After Benjamin Franklin left France to return to the United States in 1785, Thomas Jefferson became the lead diplomat in Paris. Although he had a very heavy workload as the top U.S. agent in France, he would soon neglect much of his diplomatic duties for mankind’s sweetest distraction—love.
During the month of August, in 1786, an American painter named John Trumbull introduced Thomas Jefferson (by this point a widower of four years) to a gorgeous woman named Maria Cosway. The twenty-seven-year-old Maria was a graceful and artistic woman, with an Italian accent and voluminous golden-blonde hair. She was in no way single—Maria was married to the successful painter, Richard Cosway—but she was known for her teasing and flirtatious ways. Apparently struck with love at first sight, Thomas Jefferson immediately became entirely and thoroughly smitten.
For around six weeks, Thomas Jefferson sidelined his diplomatic obligations in order to tour France with Maria Cosway. Together, they sought out the most impressive feats of architecture and viewed the most moving pieces of artwork. In addition, they, of course, strolled through multiple beautiful parks and gardens.
Thomas Jefferson’s dalliance with the lovely Maria Cosway, unfortunately, came crashing to a sudden halt on September 18, 1786. On that awkward day, Thomas Jefferson must have felt rejuvenated and full of life—as one in love often tends to do. For whatever the reason, Thomas Jefferson thought it was a good idea to attempt to leap over a fountain or a large kettle. Yet, when he vaulted over the object, nothing went according to plan. Instead of gracefully leaping over the obstacle in an impressive display of strength and dexterity, the forty-three year old Thomas Jefferson crashed to the ground and broke his right wrist.
After Jefferson’s embarrassing fall, he and Maria Cosway soon began to slowly lose interest in each other. The time that Thomas Jefferson had been spending with Maria now was usurped by appointments with surgeons—the surgeons, unfortunately, did an inadequate job and left Jefferson’s hand permanently damaged and irritable. It was also around this time that Maria Cosway left Paris to return to her home in London. A depressed and heartbroken Thomas Jefferson managed to find time to escort her to her ship between his oppressive medical appointments and diplomatic duties.
Though the two were separated, they wrote avidly to each other over a long span of time. The letters curiously trace Thomas Jefferson’s declining interest in Maria Cosway. Immediately after she left, Jefferson sent multiple-paged letters of love to Maria. By the summer of 1787, however, his emotions were cooling and his letters became more infrequent and less emotionally desperate. Finally, when it came time for Thomas Jefferson to return to America in 1789, his now sporadic correspondence with Maria Cosway ultimately evaporated into nothing.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
- American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, by Joseph J. Ellis. New York: Vintage Books, 1998.