Jefferson and His Daughters

By Thomas O. Jewett
This short study explores Jefferson's relationship with his daughters through his correspondence with them. It shows Jefferson as a caring, but aloof and manipulative parent.

His letters portray a solicitous, demanding and manipulative father.Thomas Jefferson's relationship with his daughters (Martha and Maria) underscores the dichotomy found in the man. Jefferson was a loving and caring father, but he lacked the ability to convey affection to his children personally. Any sustained intimacy can be seen in his letters to his two daughters. There were many since he was separated from them for extended periods of time.

"I have placed my happiness on seeing you good and accomplished and distress which this world can now bring on me could equal that of your disappointing my hopes." (As cited in Peterson, p. 268). "I rest the happiness of my life in seeing you beloved by all the world, which you will be sure to be if to a good heart you join those accomplishments so peculiarly pleasing in your sex." (As cited in Nock, p. 59).

Two areas, "peculiarly pleasing in your sex", that Jefferson harped on to his daughters were dress and cleanliness. "A lady who has been seen as a sloven or slut in the morning will never efface the impression she has made, with all dress and pageantry she can afterwards involve herself in...I hope therefore, the moment you rise from bed, your first work will be to dress yourself in such style as that you may be seen by any gentleman without his being able to discover a pin amiss." (As cited in Nock, p. 59). "I do not wish you to be gayly clothed at this time of your life, but that what you wear should be fine of its kind; but above all things, and all times let your clothes be clean, whole, and properly put on...Nothing is so disgusting to our sex as a want of cleanliness and delicacy in yours." (As cited in Peterson, pp. 268-69).

Thomas Jefferson and his daughtersThomas Jefferson

It is obvious that Jefferson had strong feelings about how women dressed and was deeply offended by a lack of cleanliness in women. "Jefferson admired women who were soft, passive, modest, and chaste, and who possessed such artistic talents as made them ornaments of a masculine world." (McLaughlin, p. 195). Women of his day played an important role in their husbands' business and political life, as hostess and social companion. How she dressed herself was a reflection of her husband's prosperity, so her clothing was expected to be suitably stylish and tasteful.

In Jefferson's world of the Virginia plantation aristocracy, women did not normally show a great deal of independence. They were to accept the influence, first of their father and then of a husband. A woman in this society should please the particular middleman who happen to be standing for the moment as her representative to the world: father, husband, or brother. Women's interests were to be confined chiefly to housekeeping and childbearing. In particular, Jefferson thought women should keep out of politics, which was reserved for males.

Since women were not called upon even to discuss politics, there was no reason to give them the vote or allow them to run for office. Excluded from public affairs, no effort was needed to educate them beyond what was needed to be proper wives and mothers. Women's duty being so incomplex, and the grasp of it needing so little brains, the education of women was correspondingly simple; so simple that he hadn't thought much about it. Jefferson had worked on a plan for public, white, male education for fifty years, yet stated "a plan for female education has never been a subject of systematic contemplation with me. It has occupied my attention so far only as the education of my own daughters occasionally required." (As cited in Nock, p. 58).

Believing that his girls were likely to be plantation wives, Jefferson felt they should have a solid education "which enabled them, when become mothers, to educate their own daughters, and even to direct the course for sons, should their fathers be lost or incapable or inattentive." (As cited in Nock, p. 58). He wrote to Marquis Barbe-Marbois: "The plan of reading which I have formed for her (Martha) is considerably different from what I think would be most proper for her sex in any other country than America. I am obliged in it to extend my views beyond herself, and consider her as possibly at the head of a little family of her own. The chance in marriage she will draw a blockhead I calculate at about fourteen to one, and of course that the education of her family will rest on her own ideas and direction without assistance. With the best of poets and prosewriters I shall therefore combine a certain extent of reading in the graver sciences." (As cited in McLaughlin, pp. 188-91).

Both girls were taught music, dance, literature, languages, drawing, and needlework. The latter, Jefferson thought, was particularly useful for a plantation wife. "In the country life of America there are moments when a woman can have recourse to nothing but her needle for employment. When one is in dull company and it is poor taste to read, or simply leave, the needle is a valuable resource." (As cited in McLaughlin, p. 191).

The selection of the girl's curriculum shows some of his biases. He felt that women had an inordinate passion for novels. "The result is a bloated imagination, sickly judgment and disgust towards all the real business of life. For like reason, much poetry should not be indulged. Some is useful for forming taste and style. French is indispensable. Music is invaluable where a person has an ear. Drawing is an innocent and engaging amusement, often useful and a qualification not to be neglected in one who is to become a mother and an instructor. Dancing is a healthy and elegant exercise, a specific against social awkwardness, but an accomplishment of short use , for the French rule is wise, that no lady dances after marriage... gestation and nursing leaving little time to a married lady when this exercise can be either safe or innocent." (As cited in Nock, p. 59).

To accomplish this course of study, Jefferson drew up a regimen for his daughters:

"From 8 to 10 o'clock practice music. From 10 to 1 dance one day and draw another. From one to 2 draw on the day you dance, and write a letter the next day. From 3 to 4 read French. From 4 to 5 exercise yourself in music. From 5 till bedtime read English, write, etc." (As in cited Peterson, p. 268).

Jefferson was continually anxious about his daughters not having enough to do: "a mind always employed is always happy. This is the true secret, the grand recipe, for felicity. The idle are the only wretched. (As cited in Nock, p. 60). "You must apply yourself to play on the harpsichord, to draw, to dance, to read and talk French and such things as will make you worthy of the love of your friends." (As cited in Ellis, p. 92). The objective of this frantic pace was to teach them to be industrious, for as he observed, "no laborious person was ever yet hysterical." (As cited in Miller, p. 182).

Martha, the eldest daughter, reveled under this regime of study. She was her father's daughter. Like Jefferson, she was tall, and her features resembled his. She was regarded as plain, intelligent and physically robust woman. Maria took after her mother, beautiful and frail, she struggled with her father's Herculean curriculum. Maria's appearance was undervalued by her father who made it very clear, to her, that reading writing, and brilliant conversation were to be more admired than the chance accident of physical beauty.

Both daughters, though, fulfilled their destiny as their father's daughters by becoming dutiful and assiduous wives, mothers, and housekeepers. Jefferson even directed their emotions on their wedding days. He wrote to Martha on her marriage: "The happiness of your life now depends on the continuing to please a single person. To this all other objects must be secondary, even your love for me." (As cited in Nock, p. 58).


McLaughlin, Jack. (1988). Jefferson and Monticello, New York: Henry Holt and Company.

Miller, John Chester. (1995). The Wolf by the Ears: Thomas Jefferson and Slavery, Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.

Nock, Albert Jay. (1966). Jefferson, New York: The John Day Company.

Peterson, Merrill D. (1970). Thomas Jefferson And The New Nation, New York: Oxford University Press.