Meeting Mrs. Jefferson

Martha Jefferson

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.

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Transcript

Harmony: Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I’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 we’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 Williamsburg’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, we’re a historic institution. There are not a lot of newcomers to history, but this is a new face, a new interpretation that we’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 everyone’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 it’s incredibly exciting to be able to portray her and to have the opportunity to put her story out there; something that people haven’t heard before.

Harmony: Martha Jefferson didn’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. She’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 she’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 what’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 father’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 she’s already a politician by the time she meets Thomas Jefferson. Now something that’s so wonderful about bringing her story to Colonial Williamsburg is that Thomas and Martha’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 don’t know how many instruments men are buying woman nowadays, but that’s not a little present. That is a big present. So he’s invested in her, and she’s invested in him long before they’re even married.

Harmony: And they have a wonderful affectionate relationship where they live, I’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 Sterne’s “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy,” and it’s not an easy book to read. It is very complicated, but you can just read through this book and imagine that they’re reading it to each other and understanding each other’s opinions on everything; philosophy, on law, on politics, on the government.

She is taking care of what he can’t take care of while he’s working in Williamsburg. She’s taking care of the house, making sure he can come home and know that he doesn’t have to worry about anything. Everything’s done and I think in that way she’s empowering him to do what he needs to do; the political side, and he’s empowering her so that she can take care of what she knows she’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 other’s strengths.

Harmony: Now they have several children. What’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 it’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 it’s a little bit stressful to become this politician’s wife when you don’t expect he’s going to be a politician. You don’t expect him to write a Declaration of Independence. It’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 they’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. It’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. I’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 she’s very young when she’s losing her children. Trying to depict that in a way that she doesn’t know why some of her children are surviving and some of her children aren’t.

They don’t have that understanding of stress during pregnancy and how to have a healthy pregnancy without moving around all the time and we don’t know exactly if she was ill and what she was ill from while she was carrying these children. So it’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 she’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 she’s 34 years old. We don’t know what from. There’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 don’t know if it was ever mentioned to them that maybe they shouldn’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 didn’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. He’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 who’s going to obey that wish; who is going to take that and say, “Alright, well you know, she’s gone.” He could have remarried, she wouldn’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 he’s very much aware of that and that’s something that people don’t generally take into consideration. You think that if you write a document, like the Declaration of Independence, like “A Summary View,” 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 couldn’t have done half of those things if he didn’t understand that she was there. So I think it’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 who’s in the family, that there has to be that pillar holding down the fort no matter what.

Harmony: It’s a wonderful character, a fascinating person and I’m so glad that you’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 we’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.

Comments

  1. I’m completely amazed that the relationship between Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemmings was ignored in this podcast. Of course Jefferson could keep his vow to stay single because he was sleeping with his slave and produced several children with her. This podcast makes it seem that he was a faithful husband who kept his promise to his dearly departed wife. So not true. This is an example of history being rewritten to make Jefferson seem decent and keeping relevant facts hidden.

    • Dear T.,

      Thanks for listening, and thanks for your great comment.

      While Sally Hemings’ story is certainly part of the Thomas Jefferson story, it is not quite as relevant to the Martha Jefferson story. As this podcast focuses on the perspective of Martha Jefferson, and since Sally Hemings was about 9 years old when Martha died, any discussions about the later period would only be speculation. That’s why Sally Hemings is not discussed in any real depth in this episode.

      There are disagreements about how to interpret the life of Thomas Jefferson, and the Sally Hemings story is a notable one. In terms of knowing Jefferson’s heart, history is silent on the question.

      Their story is a reminder that the founders, like all of us, were flawed human beings and their lives contained as many inconsistencies and contradictions as our lives do today.

      The definitive work on the Hemings story is Annette Gordon Reed’s “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy.” We recommend it for anyone who wants to delve deeper into the fascinating history of not just the Jefferson/Hemings story, but the way that history is analyzed and written.

      Your comment does present one irrefutable truth: the Past & Present podcast is long overdue for an episode dedicated to the story of Sally Hemings. Listen in the coming months for the story, and thank you for your thought-provoking comment.

      Thanks,
      The Podcast Team

  2. I do not wish to start an argument, but could we please give the Jefferson/Hemmings issue a rest? Scholars and authors have not definitively proven there was such a relationship. Even the DNA testing is not conclusive. I have seen this behavior of putting 21st century ideas into 18th century characters a lot lately and many guests are quite put off by it and wish people would leave the character interpreters alone. The podcast would not be the correct place to air this issue. Once again, thank you to CW and all of its employees for the amazing jobs that they do!

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