Thomas Jefferson: a Personal Financial Biography

Hochman, Steven Harold, Department of History, University of Virginia
Peterson, Merrill D., Department of History, University of Virginia

This biography of Thomas Jefferson focuses on his
personal financial affairs. It is a chronological
narrative that begins with the origins of his inheritance
and ends with the settlement of his final estate. The
relationship between his private finances and his role in
public life is given special attention.

On the eve of the American Revolution Jefferson was a
wealthy man, having inherited a substantial estate from
his father, Peter Jefferson, and one of equal or greater
size from his father-in~law, John Wayles. However, along
with the assets came liabilities; the Wayles estate in
particular was encumbered by considerable debts to British
merchants. Jefferson suffered serious losses during the
war, and afterwards found his old debts a heavy burden.

He struggled to pay the debts, but devoted his great
energies to a life of public service. While minister to
France, secretary of state, vice president, and president,
he neglected his business affairs. During his retirement,
economic conditions became highly unfavorable. By the end
of his life he hung on the edge of bankruptcy. He went
public in his distress, proposing a lottery for his
relief. But he died too soon, and his lands, his slaves,
and his home, Monticello; had to be sold to cover his

Because his life closed with such a spectacular
failure, the most asked question about his financial
history is: What brought him to such an end? His own
explanation, that he neglected his interests, seems true
as far as it goes. Making money was not a high priority
for him. Also, he could have been more effective in
managing the money he did acquire. His expenditures in
the pursuit of art, science, and literature provided a
rich legacy to posterity, but were an expensive drain on
the estate. His investments were admirable in purpose,
but sometimes cost more than they earned. Jefferson's
extraordinary optimism and confidence in himself enabled
him to achieve great things for the American republic, but
in his personal affairs he overreached himself.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Thomas Jefferson, public life, private finances
All rights reserved (no additional license for public reuse)
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