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Thomas Jefferson bore the burden of substantial monetary debt throughout his life. Except for a brief period at the beginning of the nineteenth century, it was not possible to declare bankruptcy and it was his reputation in large part that kept creditors at bay. While debt was not unusual for Virginia planters of his time, his eventually grew so ponderous that his family were forced to sell much of his property, including Monticello, after Jefferson's death. His grandson and executor of his estate, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, posted an advertisement for his estate sale, indicating that Jefferson's debts at his death amounted to $107,000. Converting this figure into a modern estimate is an inexact process at best, but it would probably be somewhere between $1,000,000 and $2,000,000.
Many factors contributed to Jefferson's indebtedness, many of them beyond his control. These are only a few reasons behind the accumulation of his debt:
- Jefferson inherited a great deal of debt from his father-in-law, John Wayles, when Wayles died in 1774.
- Although Jefferson was wealthy in land and slaves, farming proved to be an unreliable and inadequate source of income. Also, although Jefferson himself was a major creditor, payments owed to him were unreliable and inadequate as well.
- Jefferson lived perpetually beyond his means, spending large amounts of money on building projects, furnishings, wine, etc.
- The financial panic that occurred in 1819 added a substantial burden onto his already-substantial debt. Also, he acquired debt from a friend in particular late in life. In 1818, Jefferson endorsed a $20,000 note for Wilson Cary Nicholas. Nicholas died in 1820, and Jefferson was forced to take on his unpaid debt.
- ↑ The United States Congress did pass a bankruptcy law in 1800 because of "unsettled economic conditions from widespread speculation in new companies dealing in land and in government scrip." However, it was repealed in 1803 after a return to prosperity and generally low public approval. (Concise Dictionary of American History. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1983.)
- Sloan, Herbert. "Jefferson's Debt and His Career as a Shopper." Lecture delivered at the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies on April 6, 2007. Available as a podcast.
- Sloan, Herbert. Principle and Interest: Thomas Jefferson and the Problem of Debt. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.