For most, New Year’s is an occasion to make important life changes. For one prominent presidential couple, the day had an even greater significance.
For a majority of Americans, the dawn of a new year is synonymous with making some type of life change. For one well-known presidential couple, however, January 1 was important for a different reason: It was their wedding day. Thomas and Martha Jefferson wed on New Year’s Day, 1772 . The marriage had its fair share of triumphs and tragedies, and the couple’s relationship dynamic was shaped mostly through the tragedies.
New Year’s Day, 1772: The Wedding of Thomas and Martha Jefferson
Thomas and Martha Jefferson were married on New Year’s Day, 1772, at Martha’s father’s Virginia plantation. Martha was only 23 years old, but she had already accumulated a lot of “baggage.” For example, Mrs. Jefferson was married at age 18, and her first husband died after only two years of marriage. Also, her father, John Wayles, buried three wives, Martha’s mother and two stepmothers. In adddition, Martha’s son, John, died in 1771, when he was only three years old. Nevertheless, Thomas, who deeply loved his beautiful new bride, was determined to give her a happy life. He began by building and preparing a mansion called Monticello.
Following their two-and-a-half-week-long wedding celebration, the Jeffersons embarked upon their life together. This life began haphazardly. On their way to Monticello, Thomas and Martha were caught in a blizzard. They ended up snowbound at a plantation that was located seven or eight miles away from Monticello. Blinded by passion, the newlyweds passed the time with a bottle of wine and a blazing fire. According to Jefferson family lore, it is believed that Thomas and Martha entertained themselves “with song and merry laughter.” This unofficial honeymoon would last for over two weeks.
Ephemeral Marital Bliss
When the Jeffersons finally made it to Monticello, they were extremely happy. Thomas was doing well financially. More importantly, the couple’s love for each other was real. They soon symbolized this love by creating the finest plantation in Virginia. Life was sweet for the Jeffersons, but sadly, the good times would not last.
The Heartache Begins
From the inception of his and Martha’s relationship, Thomas was highly attentive and protective of Martha, a small, frail woman. Martha’s health would deteriorate rapidly following the births of six children, of which only two would survive to adulthood. Over a ten-year period, Martha was frequently ill and bedridden. Thomas even refused to attend important sessions of Congress to care for his wife. Finally, the perils of eighteenth-century childbearing proved to be too much for Martha. Shortly after delivering a supposedly 16-pound baby girl, she died on September 6, 1782. She was only 33 years old.
There has been much historical speculation as to what type of First Lady Martha Jefferson would have been. Given her background and upbringing, it is likely that she may have followed the example of Martha Washington. While not enough information about Mrs. Jefferson exists to fully ascertain this assertion, it is clearly evident that she had a profound impact on her husband. For, despite the fact that she was only married to America’s third president for one decade, Martha Jefferson was a lovely, accomplished woman who made her husband the great historical figure that he has become.
- Harris, Bill. The First Ladies Fact Book, p. 45-55. New York: Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, Inc., 2005.