Dolley Madison lived in an age that knew little about diseases such as cholera and yellow fever, and contagions swept off many, as they did in Dolley’s first family. The young were particularly vulnerable, and it was quite common for only half the children in a family to survive until adulthood. Death was known from an early age as brothers and sisters often died. Grief was common.

Early deaths still happen, of course, but not as frequently, and that made me wonder about the effects on the psyches of those early Americans. I have heard it said today, “She never got over the death of her son.” “He never got over the loss of his little sister.” But back then, the majority of the people experienced such a death. If such an event today affects the psyche of the parent or sibling, didn’t it have similar effects back then? How did such losses affect not only the individuals but a society where they were common? Did the prevalence of early deaths make that society fundamentally different from ours?

Dolley, although she had to suffer the tremendous grief of the early deaths of a child and a husband, did not endure what many other women of her era did—the constant cycle of childbirth and nursing and childhood deaths.  Martha Jefferson was twenty-three when she married Thomas Jefferson. In the next ten years, she had six children. Only two survived more than a few years. Weakened by the frequent childbirths, Martha was dead ten years after she was married.

The younger of Martha Jefferson’s two surviving children, Mary, married and bore three babies, only one of whom survived into adulthood. Weakened by the last childbirth, Mary Jefferson Eppes died when she was but twenty-five.

The other surviving child, Martha Jefferson Randolph, lived until she was 64 and gave birth thirteen times with eleven of the children surviving to adulthood, but the stories of Thomas Jefferson’s wife and their younger daughter were common ones of the times. How did it affect the psyche of the women of the age that they were expected to have large families knowing the probability that they would suffer the heartbreak of a dead infant? And how did it affect them knowing that the frequent childbirths could bring an early end to their own life? How did this psychic weight affect those around them?

(Continued on May 28)

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