Thomas Jefferson was never comfortable in allowing direct expression of his emotions. When he did, the results were general catastrophic—e.g., his tongue-tied attempts at expressing his love as a youth to Rebecca Burwell and his seeming inability emotionally to recover himself after the passing of his wife Martha on September 6, 1782. Jefferson eventually accepted a post as delegate to France in 1784. That post turned into the position of minister plenipotentiary which he held till 1789. He needed for a while to get away from Monticello, where everything on the monticule reminded him of his wife.

In France, Jefferson and young companion and artist John Trumbull accidentally met artists Richard and Maria Cosway on a Sunday in August, 1786, while Jefferson was admiring the architecturally remarkable dome of Halle aux Bles (1767)—the grain market of Paris. He was immediately smitten with Mrs. Cosway and the quartet spent the remainder of the day enjoying a variety of experiences—dinner in Saint-Cloud, tour of the pleasure gardens by Montmartre, and a visit to the harpist Johann Baptiste Krumpholtz—after all parties had cancelled their other plans for the remainder of the day.

Jefferson and Cosway thereafter would be constant companions, with or without an escort, inasmuch as circumstances allowed. The days fled speedily, and on October 6, 1786, he accompanied the Cosways via carriage to Saint-Denis, where they would begin their return to London.

Spending some time in disconsolation, Jefferson eventually gave vent to his feelings in an extraordinary letter, days later, to Maria Cosway (12 Oct. 1786)—the most remarkable letter, in my estimation, of Jefferson’s roughly 19,000 letters. It consists of 12 pages and over 4,600 words and was written entirely with Jefferson’s left hand—his right suffered an injury on September, 1786, presumably, in some effort physically to show off to Cosway—and must have taken much time to compose. It is an extraordinary letter—from a psychological perch, the most extraordinary letter Jefferson has left us—because it tells us so much about Jefferson’s inner self. It is another instance, and we possess too few of them, of Jefferson allowing himself to give expression to his emotions.

After a brief introductory paragraph in which Jefferson writes of his solitude and sadness while returning to his French residence after having spent the day with Maria, he aims to express his love for Cosway, but can do so only elliptically and clumsily, through a dialog between his head and heart—each anthropomorphized.

Head acknowledges Heart’s solitude and sadness, and begins, “Well, friend, you seem to be in a pretty trim.” There begins a lengthy discussion in which Heart confesses certain “follies,” while Head admonishes Heart—“you hug and cherish them.” So while Heart needs an ear to which it can confess, Head is willing to listen only if it is able to advise Heart. “Harsh as the medicine may be, it is my office to administer it.”

Head gives a lengthy admonition that is Epicurean, as it seeks to balance the mix of pleasure and pain in the long and short of every decision and allow for pleasure if only through eschewal of pain.

To avoid these eternal distresses, to which you are for ever exposing us, you must learn to look forward before you take a step which may interest our peace. Everything in this world is matter of calculation. Advance then with caution, the balance in your hand. Put into one scale the pleasures which any object may offer; but put fairly into the other the pains which are to follow, and see which preponderates.

Head sums: “Do not bite at the bait of pleasure till you know there is no hook beneath it. The art of life is the art of avoiding pain: and he is the best pilot who steers clearest of the rocks and shoals with which it is beset. Head recommends Epicurean withdrawal—“to retire within ourselves” in order to “suffice for our own happiness.”

Heart disagrees. When sad, what “more sublime delight” than to mingle tears with a dear friend. “Grief, with such a comfort, is almost a luxury!” Heart continues, “That is a miserable arithmetic which would estimate friendship at nothing, or at less than nothing.”

Heart will have none of Head’s uncalled-for advice. Stick to squaring circles, tracing the orbits of comets, and examining solids for resistance, says Heart. Those are of the nature of Head—its natural province. Heart has been created by deity for “feelings of sympathy, of benevolence, of gratitude, of justice, of love, of friendship.” In such matters, Head ought not to intrude, for “I do not know that I ever did a good thing on your suggestion, or a dirty one without it.”

Jefferson closes with apologetic words. The letter has been too long—“I promise you on my honour that my future letters shall be of reasonable length”—for a heartfelt expression of “my esteem for you.” He adds some anecdotes: an account of the “incessant rains,” of his health, and of affairs in France without Cosway.

The length of the letter and the impassioned dialogue between Head and Heart speak to a heart rent into two and a troubled mind, upon Maria’s leaving. Jefferson is a man uncomfortable with love because he is uncomfortable with loss. Here one must again consider how bitterly, even violently, he grieved, when his wife, Martha, passed.

It is clear that Jefferson could not openly and transparently express love of Maria in the letter in the event that husband Richard Cosway might intercept and read the letter. (Theirs was a marriage of convenience: Richard got a lovely and talented painter and musician; Maria, lifelong financial security.) Still a more straightforward expression of his “esteem” for Maria would have been more effective and less cryptic. That Jefferson chose a dialog or debate between Head and Heart is telling, and speaks again to his tendency to polarize as well as his discomfiture with straightforward emotional expression. Moreover, Jefferson through the format of a debate is also readying himself for anticipated heartbreak in the event that Maria does not feel for him as he does for her. Thus, even if Heart eventually wins the debate, and Heart does, Jefferson shows by the format of the letter as well as in the complete correspondence with Cosway over the decades—Jefferson’s head predominates in the correspondence—that there is greater consolation and comfort in the words of Head than of Heart.

Maria, who was likely manic-depressive,[1] would return to Paris the following year, and she would stay from late August to early December. Yet she would stay with Polish Princess Aleksandra Lubormirska, whose residence was a considerable distance from Jefferson’s, at the western outskirts of Paris. The two, to Jefferson’s hefty dismay, would see little of each other and only at large dinner engagements. Jefferson rationalized to Trumbull (13 Nov. 1787): “Her and my endeavors to see one another more since she has been here. From the meer [sic] effect of chance, she has happened to be from home several times when I have called her, and I, when she has called on me.” Cosway was avoiding Jefferson. In spite of gawky attempts at dissembling, Jefferson had merely come on to Cosway too quickly and too heavily.

The year 1787 in effect ended any hope of a relationship in Jefferson’s eyes. When she returned to London, Jefferson complains (31 Jan. 1788) that the only way to enjoy Cosway’s company is “en petite comité.”[2] He adds: “You make everybody love you. You are sought and surrounded therefore by all. Your domestic cortege was so numerous, et si imposante,[3] that one could not approach you quite at their ease.” Months later, Jefferson writes (30 July 1788): “I am sure if the comparison could be fairly made of how much I think of you, or you of me, the former scale would greatly preponderate. Of this I have no right to complain, nor do I complain. You esteem me as much as I deserve. If I love you more, it is because you deserve more.”

It is probable that Cosway in 1787 was eschewing, perhaps even flouting, Jefferson because she had more interesting, livelier company. He was a fit companion in 1786, but not for the subsequent year. Whatever effusions Heart may have had in the protracted letter to Cosway, those effusions were merely a short-lived expression of Jefferson’s generally guarded feelings.

As with the miscarried relationship with Rebecca Burwell—botched very likely on account of Jefferson’s gaucherie with females and defense-based dispassion—Jefferson’s hoped-for relationship with Cosway never had a chance of success. Lovely, lively, and thriving on attention, she could never have made a suitable wife or companion for Jefferson. Did he expect her to give up high society and come to Monticello to run his rural household atop a monticule in the manner of his deceased wife?

The relationship miscarried. Jefferson was a profoundly emotional man who, whenever he gave vent to his impulses, gave vent to a flood of emotions and in a confused manner, which Cosway must have found overwhelming. Consider, for illustration, Cosway’s response to Jefferson’s infamous billet doux. She begins her letter (30 Oct. 1786):

How I wish I could answer the dialogue! But I honestly think my heart is invisible, and mute, at this moment more than usual it is full or ready to burst with all the variety of sentiments, which a very feeling one is capable of; sensible of my loss at separating from the friends I left at Paris, I have hardly time to indulge a shameless tribute; but my thoughts must be contrasted by the joy of meeting my friends in London.

Jefferson’s heart is bloated with love and scaturient; hers is invisible, mute. Jefferson crafts a lengthy letter that singles out Cosway as an object of his affections; she writes of Jefferson merely as “one of the friends I left at Paris.”

Jefferson, deflated, must have speedily found solace in the advice of Head in his billet doux:

The most effectual means of being secure against pain. The most effectual means of being secure against pain is to retire within ourselves, and to suffice for our own happiness. Those, which depend on ourselves, are the only pleasures a wise man will count on: for nothing is ours which another may deprive us of. Hence the inestimable value of intellectual pleasures.

Subsequent letters to Cosway by Jefferson—there is a lacunae from 1805 to 1819—are very largely measured and friendly, but dispassionate. Subsequently letters to Jefferson from Cosway over the decades prior to Jefferson’s death increasingly show irritation at Jefferson’s dispassion

In an as-yet-unpublished book, The Tortuous Relationship of Thomas Jefferson and Maria Cosway: Complete Correspondence, with Critical Commentary, I explore fully those subsequent letters. From 1790 to the final letter on 1824, Cosway pens 12 letters; Jefferson, five. After the epistolary gap from 1805 to 1819, Cosway pens five letters; Jefferson, two. In each of her final five letters, except the last, she expresses a desire to see again Thomas Jefferson. In her last (24 Sept. 1824), she closes the letter:

I wish much to hear from you, & how you go on with your fine Seminary [UVa]. I have had my great Salon[4] painted, with the representation of the [various four] parts of the world & the most distinguished objects in them I have at a loss for America, as I found very few small prints—however Washington town is marbd & I have left a hill barren, as I would place Monticello, & the Seminary; if you favor me with some description that I might have it introduced You would Oblige me Much. I am just setting out for my home, pray write to me at Lodi & if this reaches you safe I will write longer by the Same way. Believe me ever—

Your Most Oblgd & affte: friend

Maria Cosway

Jefferson never replied to Cosway’s letter. Cosway would finish her painting of the four corners of the world in the salon of her school. The hill would remain barren.


[1] See for example Maria Cosway to TJ (1 Jan. 1787), where she writes, “If I am more endowed by nature with any one sense, it is that of melancholy, according to the objects which surround me, it may be dissipated or increased.” There are numerous other instances of extreme moodiness in her letters to Jefferson.

[2] “Among intimate friends.”

[3] “And so imposing.”

[4] Cosway then heads a school for Catholic girls in Lodi, Italy.

M. Andrew Holowchak

M. Andrew Holowchak, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy and history, who taught at institutions such as University of Pittsburgh, University of Michigan, and Rutgers University, Camden. He is editor of Journal of Thomas Jefferson and His Time and author/editor of over 65 books and over 275 published essays on topics such as ethics, ancient philosophy, science, psychoanalysis, and critical thinking. His current research is on Thomas Jefferson—he is acknowledged by many scholars to be the world’s foremost authority—and has published over 200 essays and 27 books on Jefferson. He also has numerous videos and a weekly series with Donna Vitak, titled “One Work, Five Questions,” on Jefferson on YouTube. He can be reached at [email protected]


  • Valerie Protopapas says:

    Isn’t it odd in the extreme that a man with the facility of language as had Jefferson was not able to express himself. Of course, love letters to the wife of a friend would be most problematic even for a man of less personal honor than Jefferson but he seems a man who was wary of a blow that would be struck against him when he least expected it. It is really a shame that he did not have a wider circle of friends who might have helped him find a suitable companion after the death of his wife but he was probably a very personal man who would have shied away from such social interactions. It is also interesting to note that Washington’s first love was a woman who married another man. From what is written of the matter, I do not believe he ever got over her. It is so easy to place blame especially on “famous people” when we know so little of their lives except what has come down to us today.

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