Financial History 143 Fall 2022 - Page 10

This account of Thomas Jefferson with Robert Cary and Co ., dated February 22 , 1783 , illustrates one of his many personal debts .
Collection of the Museum of American Finance
Virginia currency , dated May 1780 . Thomas Jefferson was forced to accept Virginia paper currency as payment for the land he sold to pay off his debts to British firms , but inflation reduced the currency ’ s value so much that his creditors refused it .
The house at Monticello , for instance , was built , torn down and rebuilt again . Other business ventures at Monticello met with minimal success . An investment in a nail factory powered by slave labor was initially profitable , but it was unable to compete with British nail manufacturers in the long run . He also poured a substantial amount of money into a flour mill and canal project that never had a chance at profitability .
Jefferson periodically sold land and slaves to pay off debts , but it was never enough to cover all his indebtedness . Fortunately , he was very good at putting off creditors .
Upon his retirement from the presidency , the ever-optimistic Jefferson was anxious to turn his time and attention to making Monticello a profitable enterprise , but it was all for naught . In 1818 , Jefferson endorsed an ill-timed loan for neighbor and financial benefactor Wilson Cary Nicholas . When the Panic of 1819 caused the value of slaves and land to collapse , Nicholas was ruined , leaving Jefferson with a $ 20,000 obligation he could ill afford . These unfortunate events meant that Jefferson would never be able to pay off his debts in his remaining years .
While Jefferson was never able to resolve his financial problems , the issue of slavery was even more perplexing for him . The man who wrote , “ We hold these truths to be self-evident , that all men were created equal ,” was never able to come to terms with those words when it came to his own slaves . Although some of his slaves were freed after his death , most were not , and his poor financial circumstances meant most of his slaves were sold to help satisfy his many creditors .
Jefferson ’ s financial problems were a major roadblock to freeing his slaves . Because of his indebtedness , most of his
8 FINANCIAL HISTORY | Fall 2022 | www . MoAF . org