Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson's Struggle

Thomas Jefferson


"The art of life is the avoiding of pain."

      When she died in 1782, Thomas Jefferson promised his wife Martha at her deathbed that he would never remarry. Martha had been the love and joy of his life and he took the death (the first of a seeming unending serious of personal blows) painfully to heart, retreating into the cocoon of his books, plans, and politics. Two years later while United States Ambassador to France at the age of 41 he met the beautiful Anglo-Italian painter and musician, Maria Cosway. She was well-read, thoughtful, cosmopolitan, and married. Upon making her acquaintance, Jefferson was on the verge of falling seriously in love again.

      Although Jefferson had been living entirely in his thoughts and intellectual pursuits, his feelings towards Mrs. Cosway challenged him to live again with his heart. He seems to have been torn as to what to do with her. Chase happiness with the heart, or return to the security of the life of the mind? Unhappy with her husband, Mrs. Cosway seemed ready to give up everything to be with Jefferson but he held back.... and it never worked out. In my opinion, Jefferson turned away from his heart and crawled back into his mind where he lived unchallenged for the rest of his life. A man who lives in his mind does not suffer broken hearts, and almost everyone Jefferson loved had died prematurely and tragically - including his wife, and five of his six children. As Jefferson wrote to Cosway, "I am born to lose everything I love."

      But was this not an act of cowardice? Maria Cosway led a bitterly unhappy life after her "affair" with Jefferson for reasons completely unrelated to him. Yet if Jefferson had truly embraced his love for Maria and made her a part of his life.... maybe both their lives would have been happier. To live in the head or in the heart?

      Well, we shall never know what might have been.

"Dialogue Between My Head and My Heart"
by Thomas Jefferson

[My Dear] Madam

Having performed the last and sad office of handing you into your carriage at the Pavilion de St. Denis, and seen the wheels actually get into motion, I turned on my heels and walked more dead than alive, to the opposite door, where my own was waiting for me.... I was carried home. Seated by my fire, 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 fibre of my frame distended beyond it's 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. You confess your follies indeed: but still you hug and cherish them, and no reformation can be hoped, where there is no repentance.

HEART: Oh my friend! This is no moment to upbraid my foibles. I am rent into fragments by the force of my grief! If you have any balm, pour it into my wounds: if none, do not harrow them by new torrents. Spare me in this awful moment! At any other I will attend with patience to your admonitions.

HEAD: On the contrary I never found that the moment of triumph with you was the moment of attention to my admonitions. While suffering under your follies you may perhaps be made sensible of them, but, the paroxysm over, you fancy it can never return. Harsh therefore as the medicine may be, it is my office to administer it. You will be pleased to remember that when our friend Trumbull used to be telling us of the merits and talents of these good people [Mr. and Mrs. Cosway], I never ceased whispering to you that we had no occasion for new acquaintance, that the greater their merit and talents, the more dangerous their friendship to our tranquillity, because the regret at parting would be greater.