Just months before Thomas Jefferson's death, his family attempted to alleviate the crushing burden of his personal debt by arranging a public lottery.

Thomas Jefferson Randolph, to whom Jefferson had entrusted his business affairs in 1817, was forced to admit that, after eight years, he was unable to stabilize them. The old patriarch's financial burdens, brought on chiefly by the failure of his estate to handle his large obligations, were staggering. This, coupled with the bankruptcy of Wilson Cary Nicholas, whose note Jefferson had endorsed in 1817, gave him the coup de grâce. The spring of 1826 was a gloomy one for Jefferson and the household. The portents for Monticello and its occupants were ominous.

The aged patriot and his grandson cast about for possible means of relief.[1] From the recesses of a still active mind, Jefferson drew out the age old expedient of disposing of a part of his holdings by lottery. This solution had frequently been used in Virginia under similar circumstances. Lotteries were prohibited by law, making it necessary for Jefferson to obtain permission from the Virginia Legislature. He petitioned that body and accompanied his petition with a dissertation on lotteries in which he attempted to anticipate any possible objections.

Jefferson referred to his straitened circumstances and his plans to alleviate them in a letter of January 1826, to his friend Joseph C. Cabell, a collaborator on the University of Virginia and a member of the Virginia General Assembly:

[M]y application to the legislature is for permission to dispose of property ... in a way, which, bringing a fair price for it, may pay my debts and leave a living for myself in my old age and leave something for my family. their [the legislature's] consent is necessary, it will injure no man, and few sessions pass without similar exercises of the same power, in their discretion. ... I think it just myself .... to me it is almost a question of life and death.[2]

As soon as the public learned of Jefferson's plight, the "liveliest sympathy heightened by surprise" was manifested in many areas of the country.[3] Plans for his relief were advanced in the newspapers, and meetings were held for the purpose of raising funds by voluntary contributions. Even so, the favored scheme at this time continued to be the lottery.

Thomas Jefferson Randolph arrived in Richmond in January to promote a bill, soon to come before the Legislature, that would allow his grandfather to pursue the lottery plan. Randolph's initial report to Monticello was optimistic. He noted that "the leading men have taken up the affair with zeal, and are making their impressions upon others. ... your friends are confident of success."[4] Despite these early impressions, the bill was not to have smooth sailing; in fact, there were strong swells of opposition, even in Albemarle County. At home some demurred on religious and moral grounds while others thought it would hurt Jefferson's good name. Legislative opposition came from friend and foe: many were in no mood to assist the arch democrat even in an almost dying gesture, while the rest were honestly concerned with the effect on his reputation.

The petition was first introduced on the floor of the House of Delegates on February 8, 1826. The vote without debate on reading the bill was against passage, 95 to 94. "[I]ts enemies," Randolph wrote, "had been active against it" and shunned debate.[5] This was, however, only a temporary setback, for its proponents won permission, but by only four votes, to place it before the House a second time. Cabell was sanguine about eventual passage, but not without the stigma of an uncomfortably large minority opposing it.[6]

The bill was presented again after an impassioned plea by Delegate Loyall of Norfolk. Delegate Blackburn then moved to lay the bill on the table for several days so that the delegates might have more time to consider the subject. After a discussion, Blackburn called for a vote on his tabling motion but it was defeated by 140 to 43. The vote on the bill was taken on February 20 and it passed the House by 125 to 62 and the Senate by 13 yeas to 4 nays.

The bill authorized Jefferson "to dispose of any part of his real estate by lottery, for the payment of his debts."[7] A proviso that affected earlier plans allowed no more money to be raised by the sale of tickets than the amount of a fair evaluation. Randolph and Jefferson had hoped that the value of the tickets might be worth not more than $60,000 and this for one prize only, the Shadwell Mills and accompanying land. This hope proved to be very unrealistic because the depressed value of Albemarle County land would necessitate the inclusion of nearly all Jefferson's Albemarle and possibly some of the Bedford lands if the prize were to be attractive. When Randolph suggested Monticello might be included, his grandfather was reported to have "turned white," but he realized the hopelessness of the situation and "after a while came into it."[8]

When the law authorizing the lottery was passed, Randolph thought of turning to lottery brokers in one of the large northern metropolitan centers. He decided in the early spring that Yates and McIntyre of New York City might handle the scheme. They agreed, and added their agents' services without compensation. Their prospectus advertised that the winning combination would be drawn from 11,477 tickets at $10 each, a rather high figure for that day. The following prizes were listed:

1 prize, the Monticello estate valued at per subjoined

certificate under oath at $71,000

1 do. the Shadwell Mills at $30,000

1/3 do. the Albemarle Estate at $11,500

For a total of 11,477 blanks, $112,500

Unfortunately Randolph failed to give complete control of the scheme to his brokers at this time when the fervor for aiding Jefferson was at its highest. His failure to act caused his contemporary and, later, a Jefferson biographer, St. George Tucker, to write that "this course might then have been practicable as it certainly would have been efficient."[9]

Final authority to begin the sale was postponed by the Committee of Citizens of New York City under the leadership of Mayor Philip Hone and other patriotic groups throughout the country. They believed, and convinced Randolph, that the needed money could be raised by voluntary public subscription in a dignified manner and at less expense and trouble to Jefferson. Their plan promised that Jefferson would not lose his much beloved patrimony, Monticello.

Jefferson did not object to the promises held out by Hone and the others but he was disturbed over the effect the subscriptions might have on the lottery, whose plans were now well advanced. Under the hope of quicker, easier, and less costly results, and the influence of Randolph, the old man gave in. The lottery was quietly laid aside. Mayor Hone's Committee raised $6,500; the Committee in Philadelphia subscribed $5,000; $3,000 came from Baltimore and lesser sums from elsewhere. The total was about $16,500. This gave Jefferson some measure of relief but it did not solve his problems because his total indebtedness was more than $100,000. The results, however meager, cheered the old gentleman in his last months for they did indicate the esteem in which he was held by so many of his fellow citizens. Even before his death, signs indicated that the subscriptions might prove abortive. They finally did. Happily, Jefferson never knew this when he died on July 4, 1826.

As the contributions diminished Randolph returned to the lottery scheme and he urged Yates and McIntyre to revive it publicly. They did this by printing the prospectus in the Richmond Enquirer on July 28, 1826. Oddly, nothing further appeared until September 19 when the following notice was run in the same paper:

Jefferson Lottery. Orders enclosing the cash (post paid) for tickets in this Lottery, will be punctually attended to if addressed to Yates and McIntyre Agents for the Managers under the Eagle Hotel Richmond. Sept. 8.

This notice was of short duration and it was seen for the last time in the issue of October 31. Apparently this was the final attempt of the agents to dispose of the tickets.

The delay until Jefferson's death was as costly for the lottery as it had been for the subscriptions. Many who wished to assist Jefferson were not willing to do the same for his family. Other causes contributed to the failure of the lottery. Its prizes were not particularly attractive to the average purchaser. They were, after all, solely in over-valued land that could not be disposed of for anything near the lottery's estimated value.

Nevertheless, Randolph continued. Early in 1827 he was in Washington endeavoring to elevate the lottery to a national scale by an act of Congress. Again he was doomed to failure. Later a trip to New York City, where he tried to revive the original plan of a state lottery, also failed. In Maryland permission to sell the tickets was refused if the drawing was to be united (which it was) with the proposed National Washington City Lottery to be handled by Yates and McIntyre. Finally, the New York State Legislature was threatening to do away with the sale of all lottery tickets.

One member of the family came to believe that these barriers would "blast the scheme." Randolph had become so discouraged in 1827 that he informed his family that he was ready to "let it go."[10] When he did so is difficult to ascertain. However, February 20, 1828, when James Madison wrote Jefferson's friend, the Marquis de Lafayette, that "the Lottery, owing to several causes, has entirely failed" might be an appropriate date.[11]

Randolph's decision, of course, did nothing to help the still desperate state of his grandfather's affairs. He had now to look elsewhere for funds. These might be obtained from the sale of Jefferson's personal property and slaves. Unfortunately, there was nothing else left.


Primary Source References

1826 February 8. (Hetty Carr to Dabney Carr). "[Thomas] Jefferson [Randolph] has gone to Richmond to prevail on the Legislature to grant his Grandfather permission to sell some of his property in the way of a Lottery to see tickets to the amount of $60,000. There will be one prize and one only. It is before the house now. We shall hear the success of it tomorrow or Friday."[12]

1826 February 27. (Jane M. Carr to Dabney Carr). "What do you think of 'My Uncle Jefferson's Lottery' – I think the Virginians will never be able to hold up their heads again. The bill has passed, but passed in such a way that the land shall be valued by disinterested gentlemen upon their oath & tickets not to be sold above the amount of the value. They had at first intended only to have put the Mill & 100 acres but Jeff has persuaded Mr. Jefferson to put in the mansion of Monticello. At first the old gentleman hesitated but after a while he came into it, poor old man, how much it must distress him to think that Monticello will go out of the family. I believe though he flatters himself that the state will buy it from whom ever wins it. I am afraid he will find himself mistaken there. There is not that much feeling in Virginia."[12]

1826 March 13. (Hetty Carr to Dabney Carr). "[W]hen Jefferson proposed to put Montcello into the Lottery Mr Jefferson turned quite white & set for some time silent & then said he must have some time to think of it & to consult Mrs Randolph. the truth is that it would have taken all his property if Montecello had not been put in ...."[14]

1826 April 5. (Martha Jefferson Randolph to Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge). "[S]o far as relates to the pecuniary difficulties of your dear Grandfather this lottery will certainly relieve them for the present. it will pay his debts and leave him Monticello for his life, and the maintenance of his family, for which he says the crops of the year, great or small, must suffice."[15]

1826 October 1. (Mary Jefferson Randolph to Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge). "I am sorry to tell you dear sister that our present prospects look as gloomy as they well can, the success of the lottery is extremely doubtful. It is put off till the 5th of December to allow a longer time for the disposal of the tickets, but there is great cause to fear that it will be impossible to sell half of the number by that time which would alone warrant the drawing of the lottery ...."[16]

1827 March 28. (Virginia Jefferson Randolph Trist to Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge). "Brother Jeff: is now in New York, whither he went very unexpectedly, and inconsequence of a letter from Yates & Mc.Intyre on the subject of the sale of the lottery tickets. he has since written in bad spirits as to the probable event of the lottery; which he doubts the success of very much. a law has been passed in Maryland forbidding the sale of the tickets there; and the state of New York was about to make the same; which would blast the lottery scheme. and he says that he is so sick of it that he is ready to say 'damn it, let it go' ...."[17]

1827 March 25. (P.N. Nicholas to Dabney Carr). "The plan of affording relief by a Lottery, was one resorted to by his friends here, as one that was supposed would be most agreeable to his feelings, and as calculated to leave him a considerable amount of property after his debts should be paid. It was stated by Mr. Jefferson's friends that he was not accepting any money either from the Legislature or individuals. By great exertions the Lottery was got through the Assembly. A great many who were ardent admirers of Mr. Jefferson were opposed to the Lottery on principle, and these it was difficult to carry along."[18]

1827 April 10. (Cornelia Jefferson Randolph to Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge). "... Jeff has written to mama however to inform her of the failure of the lottery scheme, [t]he laws made against it by New York & Maryland, & his determination to pay the debts (if it can be done) with the products he expects from Grandpapas papers ...."[19]

1839 March 8. (Thomas Shore to Thomas Jefferson Randolph). "It is high time that I have brought my agency in the 'Jefferson Lottery' to a close. I had the good fortune to sell a good many tickets. After the announcement that the Lottery would not be drawn, the __ of them to whom I sold tickets returned their Tickets and the amount refunded. Eleven tickets are still out, probably lost. If however they should ever be presented, I can refer them to you. I do not consider it necessary that I should retain the money any longer. Please draw upon me ... for the amount say $110 and enclose me your receipt (when the amount is paid), specifying the object, with a clause binding yourself to refund."[18]

- James A. Bear, Jr., 4/68. Originally published as "The Jefferson Lottery," in Monticello Keepsake 12 (April 11, 1968).


  1. ^ Bankruptcy was not an option; there was no law allowing for personal bankruptcy in the United States until 1841. See Bradley Hansen, "Bankruptcy Law in the United States," EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. Accessed November 8, 2011.
  2. ^ Jefferson to Cabell, January 20, 1826, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  3. ^ George Tucker, The Life of Thomas Jefferson, Third President of the United States (Philadelphia: Carey, Lea & Blanchard, 1837), 2:492.
  4. ^ Randolph to Jefferson, January 31, 1826, Tucker-Coleman Papers: Series 2 Thomas Jefferson Correspondence, Special Collections Research Center, Earl Gregg Swem Library, College of William and Mary. Recipient's copy available online at the William & Mary Digital Archive. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  5. ^ Randolph to Jefferson, February 17, 1826, Coolidge Collection of Thomas Jefferson Manuscripts, Massachusetts Historical Society. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  6. ^ Cabell to Jefferson, February 15, 1826, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  7. ^ The text of the bill was printed in Niles' Weekly Register for March 18, 1826. Hezekiah Niles, Niles' Weekly Register 3rd ser., no. 3, vol. VI (Baltimore: Franklin Press, 1826), 35.
  8. ^ Jane M. Carr to Dabney Carr, February 27, 1826, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library.
  9. ^ Tucker, Life of Jefferson2:492.
  10. ^ Virginia J. Randolph Trist to Ellen W. Randolph Coolidge, March 28, 1827, Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge Correspondence, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library. Transcription available at Jefferson Quotes and Family Letters.
  11. ^ Madison to Lafayette, February 20, 1828, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  12. ^ Carr-Cary Papers, Accession #1231, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library.
  13. ^ Carr-Cary Papers, Accession #1231, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library.
  14. ^ Thomas Jefferson Papers – Text Formerly in Carr-Cary PapersSpecial Collections, University of Virginia Library. Transcription available at Jefferson Quotes and Family Letters.
  15. ^ Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge Correspondence, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library. Transcription available at Jefferson Quotes and Family Letters.
  16. ^ Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge Correspondence, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library. Transcription available at Jefferson Quotes and Family Letters.
  17. ^ Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge Correspondence, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library. Transcription available at Jefferson Quotes and Family Letters.
  18. ^ Special Collections, University of Virginia Library.
  19. ^ Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge Correspondence, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library. Transcription available at Jefferson Quotes and Family Letters.
  20. ^ Special Collections, University of Virginia Library.