Home Schooling in the Colonies

Home Schooling in the Colonies
Martha Jefferson: First Ladies' Lives

Skill: Middle School
Time Required: One week


Like most children of her class in the 18th century colonial south, Martha Wayles (Jefferson) didn’t go to school, but was, rather, “home schooled” by governesses, tutors, and members of the family.  Furthermore, she was raised with only the knowledge and skills that were thought necessary for her future as the wife of a plantation owner—household management, entertaining, music, needlework, and some accounting skills.


Students who participate in this lesson will gain an understanding of the education of children in the colonial period, particularly the education of upper class girls in the colonial south.  They will weigh this education with the later responsibilities that Martha Wayles Jefferson had to undertake, and consider, in writing, the probable “fit” between her education and her later life.

Materials Required:

Access to the Internet; access to biographies of Martha Jefferson, both online and in print; paper and pen or pencil, or typewriter or word processor.


1.  Introduce the lesson with a discussion of the relation of education to life’s work today.  How does one become “prepared” for a job, or a career, or a profession?  Imagine if one had to depend upon one’s relatives, or perhaps a tutor, for one’s education.  How might that be?
2.  Then, have students explore the websites below, as well as any print biographies of Martha Jefferson, particularly in her role as the wife of an up and coming politician, looking for documentation of the kind of education she had – including what was appropriate for girls of her social class in the colonial south – and taking notes on their findings.
3.  Discuss with students the nature of the education of upper class girls in the 18th century, and how it differed from the education of girls today.
4.  Then, ask students to read at least one biography of Martha Jefferson, and write a short paper linking her education to the responsibilities of her later life.  Was there a good “fit” between the two?  In what ways? Would she have been better prepared if she had had advanced schooling? Or, did her education serve her well?  Students should clearly state their ideas on these questions, and back them up with information from their research. 

Extending the Lesson:

This lesson could be extended by also doing the lesson on the Education of Abigail Adams, another First Lady educated in the 18th century colonies.

Sources & Resources:


Anthony, Carl Sferrazza. First Ladies: the Saga of the Presidents’ Wives and Their Power, 1789-1900 (2 vols., 1990, 1991). New York: William Morrow, 1991.  


Education in Colonial America

Women and Education in 18th Century Virginia

Dame Schools in Colonial America

American Needlework in the 18th Century



This lesson was developed by Averil McClelland, Kent State University.