… no man is less in condition to aid his friends pecuniarily [financially] than myself. I have always endeavored so to live as just to make both ends meet; but imperfect calculations disappoint that endeavor, and occasion deficiencies which accumulating, keep me always under difficulties. my resources of every kind have for some time been on the stretch so that I can with truth assure you that at this time they could not be made to place one thousand dollars at my command. under these circumstances I can only express unavailing regrets that it is not in my power to be useful to you …
To Ferdinando Fairfax, September 13, 1804
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Even smart leaders can deceive themselves.
Fairfax asked two things in his letter to the President, for the national government to buy his ironworks and for Jefferson to loan him $10,000. Jefferson declined both, and perhaps Fairfax’s status in Virginia earned him Jefferson’s reasoning in both cases. The ironworks issue was explained in the previous post. This excerpt is an unusually candid glimpse of his finances.
Although he claimed to match outgo to income, he was kidding himself. As early as his French Ambassador days in the 1780s, he was living beyond his means, occasionally borrowing money for living expenses and then borrowing more to pay off previous loans. His “imperfect calculations” about future income were often overly optimistic, assuming higher crop prices and better weather. When neither happened, he was “always under difficulties.” He couldn’t put together $1,000 in cash.
Many of Jefferson’s financial difficulties were caused by factors beyond his control. Still, he often lived beyond his means, with few restrictions on his creature comforts.