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Debt

In January 1827 the newspapers of central Virginia carried an advertisement that began: "EXECUTOR'S SALE. WILL BE SOLD ... ON THE FIFTEENTH OF January, at Monticello … the whole of the residue of the personal property of Thomas Jefferson." For five days residents of Albemarle and surrounding counties flocked to the mountaintop to bid on "130 valuable Negroes, Stock, Crop, &c. Household and Kitchen Furniture."1

Despite bitterly cold weather, "the furniture sold very well," as one family member reported.2 Chairs, tables, a mahogany sideboard, prints of Roman buildings, candlesticks, coffee roasters, and a cracked tureen were carried off by new owners – a lifetime's collection was scattered to the sounds of an auctioneer's hammer. Only the furnishings of Jefferson's private suite and a few family pieces were withheld, and his books and paintings were reserved for later sale in Boston and Washington.

While debt was not unusual for Virginia planters of this period, Jefferson's own debts eventually grew so ponderous that his family was forced to sell not only his personal property, but Monticello and the land that encompassed their home. What brought about the economic cataclysm that drove Jefferson's heirs from Monticello and dispersed his books, paintings, furnishings, and slaves? "[T]he wonder … is that I should have been so long as 60. years in arriving at the ultimate & unavoidable result," wrote Jefferson in 1826, when his debts totaled more than $107,000 – the equivalent of over a million dollars today.3

"I am miserable till I owe not a shilling," Jefferson had asserted in 1786.4 Despite the frequent expression of this sentiment, he probably was never out of debt in his adult life. Before the Revolution he speedily built up a large debt to the Scottish firm that purchased his tobacco crop. This obligation quadrupled in 1774, when he assumed his father-in-law's debts. War-time inflation frustrated his attempts at repayment – large land sales yielded only enough money to buy "a great coat."5

Despite some years of ample salaries in public office, Jefferson's load of debt only continued to grow. He and his family generally attributed his financial failure to forty years of public service and the consequent neglect of his own affairs. Virginia slave estates, all agreed, required skill and an attention that "never sleeps." "[S]kill I had not, and attention I could not have," explained Jefferson.6 Among other contributing factors were his famous hospitality – with no "judicious wife to look after his domestic concerns," as granddaughter Ellen Coolidge wrote – and his passion for building.7

Jefferson's optimistic nature and methodical habits interfered with his recognition of financial reality. He never properly understood the profitableness of his plantations, basing all his planning on underestimated expenses and visionary profits. The meticulous daily entries in his memorandum book (even a waffle bought from a Parisian street vendor was tabulated) gave him a false sense of order that masked a chaotic truth. Only until 1770 did he keep a ledger, balancing income and expenses. For the rest of his life, Jefferson was able to conceal from himself his level of overspending.

But Jefferson's optimism was unshakable. His daughter reported that "he died tranquil," expecting a lottery to save the day.8 And she, in alluding to his long years of public service, wrote that she "never regretted the sacrifice he made."9

In the end, it was Jefferson's grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, who shouldered the entire load of debt and was eventually able to satisfy all the creditors. The last payment on principal was made fifty years after Jefferson's death.

- Lucia C. Stanton, 1991

Factors Contributing to THE DEBT

Some of the general factors that contributed to Jefferson's indebtedness, including situations both within and beyond his control, may be summarized as follows:

  1. Jefferson inherited a great deal of debt from his father-in-law, John Wayles, when Wayles died in 1774.
  2. 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.
  3. Jefferson lived perpetually beyond his means, spending large amounts of money on building projects, furnishings, wine, etc.
  4. The financial panic that occurred in 1819 added a substantial burden onto his already-substantial debt. Also, he acquired a heavy debt from a friend 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.

Further Sources

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