Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to Maria Cosway, [5 October 1786]

To Maria Cosway

Thursday [5 Oct. 1786]

Th: Jefferson To Mrs. Cosway

I have passed the night in so much pain that I have not closed my eyes. It is with infinite regret therefore that I must relinquish your charming company for that of the Surgeon whom I have sent for to examine into the cause of this change. I am in hopes it is only the having rattled a little too freely over the pavement yesterday. If you do not go to day I shall still have the pleasure of seeing you again. If you do, god bless you wherever you go. Present me in the most friendly terms to Mr. Cosway, and let me hear of your safe arrival in England. Addio Addio.

Let me know if you do not go to day.

RC (Charles Geigy-Hagenbach, Basel, Switzerland, 1947); addressed: “A Madame Madame Cosway rue Coqueron” on verso, in Mrs. Cosway’s hand: “This letter was writing when Mr. Jefferson was Envoy from America at Paris in 1785 with his left hand having sprained his wright by a fall. Maria Cosway.” Not recorded in SJL. Not dated, but there can be no question that it was written in the early morning of the day that the Cosways left Paris; see below and also illustration in this volume.

This is the earliest surviving letter written by TJ to Mrs. Cosway and, aside from endorsements and signatures, the earliest manuscript written with his left hand after the injury to his right wrist. For the background, dating, and other facts pertaining to this letter, see L. H. Butterfield and Howard C. Rice, Jr., “Jefferson’s Earliest Note to Maria Cosway with Some New Facts and Conjectures on his Broken Wrist,” WMQ description begins William and Mary Quarterly description ends , 3rd ser., v (1948), 26–33. Randall, Life description begins Henry S. Randall, The Life of Thomas Jefferson description ends , i, 456, gave 4 Sep. 1786 as the date of injury to TJ’s wrist, basing his conclusion on the entries in TJ’s Account Book, and all subsequent narratives down to the publication of the article by Messrs. Butterfield and Rice followed Randall’s conclusion. That article placed the date at some time between 13 and 22 Sep. and evidently after 16 Sep., when an entry appeared in TJ’s Account Book for “seeing Desert”—the last entry before that on 18 Sep. when TJ paid “two Surgeons 12f.” (Another important contribution in this article was the identification of the Désert de Retz as the “Desert” in question, an estate on the northwestern corner of the Forest of Marly, about four miles from St. Germain-en-Laye, whose vast, romanticized gardens were in the Anglo-Chinese manner; Thiéry, Guide des Amateurs, ii, 348; Marie Kimball, Jefferson: The Scene of Europe, p. 166–7.) A letter from Le Veillard to William Temple Franklin, Passy, 8 Sep.-15 Oct. 1786, discovered subsequently by Mr. Butterfield in PPAP: Franklin Papers, confirmed these findings and definitely fixed the date of injury as being 18 Sep. 1786. Under date of 20 Sep. Le Veillard wrote: “Mr. Jefferson s’est demis avant hier le poignet de la main droite en voulant sauter par dessus une barriere du petit cours, le poignet est bien remis mais il a beaucoup souffert et je ne vois pas qu’il puisse ecrire d’ici a un mois”—“Day before yesterday Mr. Jefferson dislocated his right wrist when attempting to jump over a fence in the ‘Petit Cours.’ The wrist is in place all right but he has suffered a great deal and I do not see how he can write for another month.” Mr. Rice identifies the “petit cours” as the Cours la Reine, the concourse or promenade which extends along the Seine westward from the Place de la Concorde; in the 18th century it was referred to either as the “Cours la Reine” or the “Petit Cours” to distinguish it from the “Grand Cours” which was another name for the Champs Elysées (see WMQ description begins William and Mary Quarterly description ends , 3rd ser., v [1948], 620–1; Thiéry, Guide des Amateurs, i, 51 ff.). TJ himself never referred to the date of his accident more precisely than in the letter to Carmichael of 26 Dec. 1786, when he said that it had occurred “three or four days” before he wrote Carmichael on 22 Sep. The nearest he ever came to explaining it was in his letter to Smith, 22 Oct. 1786, in response to a direct inquiry: “How the right hand became disabled would be a long story for the left to tell. It was by one of those follies from which good cannot come, but ill may.” There can be no question, however, but that he injured the wrist as a result of a fall (see TJ to the Prévôt des Marchands, 27 Sep. 1786; article in Gazette de Leide, prepared by or under TJ’s direction, printed above as enclosure to TJ to Rayneval, 30 Sep. 1786, referring to an “accident grave” and to “une chute” Mazzei, Memoirs, p. 296, note, refers to a fall while TJ was walking in the Champs Elysées). Nor can there be any doubt that, as Madame de Doradour said, the fall must have been “bien viollente.” It is not known whether he was with Maria Cosway at the time this accident occurred, but, in view of the cryptic remark in the letter to Smith and the suggestion of a “long story,” it is highly probable that TJ and Mrs. Cosway were together on this September day as they had been more or less constantly in their perlustrations about Paris for the preceding two or three weeks.

In consequence of Mrs. Cosway’s reply to the present letter (following), TJ dismissed the surgeon whom he had sent for and, despite pain and sleepless exhaustion, took what was for him the remarkably impulsive step of going with the Cosways as far as St. Denis (see TJ to Maria Cosway, 12 Oct. 1786).

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