The Day Thomas Jefferson’s Daughter Told Him She Wanted to Become A Nun

We can only guess at what Thomas Jefferson and John Adams thought about having a daughter who wanted to become a nun and a son who was overwhelmed by a solemn Catholic Mass.

LEFT: Martha “Patsy” Jefferson by Thomas Sully (1783–1872) — RIGHT: John Quincy Adams by Gilbert Stuart (1755–1828)
LEFT: Martha “Patsy” Jefferson by Thomas Sully (1783–1872) — RIGHT: John Quincy Adams by Gilbert Stuart (1755–1828) (photo: Screenshot)

There was a period when Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin were all in Paris at the same time. Franklin was there as our first ambassador to the court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. His job was get funds from France to bankroll the Revolution, and to cement a military alliance so we would win the war. Jefferson and Adams were there as commerce commissioners whose task it was to arrange an import/export trade deal with the French. Being in Catholic France was a new experience for all of them, and we know that the Church made a profound impression on one of Jefferson’s daughters, Patsy, and on one of Adams’ sons, John Quincy.

Polly and Patsy Jefferson were in their early teens when they arrived in Paris, so one of Jefferson’s first tasks was to find a suitable school for his daughters. All of his new French acquaintances recommended an elite convent school, l’Abbaye Royal de Panthemont in the Faubourg Saint-Germain. There the girls studied mathematics, history, geography, and they learned modern languages. It was a splendid education, of a kind that very few girls received back in America. Jefferson’s daughters also learned to play the harpsichord from Claude Balbastre, the organist at the Cathedral of Notre Dame.

In addition to operating a school, the nuns also offered rooms to aristocratic ladies who sought a quiet retreat from their troubles—the lack of a husband, the death of a husband, or the separation from a husband. One of the ladies living at the Panthemont at the same time as Polly and Patsy was Josephine de Beauharnais, the future lover, wife, and empress of Napoleon.

Over time, the life of the nuns made an impression on Patsy Jefferson. On April 18, 1788, Jefferson received a brief note from his daughter: Patsy formally requested her father’s permission to join the nuns at the abbey. Jefferson sent no reply. Instead, he took Patsy shopping, spending more than one thousand francs on new clothes and shoes for her, and 48 francs for a ring. He also permitted her to attend balls and other entertainments. If his aim had been to make his daughter give up her dream of a religious vocation by enticing her with the pleasures of the world, it worked; Patsy abandoned any thought of changing her religion and becoming a nun. Once the problem had resolved, Jefferson had himself driven to the Panthemont, and after a brief conversation with the abbess, withdrew Patsy and Polly from the convent school.

In the case of John Quincy Adams it was a different story: he found himself astonished by the magnificence of the Catholic liturgy. In spring 1785, Marie Antoinette gave birth to a son, Louis Charles. To celebrate the birth of the prince, Louis XVI had called for a Te Deum to be sung at the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Jefferson, John Adams, John Quincy Adams, and several other Americans in Paris, were invited to the ceremony and, thanks to the influence of the Marquise de Lafayette, were given prime seats in a specially constructed gallery overlooking the high altar.

Young Adams had been raised in the strict Calvinism of his Puritan ancestors, and the Sunday services he had attended would have been rigorously austere—no prayerbook, no organ music, no vestments for the clergy, and no decoration of the meetinghouse whatsoever. These were usages that smacked of Catholicism, and the Puritans did not want to be corrupted by them. So Notre Dame, decked out for a royal occasion, would have been dazzling to an American Protestant such as John Quincy. In his diary the young man wrote a detailed account of the occasion, who the nobles and other dignitaries were and where they were seated, how the king and his two brothers fell to their knees the moment they arrived at their places in the sanctuary, and the quality of the singing of the choir (“exceeding fine music”) and of the archbishop of Paris (“His voice seems to be much broken”).

“What a charming sight,” young Adams went on to write, “an absolute king of one of the most powerful Empires on earth, and perhaps a thousand of the first personages in that Empire, adoring the divinity who created them and acknowledging that he can reduce them to the Dust from which they sprung…. I was vastly pleased with the Ceremony.”

Jefferson and Adams did not leave us any account of their reactions to having a daughter who wanted to become a nun and a son who was overwhelmed by a solemn Catholic liturgy. But I think we can guess what they thought.