Founding mothers increasingly are recognized for their roles in Revolutionary America. Resolute, intelligent, and insightful, these women shaped history with their words, letters, and actions. Martha Jefferson joins the cast of players in Colonial Williamsburg’s Revolutionary City, shedding light on the central relationship in Thomas Jefferson’s life.
Harmony: Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. Iâ€™m Harmony Hunter. The fame of the founding fathers has carried through generations, and rightly so. The contributions, wit and luck of men like Jefferson, Adams and Washington built an amazing government that still stands the test of time.
Less known, though, are what we sometimes call the founding mothers; the women whose strength of personality, political intelligence and social graces furthered the cause of independence as much as any man in uniform did. On this program weâ€™ve learned about Abigail Adams, Mercy Otis Warren and Martha Washington. Today we have the honor of introducing Martha Jefferson, the wife of Thomas Jefferson.
Joining me now in the studio is Annalise Weindel, an actor interpreter who portrays Martha Jefferson in Colonial Williamsburgâ€™s Revolutionary City.
Annalise, thank you for being here today.
Annalise Weindel: Oh, it is my pleasure.
Harmony: This is so much fun for me to be able to introduce a new face on the streets. You know, weâ€™re a historic institution. There are not a lot of newcomers to history, but this is a new face, a new interpretation that weâ€™re doing in the Historic Area. Tell me about Martha Jefferson and your role in portraying her.
Annalise: Well, Martha Jefferson is new not just to Colonial Williamsburg, but pretty much across the board. There are very few people who have ever portrayed her before, because of the little information we have about her. She is so fascinating in that Thomas Jefferson is a forerunner in the Revolution and everyoneâ€™s heard of him but very few people understand that it always takes a great woman behind a great man to push him to the power that he has. So itâ€™s incredibly exciting to be able to portray her and to have the opportunity to put her story out there; something that people havenâ€™t heard before.
Harmony: Martha Jefferson didnâ€™t rise from obscurity. Who was she before she enters into the Revolutionary record.
Annalise: Well she was born at a plantation in Charles City County called The Forest. Sheâ€™s born to John Wales, who is a lawyer and her mother is Martha Eppes. You know, the Eppeses are very well known out in the Piedmont area of Virginia and sheâ€™s very wealthy. She grows up almost a Piedmont Princess is what I call her because she is given all the opportunities of a gentry woman from a very young age.
She understands more about whatâ€™s going on in terms of needing to know about how to manage a household and she learns this at a young age. Her father marries twice after her mother dies. Both of those women die before she turns 13 years old. So as a 13-14 year old she is taking charge of her fatherâ€™s household needing to understand what it is to own slaves, what it is to own thousands of acres, how to work them and how to play the social system, how to play perfect hostess for any parties that they want to hold, how to hold conversations, political or otherwise, music, art, everything. She is so well rounded and she is that way when Thomas Jefferson discovers her, but he is not the first to discover her. She is married previously to Bathurst Skelton, another lawyer who lives out in the Piedmont.
Harmony: So sheâ€™s already a politician by the time she meets Thomas Jefferson. Now something thatâ€™s so wonderful about bringing her story to Colonial Williamsburg is that Thomas and Marthaâ€™s courtship happened, we think, in Williamsburg. How did they meet? What were their early days like?
Annalise: Well, as to how they actually met it is not recorded. We go a lot by family lore pretty much. The romantic stories that come from telling them over and over and over again. I know that our Thomas Jefferson here, Mr. Barker, tells a beautiful story of how they met at Christmastime with the musical instruments and how they played together and its wonderful. I think it really epitomizes their relationship in that one story in that their lives were centered from that moment on from the moment they met, around not just music, but around each other and around working together to make that relationship as powerful as it possibly could be. You know, they were courting and he bought her a pianoforte. I donâ€™t know how many instruments men are buying woman nowadays, but thatâ€™s not a little present. That is a big present. So heâ€™s invested in her, and sheâ€™s invested in him long before theyâ€™re even married.
Harmony: And they have a wonderful affectionate relationship where they live, Iâ€™m not going to say really as equals, but they have a strong partnership. They have an intellectual engagement that I think is wonderful to learn about.
Annalise: Absolutely. You consider that one of the things they share, that we know they share is their love of Laurence Sterneâ€™s â€œThe Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy,â€ and itâ€™s not an easy book to read. It is very complicated, but you can just read through this book and imagine that theyâ€™re reading it to each other and understanding each otherâ€™s opinions on everything; philosophy, on law, on politics, on the government.
She is taking care of what he canâ€™t take care of while heâ€™s working in Williamsburg. Sheâ€™s taking care of the house, making sure he can come home and know that he doesnâ€™t have to worry about anything. Everythingâ€™s done and I think in that way sheâ€™s empowering him to do what he needs to do; the political side, and heâ€™s empowering her so that she can take care of what she knows sheâ€™s good at, what she knows how to take care of and how to make grow into something better. Monticello starting out as nothing but brick foundation and becoming this grand house. So I think their entire marriage, it starts and ends with the two of them together an constantly balancing back and forth with each otherâ€™s strengths.
Harmony: Now they have several children. Whatâ€™s their family life like?
Annalise: Over the years Martha has seven children. One of them with her first husband and six with Thomas Jefferson and itâ€™s a little rocky. Only two of their children survive to adulthood. But they try to build a society in Monticello for themselves and make things very comfortable. Although I do feel like itâ€™s a little bit stressful to become this politicianâ€™s wife when you donâ€™t expect heâ€™s going to be a politician. You donâ€™t expect him to write a Declaration of Independence. Itâ€™s a lot of fear, but a lot of pride all mixed together and needing to stick to her role to support him.
Also taking care of their family and making sure the children are as comfortable as they can be, whether or not theyâ€™re as healthy as they can be which is beyond her control. But they never seem to wallow in any of the tragedy that they meet with. Itâ€™s always going forward; taking that next step toward whatever is in front of them.
Harmony: We can only imagine the grief she experienced during her life. It must have really affected her everyday life, her personality, as much as we know about what a vigorous reader she was, what a musician she was, what a vivacious hostess she was. She sees a lot of tragedy. How do you bring that into your interpretation; your understanding of this character?
Annalise: Well I think that the only way to bring it in without being completely morose about it is to show that these things are not just understood as being life passages in the 18th century, but that they do affect these people in some way. Iâ€™ve balanced back and forth between trying to depict the loss of her children because the loss of a child to any mother at any age has got to be difficult and sheâ€™s very young when sheâ€™s losing her children. Trying to depict that in a way that she doesnâ€™t know why some of her children are surviving and some of her children arenâ€™t.
They donâ€™t have that understanding of stress during pregnancy and how to have a healthy pregnancy without moving around all the time and we donâ€™t know exactly if she was ill and what she was ill from while she was carrying these children. So itâ€™s trying to make her a more serious person as time goes on when we progress her through Revolutionary City, understanding that in the beginning everything is rosy and exciting and towards the end sheâ€™s a little bit weaker, a little more worn out, but she understands that she still has a place, that she still has duties to her husband and to the children that are surviving.
Harmony: Martha herself dies fairly young.
Annalise: She does. She dies before sheâ€™s 34 years old. We donâ€™t know what from. Thereâ€™s speculation of what she dies from, but in the end she was very sickly; we do know that. We know with every pregnancy she just was worse and worse and worse. And in that sense, we also donâ€™t know if it was ever mentioned to them that maybe they shouldnâ€™t have any more children, but her role was to be a hostess, to be a wife, to be a mother and she was going to play that role to the fullest regardless of what that meant to herself. Which makes me believe she was a very selfless woman, which is something that I think is what drew Thomas Jefferson to her is the fact that she didnâ€™t care about the rest of it. She was going to make sure that everything was under control, everything was supported and whether she was the only support for him, or for her children, or for the house, she was going to play that role up until the end, and she did.
Harmony: Something else that speaks to the bond between Thomas Jefferson and Martha Jefferson is his reaction to her death. Heâ€™s devastated when she dies. He goes into weeks of depression.
Annalise: Well, and you hear about that being written about Patsy, their daughter, is talking about how she became his constant companion. The interesting point of that is the fact that he goes through such a depression after she dies and never remarries. And that is after an explicit request from Martha not to remarry again. And it takes a lot to understand someone whoâ€™s going to obey that wish; who is going to take that and say, â€œAlright, well you know, sheâ€™s gone.â€ He could have remarried, she wouldnâ€™t have known any better, but he took that to heart and he never remarried again. He had a few romances, but they were never anything as strong and as serious as what he had with her.
I feel like a lot of that was for the sake of their children. And in the end I think Patsy became almost a spitting image of her mother in personality, in control, in support and she took on the role that Martha left behind. She continued it on as much as she could even from the age of 9 years old. So I think that it speaks a lot for the strength of that relationship and for the understanding that he had in the part that he played in her life, how much he missed in their marriage, in their relationship, by not being able to be there, by having to go to Philadelphia, by having to go to Williamsburg all the time if she was at home, moving to Richmond, all of those things that are going on. When he loses her he understands just how strong she was and just what a pillar she was for that family.
Harmony: When we learn about Martha Jefferson, what do we learn about Thomas Jefferson by looking at this relationship? How is that whole era illuminated a little bit better?
Annalise: I think that what we learn about Thomas Jefferson from Martha is that he was a family man. Is that despite that he was so involved in politics he did have a life outside of politics and that life is affected by every decision he makes and I think heâ€™s very much aware of that and thatâ€™s something that people donâ€™t generally take into consideration. You think that if you write a document, like the Declaration of Independence, like â€œA Summary View,â€ that that sort of thing is not going to affect their family outside because the works sphere and the family sphere are so separated in our age.
But everything he does, every move he makes has to be done with his family in mind. And he couldnâ€™t have done half of those things if he didnâ€™t understand that she was there. So I think itâ€™s a good representation of every woman that every political man from the 18th century to the 21st century has, or every political woman with every man whoâ€™s in the family, that there has to be that pillar holding down the fort no matter what.
Harmony: Itâ€™s a wonderful character, a fascinating person and Iâ€™m so glad that youâ€™re bringing her to us here in Colonial Williamsburg. Really look forward to seeing Martha Jefferson on the streets of the Revolutionary City. Is that beginning this spring?
Annalise: It is going to be, yes. Yes.
Harmony: Well weâ€™re looking forward to seeing you out there and we hope our listeners get a chance to come out and see Revolutionary City this spring. Meet Annalise as Martha Jefferson and all the other wonderful Nation Builders who are out there populating the Historic Area.
Annalise, thank you for being here today.
Annalise: Thank you so much.