This Day In History: May 24

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On May 24, 1797, future President Thomas Jefferson writes to his friend Angelica Church, inquiring casually about their mutual friend, Maria Cosway, a woman who had once captured his heart and inspired a romantically themed essay.

In 1786, a widowed Thomas Jefferson met Maria (pronounced Mariah) 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 like a giddy schoolboy with Cosway, 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 wrote his famous Head and Heart Letter to Cosway in October 1786, just after she left for London with her husband for an undetermined period of time. The letter reveals him to have been a lovesick man whose intellect battled with a heart aching for a woman he could not have.

In the Head and Heart letter, 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 wish to maintain his integrity (she was, after all, married). In the end, the head wins over the desires of the heart and Jefferson declares 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, though, his letters to her still expressed an unrequited 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 he was increasingly preoccupied with 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.

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