Having trouble viewing this message? Click here! In 1784, the recently widowed Thomas Jefferson set sail for Paris, where he would spend four years a

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Jefferson

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Mather Brown

In 1784, the recently widowed Thomas Jefferson set sail for Paris, where he would spend four years as America’s minister to France, succeeding Benjamin Franklin in the post. At the Halle au Bléds, he was introduced by his friend, the painter John Trumbull, to a very pretty English woman of Italian birth and protean achievement. Maria Cosway was a painter, composer, harpist and fortepianist, and possessed a keen intellect. She was also married to the eccentric, controlling, and difficult Richard Cosway. Also a painter, her husband was much older than she. Jefferson was entranced.

At a time when few women were encouraged to develop their gifts, Cosway was a worthy match for Jefferson, with his unquenchable mind and love of the arts. They spent almost every day together for six weeks after their first meeting. Their correspondence, which started soon after in 1786, continued for four decades until 1825, the year before he died.

Maria Cosway

Self-Portrait of Maria Cosway

In our age of social media and the 140 character tweet, the Jefferson-Cosway letters are striking for their elegance and craft, artifacts of a time when passion was bound by discretion and fueled by subtlety. The correspondence not only serves as a fertile source for any study of the musical scene of revolutionary Paris, but offers a rare glimpse of the touching vulnerability of a towering genius, a famous public servant who jealously guarded his privacy.

Among his many gifts, Thomas Jefferson was an accomplished amateur violinist and avid music collector. Many of the letters contain references to specific musical pieces, either those they sent to each other or performances that they attended together. One such performance was the opera Dardanus of the Italian/ Parisian composer Antonio Sacchini. The tragédie lyrique was first performed for a royal audience at Versailles and enjoyed a subsequent run for a popular audience at the Paris Opera.

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Frontispiece of Sacchini, Dardanus

The opera offers several arias that are startling in the way they complement the epistolary relationship. The tenor aria, Jours Heureux, was sent by Jefferson to Cosway as a memento of their night at the opera. Cosway sent Jefferson songs of her own composition, including the touching and melancholy Ogni Dolce Aura, which she wrote for him.

Jefferson’s sphinx-like character leaves unanswered questions about his relationships with many people, not just Maria Cosway. Indeed, his private life was a magnet for gossip before his death, and continues unabated as a subject of fascination today. No greater fodder exists for debate than the slave ownership by the author of The Declaration of Independence. The 38-year relationship between Jefferson and the enslaved Sally Hemmings presents more questions than answers about the Founder’s relationship with a woman he literally owned.

Possessed of a protean intellect that defied categorization, the advocate of both decentralized government and freedom from religion, Jefferson the intellectual and politician refuses to be owned by either the Left or the Right, although as an historical figure he is often claimed by both. Separation of Church and State, which he articulated in his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, protects government from religion and religion from government. It ensures a secular society while safeguarding the religious expression of those who would condemn secularism. While Jefferson’s statements against organized religion read as radical even today, it can be argued that it is because of him that religious expression in all its diversity continues to flourish unbounded in contemporary America. One of the many ironies of the Jefferson legacy is an America that is among the most religious countries of modern secular democracies.

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Maria Cosway, The Comic and the Tragic Muse, watercolor on paper

As religious imagery and expression misused in the public sphere to justify material and civic inequality continue to betray Jefferson’s intentions, may we always be reminded that both art and political thought are best served when complexity, diversity, and multifaceted reality are enthusiastically and passionately embraced.

– Jessica Gould

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