Thomas Jefferson had dressed up his arguments in order to make success a certainty! As a college student at William and Mary, Jefferson spent almost as much time thinking about the women of his acquaintance as he spent on Locke. In one specific case, he probably spent more time on the woman, and that was with Rebecca Burwell, who he alternatively called in letters or in his journal, either Belinda, or Adnileb. (Belinda backwards, get it?)
Thomas Jefferson was in love – at least he thought he was. One problem – Rebecca hardly knew he was alive.
Rebecca – writes Jefferson biographer Dumas Malone – was “an orphan with the best of connections.” Her father had been a member of the Council and her uncle, who took charge of her after her parent’s death, was William Nelson of York, also a Councilor and later acting governor. Malone writes that she was beautiful and good, but she was not particularly nice, at least to Jefferson, who she regarded as a somewhat comical, scarecrow-looking boy.
Jefferson, who was twenty, could hardly keep his mind off of the sixteen year old girl, whose vision constantly interrupted his attempts to understand Coke’s primer of the law. Writing to his friend John Page, he said, “Well, Page, I do wish the Devil had old Coke, for I am sure I never was so tired of an old dull scoundrel in my life.”
Writing circumspectly, he asked, “Write me very circumstantially everything which happened at the wedding. Was She there? Because if she was I ought to have been at the devil for not being there too.” However, he then proceeded to demonstrate that Rebecca – or Adnileb – was not the only girl on his mind. “Remember me affectionately to all the young ladies of my acquaintance, particularly the Miss Burwells and Miss Potters, and tell them that though that heavy earthly part of me, my body, be absent, the better half of me, my soul, is ever with them, and that my best wishes shall ever attend them. Tell Miss Alice Corbin that I verily believe the rats knew I was to win a pair of garters from her, or they never would have been so cruel as to carry mine away. This very consideration makes me so sure of the bet that I shall ask every body I see from that part of the world what pretty gentleman is making his addresses to her. I would fain ask the favor of Miss Becca Burwell to give me another watch paper, of her own cutting which I should esteem much more though it were a plain round one, than the nicest in the world cut by other hands: however I am afraid she would think this presumption after my suffering the other to get spoiled. If you think you can excuse me to her for this I should be glad if you would ask her. Tell Miss Suckey Potter that I heard just before I came out of town that she was offended with me about something: what it is I know not: but this I know, that I never was guilty of the least disrespect to her in my life either in word or deed: as far from it as it has been possible for me to be: I suppose when we meet next she will be endeavoring to repay an imaginary affront with a real one: but she may save herself the trouble, for nothing that she can say or do to me shall ever lessen her in my esteem. And I am determined allways to look upon her as the same honest-hearted good-humored agreeable lady I ever did. Tell—tell—In short tell them all ten thousand things more than either you or I can now or ever shall think of as long as we live.”
Jefferson could not quite decide between two contending wishes – to travel the world with his friend Page, or to marry the woman of his dreams. He decided to make his move at the Raleigh Tavern. He prepared diligently for his approach to her, as he told Page. “In the most melancholy fit that ever any poor soul was, I sit down to write to you. Last night, as merry as agreeable company and dancing with Belinda in the Apollo could make me, I never could have thought the succeeding sun would have seen me so wretched as I now am! I was prepared to say a great deal: I had dressed up in my own mind, such thoughts as occurred to me, in as moving language as I knew how, and expected to have performed in a tolerably creditable manner. But, good God! When I had an opportunity of venting them, a few broken sentences, uttered in great disorder, and interrupted with pauses of uncommon length, were the too visible marks of my strange confusion!”
Whatever he had said to her, it is said that she made much fun of it to her friends. At any event, the night marked the end of his first great romantic passion. She would go on to marry Jacquelin Ambler, a man somewhat older than Jefferson, and Jefferson would return to his studies with a vengeance. “Wed her?” he asked. “No. Were she all desire could with, as fair/As would the vainest of her sex be thought/With wealth beyond what woman’s pride could waste/She could not cheat me of my freedom.”
You can hear more stories about the Founders and their romantic lives on the Bow Tie Tours nighttime event, Sex and the First City. If you are interested in Thomas Jefferson, join us for our vacation package about the man who did so much to define the United States.