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This Valentine’s Day, Let’s Finally Get Jefferson’s Love Letter to Maria Cosway Right

Thomas Jefferson’s Head-and-Heart letter to Maria Cosway (12 Oct. 1786) has received considerable attention by scholars, most of whom grasp that the letter is much more than an expression of Jefferson’s soul-searching feelings for Cosway at the time of its composition.

Yet some scholars are perplexed by the letter.

Dumas Malone finds the dialog enigmatic. “As a love letter this is full of vexing qualifications, and probably it should not be singled out on its own account as literature.” Still it offers scholars, he thinks, a depiction of the tormented mind of Jefferson at the time of its writing.

Douglas Wilson admits that the letter is self-revelatory, yet “as to what is revealed, there seems to be no real agreement.” One thing seems certain. Jefferson “is trying in this letter to prove to Maria Cosway that he has a heart.”

Norman Risjord claims that the “ardor of Jefferson’s message probably embarrassed and may have frightened the lady.”

R.B. Bernstein, calling the dialog “half-flirtatious and half-philosophical,” sees a collision of interests.

Alf Mapp, comparing this letter with one to boyhood friend John Page apropos of Jefferson’s early interest in Rebecca Burwell (25 Dec. 1762), calls the letters “epistolary threnodies,” with the exception of Head’s counterpoint in the letter to Cosway.

Other scholars consider the exchange between Head and Heart to be a sort of debate.

In American Sphinx, Joseph Ellis writes that the letter is a labor of love in which Heart triumphs over Head in debate. “Though the announced intention of the letter is to offer Cosway a problematic picture of the internal battle within Jefferson between reason and emotion, it is a love letter, and therefore the powers of the heart are privileged. The heart has the last word as well as the best lines.”

Andrew Burstein in The Inner Jefferson says, “The Heart is best suited to resolve questions of morality, to do good and produce genuine happiness.” He too admits that Heart wins the debate.

Robert Dawidoff calls the letter a conceit. “At the core of this letter, beneath the charming skein of its conceit—whatever Jefferson’s real relations with Mrs. Cosway—we see there is no serious way in which even his excited Heart can compete for Jefferson’s attention with his Head.”

Julian Boyd agrees. Yet he maintains that Head gets the better of the exchange, since Head was “a sovereign to whom the heart yielded a ready and full allegiance.”

Daryl Hale argues that the dialogical exchange for Jefferson, who “gives equal weight to each side of the argument,” is a stalemate. “Jefferson makes a strong case for each side, using the occasion of his new love in his life to provide passionate support for his intellectual grasp of the basic Epicurean positions.”

Finally, Lee Quinby maintains that the letter is evidence of an “aesthetics of virtue”—viz., “a fusion of arts and morals” that allows for a “virtuous harmony” between reason and morality.

Thus, the secondary literature is, so to speak, such an omnium gatherum of opinions that consensus seems impossible. What is salvageable?

The letter is neither so enigmatic as scholars believe, nor is it a debate.

It is clear that the letter is Jefferson’s attempt to win the favor of Cosway through an expression of his intense feelings for her. Yet he does so elliptically, and clumsily, through a “dialogue” between his “Head” (reason) and his “Heart” (the moral sense).

Heart argues for the possibility of a trip to America. Maria, as artist, upon seeing the objects of America, will find landscapes of incomparable beauty. There are sights—the falls of Niagara and the Natural Bridge—worth immortalizing through sketch. “And our own dear Monticello, where has Nature spread so rich a mantle under the eye? mountains, forests, rocks, rivers. With what majesty do we there ride above the storms! How sublime to look down into the workhouse of nature, to see her clouds, hail, snow, rain, thunder, all fabricated at our feet!” Head agrees completely with Heart concerning the Virtues of America.

Now the “debate.”

Head gives Heart a schoolmasterish lecture on investing emotion in objects that must soon be lost. The advice is bluntly Epicurean. “To avoid those eternal distresses, to which you are forever exposing us, you must learn to look forward before you take a step which may interest our peace. Everything in this world is a matter of calculation. Advance then with caution, the balance in your hand. Put into one scale the pleasures which any object may offer; but put fairly into the other the pains which are to follow, & see which preponderates.”

Head continues its Epicurean peroration. “Do not bite at the bait of pleasure till you know there is no hook beneath it. The art of life is the art of avoiding pain: & he is the best pilot who steers clearest of the rocks & shoals with which he is beset. Pleasure is always before us; but misfortune is at our side: while running after that, this arrests us.” Head advocates withdrawal, not involvement.

Heart replies with a lengthy defense of its way of life, the gist of which is to show that withdrawal from human affairs is pleasure, rightly grasped, lost. “What more sublime delight than to mingle tears with one whom the hand of heaven hath smitten! to watch over the bed of sickness, & to beguile it’s tedious & it’s painful moments! to share our bread with one to whom misfortune has left none! This world abounds indeed with misery: to lighten it’s burthen we must divide it with one another.”

Heart now argues in Epicurean language. “Let us now try the virtues of your mathematical balance, & as you have put into one scale the burthen of friendship, let me put it’s comforts into the other.” Friendship is a boon, not a hindrance. By helping others in need, one will be helped by others when in need. Heart sums, “Nobody will care for him who cares for nobody.” And so, even from an Epicurean standpoint, commiseration makes sense.

Heart notes that Head and Heart preside over different human functions: morality and reasoning. “When nature assigned us the same habitation, she gave us over it a divided empire,” says Heart. Head’s field is science—i.e., knowledge. It functions in such recondite, impractical actions as squaring the circle, tracing the orbit of a comet, and investigating the arch of greatest strength or the solid of least resistance. Heart’s field is morality. Controlling the feelings of sympathy, benevolence, gratitude, justice, love, and friendship, it is concerned with the lion’s share of human activities. “Morals were too essential to the happiness of man to be risked on the incertain combinations of the head. She laid their foundation therefore in sentiment, not in science. That she gave to all, as necessary to all: this to a few only, as sufficing with a few.” The implication is clear: All humans are capable of happiness, but few only are capable of science. Thus, morality, because it is democratic, is a more useful and significant discipline than science. That point, consistent with the moral-sense and moral-sentiment theorists of Jefferson’s day, far too few scholars have recognized, and with devastating implications for understanding Jefferson’s thinking.

Note also Jefferson’s own choice of “dialogue” at the beginning of the exchange between Head and Heart. He does not use “debate,” and that is critical. Head’s exchanges with Heart are mostly paternalistic and exhortatory, and lead neatly to the view that the exchanges make for a debate. Yet that is merely façade, for Heart is an unwilling debater. Heart simply needs to vent. Heart often seems to lapse into soliloquy, for it often seems of no great consequence whether Head is there to listen or not. The counsel Head continually offers Heart never considers. Head and Heart rule over separate provinces and Head’s admonitions are mere intrusions. For the most part, Head is an unsympathetic annoyance, whose utterances to Heart are mostly empty. Heart listens on account of civility.

There are two other points of concern.

First, the love letter tells us much about Jefferson’s views of man and the world in which he lives. Humans are social creatures, pace Head, and withdrawal from human affairs is never an option. Jefferson was not at the time of the letter and never was—pace Jean Yarbrough, Adrienne Koch, and several others—an Epicurean.

Second, the love letter tells us much about Jefferson’s views of the moral sense and reason. All persons, Jefferson believes, have a moral sense which functions relatively equally in all persons. “That [Nature] gave to all,” says Heart, “as necessary to all”—a universality iterated in other letters (TJ to Martha Jefferson, 11 Dec. 1783, and TJ to Thomas Law, 13 June 1814). In contrast, reason is a poor moral guide because it is doled out to much too few persons.

And so, while Jefferson certainly displays his affection for Cosway in his inimitable tug-of-war manner in the letter, perusal of it indicates that it is a heated philosophical discussion between reason and emotion—more narrowly, between reason and the moral sense. What unfortunately is often missed is the extent to which the love letter gives a marrowy, enduring expression of Jefferson’s views of issues such as man in society, what the moral sense is and how it works, and most importantly the relationship between the moral sense and reason.