PRESIDENT JEFFERSON: WHO WAS HIS FIRST LADY?
THE THIRD US PRESIDENT, A WIDOWER WITH A BLACK CONCUBINE,
ASKED DOLLEY MADISON, THE WIFE OF HIS SECRETARY OF STATE
TO SERVE AS HIS SURROGATE FIRST LAD
Thomas Jefferson, when he took up residence in the White House in 1801, required an accomplished woman to serve as his social hostess. His wife, Martha Wayles Jefferson, perished twenty years previously on September 6, 1782.
Thomas and Martha Jefferson enjoyed a happy, loving, and supportive marriage from January 1, 1772 until September, 1782. Mrs. Jefferson was previously wedded to John Wayles who died a few years into their marriage; they had one son. Martha’s fertility, already established, was compounded by Jefferson’s virility. Their ten-year produced at least six pregnancies. Moreover, Martha suffered the disruptions of the Revolutionary War, many household moves, and the hard physical tasks required of a farm wife in 18th century rural Virginia. Not surprising that she died when only thirty-three.
There was no wife to accompany Jefferson. On her deathbed Martha extracted a promise from her husband that he would never remarry. Jefferson fulfilled this promise.
All of the president’s sisters, except one, Martha Jefferson Carr, were deceased before their brother’s presidency. In 1801, Martha Carr was a widow with six children, and consequently was not a candidate for surrogate first lady.
In later years several presidents employed their daughters as the White House hostess when their wives were dead, sick, or uninterested. Both Martha (Patsy) and Mary (Polly) Jefferson survived into adulthood. Both married Virginia congressmen and had several children. Unfortunately for the president, both lived at some distance and rarely visited Washington D.C.
There was another very significant woman in Jefferson’s life, the black slave Sally Hemings who became his concubine in the 1790s and later presented her master with six children. Sally lived at Monticello, Jefferson’s beloved Virginia home. She was politically unsuitable to serve as a surrogate first lady in the White House.
Consequently, Dolley Madison, the agreeable and accomplished wife of Mr. Jefferson’s very close friend and Secretary of State James Madison, assumed the role of surrogate first lady.
Jon Kukla, Mr. Jefferson’s Women (New York: Vintage Books, 2008)
Virginia Scharff, The Women Jefferson Loved (New York: Harper Perennial, 2010)