But that all these considerations would increase the pang of separation...and that the separation would in this instance be the more severe as you would probably never see them again....

...Perhaps you flatter yourself they may come to America?

Heart. God only knows what is to happen. I see nothing impossible in that supposition, and I see things wonderfully contrived sometimes to make us happy. Where could they find such objects as in America for the exercise of their enchanting art? Especially the lady, who paints landscape so inimitably. She wants only subjects worthy of immortality to render her pencil immortal. The falling spring, the cascade of Niagara, the passage of the Potomac through the Blue Mountains, the natural bridge.... And our own dear Monticello, where has nature spread so rich a mantle under the eye?

Back and forth, for 12 pages, Thomas Jefferson’s head and heart debated whether love was worth the pain it caused. The object of the heart’s love was Maria Cosway, an Italian artist whom Jefferson had met — along with her husband and fellow artist, Richard — in the summer of 1786, when Jefferson was minister to France. Jefferson wrote the letter to Maria after she and Richard departed for England.

The letter was addressed to Maria, and there can be little doubt that it was Maria with whom Jefferson was enamored, even though Jefferson’s pronouns in the letter vary. Sometimes he spoke of “her,” sometimes of “them,” referring to Maria and Richard. Perhaps this was to protect his reputation or Maria’s; even in Paris, an affair with a married woman could be scandalous.

Thomas and Maria had spent two weeks seeing the sights of Paris. Showing off for her, he attempted to vault over a fence and injured his wrist. He had to write the entire letter with his left hand, adding physical pain to his emotional distress.

Was the relationship sexual?

Historians are divided on this point. “It would not seem unlikely that they consummated their love,” wrote historian John Kaminski in an understandably indirect phrase. “Arguing about whether they ever had sexual relations is a little like playing tennis with an invisible ball,” concluded historian Virginia Scharff.

But there was no question Thomas was interested in Maria, and that shed much light on Thomas’ personality. Traditionally, he had been viewed as almost monkish — a man who, after his wife died in 1782, devoted himself to philosophy and statesmanship. The letter to Cosway showed he was still very much interested in women. Indeed, some biographers — notably Fawn Brodie — used the letter to bolster the case that Jefferson had a sexual relationship with the enslaved Sally Hemings.

Whatever the nature of the relationship between Thomas and Maria, what lasted was friendship but not passion. Maria returned to Paris a year later without Richard, but she saw Thomas only at dinner parties. They were scheduled to meet again, but Maria stood him up in a scene that historian Jon Kukla compared to Humphrey Bogart waiting in vain for Ingrid Bergman at the Paris train station in Casablanca. Future letters, written over the next 40 years, showed affection but nothing more.

‘Votary to Love’

George Washington to Sarah Cary Fairfax, Camp at Fort Cumberland, Sept. 12, 1758

I profess myself a votary to love — I acknowledge that a lady is in the case — and further I confess, that this lady is known to you. — Yes Madam, as well as she is to one, who is too sensible of her charms to deny the power, whose influence he feels and must ever submit to. I feel the force of her amiable beauties in the recollection of a thousand tender passages that I could wish to obliterate, till I am bid to revive them. — but experience alas! sadly reminds me how impossible this is. — and evinces an opinion which I have long entertained, that there is a destiny, which has the sovereign control of our actions — not to be resisted by the strongest efforts of human nature.

You have drawn me my dear Madam, or rather have I drawn myself, into an honest confession of a simple fact — misconstrue not my meaning — ’tis obvious — doubt it not, nor expose it, — the world has no business to know the object of my love, declared in this manner to — you when I want to conceal it.

Readers of the New York Herald were no doubt surprised at the headline that ran on March 30, 1877. “A WASHINGTON ROMANCE: A Letter from General Washington Acknowledging the Power of Love,” it trumpeted.

George Washington developed a famously guarded public persona and went to great lengths to keep his feelings private. “He is in our textbooks and our wallets,” wrote his biographer Richard Brookhiser, “but not our hearts.”

But here was Washington proclaiming in his own words that he was a votary — a devotee — to love. The letter, written in 1758 just a few months before he married Martha Custis, a wealthy widow, had surfaced among some Fairfax family papers. What was most shocking — indeed appalling — was that Washington wrote the letter not to his soon-to-be bride but rather to Sally Fairfax, the wife of his good friend and neighbor.

Was there an innocent explanation for George’s professions of love? Might George merely have been informing his old friend Sally of his love for Martha?

Well, maybe. But George had been courting Martha for only a few months, and a few dances at a few balls in Williamsburg seem unlikely to have led to “a thousand tender passages.” In contrast, George had known Sally for a decade. Besides, if George was writing about his love for Martha, why not say so? Most biographers have concluded that he was writing of his love for Sally, not Martha.

Then why not come right out and tell Sally he loved her? George must have feared it would embarrass her or, if made public, enmesh them both in a scandal. He implies as much: “The world has no business to know the object of my love...when I want to conceal it.”

The letter was quickly sold at auction to an unnamed buyer and mysteriously disappeared, which understandably raised questions about its authenticity. It resurfaced in 1958 in a Harvard University library, and experts confirmed it was Washington’s handwriting. But well before then it had cracked open the cool and calm image Washington had cultivated and revealed a man of passion and, indeed, lust.

Still, there were many ways to interpret so coded a letter. George might have been reminiscing about a long-over fling. Or there may never have been a fling, just a flirtation. And even if George was deeply in love with Sally, as the language of his letter suggests, he may have been trying to find a way to tell her that despite his love he was marrying Martha.

We don’t know what Sally thought of all this. We know she responded to George, but her letter has been lost. She seems either to have not understood George’s meaning or, like him, to have been intentionally vague because he then responded: “Do we still misunderstand the true meaning of each other’s letters? I think it must appear so, though I would feign hope the contrary as I cannot speak plainer without—but I’ll say no more.”

Nor do we know what Martha thought of all this, though it’s perhaps revealing that Martha and George remained friendly with Sally and her husband, even after Sally and George Fairfax left Virginia for England in 1773.

There is no evidence that George was ever unfaithful to Martha; on the contrary, there is much to indicate that the Washingtons had a happy marriage, though details are frustratingly few since Martha ended up burning most of her letters from George. Whatever his feelings toward Sally, he put aside “the fine tales the poets and lovers of old have told us,” just as he advised his stepdaughter to do a few months before she married. “Love is a mighty pretty thing,” George wrote Elizabeth Parke Custis in 1794, “but like all other delicious things, it is cloying...love is too dainty a food to live upon alone.”

Yet George could never fully put aside his own passions. The year before he died, he wrote Sally. He looked back on the “important events” that had taken place over the past 25 years; these included, though he didn’t name them, his leading America to independence and his becoming the nation’s first president.

George added: “None of which events, however, nor all of them together, have been able to eradicate from my mind, the recollection of those happy moments — the happiest of my life — which I have enjoyed in your company.”

Sparkling Eyes

Catharine Coles to Dolley Payne Todd, June 1, 1794

Now for Mad — he told me I might say what I pleased to you about him. To begin, he thinks so much of you in the day that he has lost his tongue. At night he dreams of you and starts in his sleep calling on you to relieve his flame for he burns to such an excess that he will be shortly consumed and he hopes that your heart will be callous to every other swain but himself. He has consented to everything that I have wrote about him with sparkling eyes.

When it came to debating abstract ideas, no other Founding Father could match James Madison, who was deservedly known as the father of the Constitution. But when it came to personal matters he was, as the wife of a fellow delegate to the Continental Congress described him, “the most unsociable creature in existence.”

So when in 1794 Madison met the widowed Dolley Payne Todd, the tongue-tied congressman turned to her cousin and his acquaintance Catharine Coles for help. Coles’ version of Madison’s words shows he was very much in love. By some accounts, Madison also asked Martha Washington for help with the courtship.

Three and a half months after Coles’ letter, James and Dolley married. The bride was not nearly as enamored as the groom. The day after the wedding, she wrote to her friend Eliza Collins Lee that “in this union I have everything that is soothing and grateful in prospect,” and that James would be a generous step-father to her son. If that didn’t make clear that her attitude toward the marriage was more pragmatic than romantic, take note how she signed the letter to Lee: “Dolley Madison! Alas!”

The relationship soon deepened into an invaluable partnership. When James became secretary of state and then president, Dolley charmed politicians of both parties and diplomats of all nations. At the inaugural ball she “answered all my ideas of royalty,” reported Dolley’s friend and chronicler Margaret Bayard Smith.

Dolley became a national heroine when, during the War of 1812, the British took Washington, D.C. While James was with the American troops outside Washington, Dolley was at the White House. She fled just a few hours before the British took the city. She stayed long enough, however, to make sure that Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington wasn’t left behind, thus saving the iconic image when the British set fire to the building.

Ultimately, Dolley came to love James as much as he loved her. When James died in 1836, Dolley again wrote Lee. “I have been as one in a troubled dream,” she said, “since my irreparable loss of him, for whom my affection was perfect, as was his character and conduct through life.”

‘Unchequered bliss’

Over the years, various Colonial Williamsburg programs have portrayed a Romeo-and-Juliet love story featuring Betsey Nicholas and Edmund Randolph.

Edmund was the son of John Randolph, the attorney general for the Colony of Virginia. Unlike his brother Peyton, who chaired the Continental Congress, John Randolph remained loyal to the Crown. Indeed, John Randolph was so distraught when he learned Edmund was planning to join the Continental army and become George Washington’s aide-de-camp that he begged his son to change his mind. “For God’s sake,” John wrote Edmund, “return to your family and indeed to yourself.” Edmund remained a patriot, serving not only in the army but also as a delegate to the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention and as U.S. attorney general and secretary of state.

Betsey was the daughter of Robert Carter Nicholas, the treasurer for the Colony of Virginia and a patriot who, though he stopped short of advocating independence, introduced a resolution for a day of fasting and prayer in sympathy with Bostonians suffering from a British embargo.

Whether their families truly stood in the way of their love is unclear. “Much of their love story is an oral tradition,” said Katharine Pittman, who interpreted Betsey for many Colonial Williamsburg programs and who now portrays Martha Washington as part of the Nation Builders program. “But there’s no doubt Betsey and Edmund were in love.”

Though there are no extant love letters between the two, Edmund’s love for Betsey — and some hints about the family tensions — can be seen in a tribute he wrote for their children in 1810, soon after she died:

We were both born in the city of Williamsburg within twelve hours of each other.... My Aunt Randolph who saw each of us soon after our birth facetiously foretold, that we should be united in marriage: — a circumstance which, tho’ improbable at the time from the dissensions of our families, seemed daily to grow into an impossibility, from their increasing rancor....

The 29th day of August 1776 joined us in wedlock....

As I write my dear children, the subject swells to such a size in my heart, that I am afraid to trust myself longer in the sad indulgence...I sometimes catch a sound which deludes me so much with the similitude to her voice; I carry about my breast and hold for a daily visit so many of her precious relics; and above all my present situation is so greatly contrasted by its vacancy, regrets and anguish, with the purest and unchecquered bliss, so far as it depended upon her for many many years of varying fortune, that I have vowed at her grave daily to maintain with her a mental intercourse, the only one now allowed to me....

Innumerable were the instances in which I have returned home, dissatisfied with some of the scenes of the day abroad, and found an asylum in her readiness to partake of my difficulties and [make] them her own, or to divert them by despising them. On those occasions her features, to which she would never permit the smallest beauty to be ascribed, assumed a species of glory, which angels always possess, and of which, in no other woman, did I ever discern the feeblest ray.

Illustration by Emily Flake

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