Why Thomas Jefferson Died Broke

By Don Vitale

I kid you not, it’s true! Thomas Jefferson-- our country’s third President, an American Founding Father, the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence-- yes, my friends, he absolutely and unequivocally died broke.

How, you ask, could that happen? I asked myself that same question so I read up on Jefferson’s storied career. I came to one conclusion and pass it along for your consideration: Jefferson’s lifestyle. No question that Jefferson’s lifestyle was over the top. And often enough throughout his lifetime….quite a bit over the top. So let’s get down to the nitty-gritty: What exactly do we mean by “Lifestyle?”

But before I get into that, let’s just back up a bit. It’s important to know that Jefferson was one very amazing individual. First off, he was self-educated and had a thirst for knowledge. He loved mathematics, read the Ancient Classics every day and spoke five languages. He was “endowed by nature with strong intellectual powers,” according to B. L. Rayner, one of his biographers. Jefferson “rose steadily by his own exertions, and acquired considerable distinction in the Colony,” Rayner noted.

What’s incongruous in the extreme is that Jefferson in his public statements called for living within one’s means on the one hand yet in his private life was heavily in debt till the day he died. In a letter to James Madison in 1789 Jefferson wrote: “No generation can contract debts greater than may be paid over the course of its own existence.” There were many other public statements Jefferson made that echoed those sentiments in his letter to Madison. So how do you explain this contradiction?  Okay….back to Jefferson’s “lifestyle.”

Let’s get this straight. By all who knew him, Jefferson had a penchant for “the finer things in life.” There’s no denying that. Serving in 1784 as Minister to the Court of Louis XVI, Jefferson was introduced to the wonders of French cuisine. When he returned to America, he was not only a distinguished statesman but the epicure of fine dining. The finest food and choicest delicacies of two continents appeared on his table, all prepared by his personal French chef.

And let’s not forget the wines from France, Spain and Italy. His wines for one year were estimated to run $10,000. In present-day dollars: that’s anywhere from $1 million to $2 million in US Dollars.

Did Uncle Sam foot the bill for Jefferson’s life style? Hardly. Jefferson’s compensation during his eight years as President was $25,000 per year, period. Expenses for his staff, food, travel and White House dinners for dignitaries were paid out of his own pocket. And when he retired as President, there was no such thing as a government pension, not even for the former head of the country. As a result, Jefferson’s lifestyle required that he personally make up the difference. As he confided in a friend, his hands were “as clean as they are empty.”

But Great Godfrey! While Jefferson was losing money in his public service positions, he continued his lifelong “there’s no tomorrow” lifestyle buying spree of artworks, paintings, musical instruments and, of course, books. As he once said, “I cannot live without my books.” I should point out that much of Jefferson’s debt was inherited. When his wife’s father died, the estate passed on to Jefferson, the properties and all that went with it. Including an enormous debt. Jefferson was thirty at the time. It took him years to pay off the debt.

The Panic of 1819 and the severe recession that followed made paying off personal debt impossible during those years. It is not an exaggeration to say that Jefferson owed money to a variety of creditors throughout his life. For a good part of his life Jefferson was building (and rebuilding) his Magnum Opus—Monticello by name—on a 5000 acre hilltop in Virginia in 1769. The mansion by no small measure was a constant drain on his budget, adding to his indebtedness. He finally completed the house in 1804, some 40 years under construction.

While Monticello was Jefferson’s main source of income, it was inadequate to cover his debts. It was the same old story: Land Rich, Cash Poor. Fluctuating prices of commodities and poor management of his estate also cost Jefferson dearly. Toward the end of his life in an attempt to raise funds he attempted to run a lottery to prevent the sale of Monticello and stave off his bill collectors. But to no avail.

When Jefferson died, he left his house and all of his other properties and assets to his grandson Jefferson Randolph.  What Jeff could not sell on the open market, he sold at auction.  In any event, none of the assets were able to cover Jefferson’s debts. His grandson, faithful to the end, assumed the debt and paid for it for most of his life.   ---dv