On October 12, 1786, a lovesick Thomas Jefferson composes a romantic and introspective letter to a woman named Maria Cosway.
Early in 1786, widower Thomas Jefferson met Maria Cosway in Paris while he was serving as the U.S. minister to France. Cosway was born to English parents in Italy and, by the time she met Jefferson, had become an accomplished painter and musician. She was also married. The two developed a deep friendship and possibly more, although a sexual relationship has never been proven. The usually self-contained Jefferson acted giddy during their relationship, at one point leaping over a stone fountain while the two were out walking and falling and breaking his right wrist. After the wrist healed, a chagrined Jefferson sat down and wrote a now-famous love letter to Maria, who had just departed Paris for London with her husband for an undetermined time. The letter revealed him to be a lovesick man whose intellect battled with a heart aching for a woman he could not have.
In the letter, now known to historians as “A Dialogue between the Head and Heart,” Jefferson pines for a woman who has made him “the most wretched of all earthly beings” and at the same time chides himself for giving in to emotional attachments. The dialogue reveals Jefferson’s struggle between his desire for Cosway and his need to maintain his integrity (she was, after all, married). The letter concludes with Jefferson’s reason winning over the desires of his heart. He wrote that the only “effective security against such pain of unrequited love, is to retire within ourselves and to suffice for our own happiness.” Two years later, however, his letters to her still expressed great longing.
In 1787, Jefferson wrote to Cosway while traveling in Italy, painting an idyllic picture of the two of them together one day in the future: “we will breakfast every day…[go] away to the Desert, dine under the bowers of Marly, and forget that we are ever to part again.” He wrote to her again in 1788 from Paris and expressed his “tenderness of affection” and wished for her presence though he knew he “had no right to ask.”
Eventually, Jefferson’s physical separation from Maria and the hopelessness of a relationship with her cooled his ardor. After returning to America in 1789, his letters to her grew less frequent; partly due to the fact that he was increasingly preoccupied by his position as President George Washington’s secretary of state. She, however, continued to write to him and vented her frustration at his growing aloofness. In his last letters, he spoke more of his scientific studies than of his love and desire for her, finally admitting that his love for her had been relegated to fond memories of when their relationship had been “pure.”
Cosway left England in 1789 after her husband died and moved to a village in Italy to open a convent school for girls.