my great object at present is, within the course of my present term of office to get compleatly thro’ the old debts of mr Wayles’s estate & my own … if by the end of my second term of office (which will certainly be my last) I can see all of us out of debt, and my mill & farms in such a state as to supply the expences of living … if March 1809. can see me in that condition all my desires will be crowned with contentment to myself, and I hope to leave the public circumstances so much improved from what they were in March 1801. as to carry into retirement the contentment of the public.
To Thomas Mann Randolph, July 5, 1803
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Debt cripples everyone’s capacity to act, leaders included.
After reporting to his son-in-law about America’s fortuitous opportunity to buy all of Louisiana from France, the President turned to a personal matter, Randolph’s request for financial help. Jefferson was in no position to assist, because his own situation was strained.
More than 25 years before, Jefferson inherited heavily indebted lands from his father-in-law (“mr. Wayles estate”). He sold some of the land and with the proceeds, paid the English-held debt into escrow, awaiting the end of America’s war for independence. Though complicated to explain, the escrowed funds became worthless, and he had to pay the debt a second time. That debt, with its accrued interest, was still dogging him a quarter century later, as were the debts of his own making.
Jefferson thought his cash crops, tobacco and wheat, plus proceeds from his nail-making and grain-milling operations at Monticello, plus whatever he could spare from his own salary would see him debt free by the end of a second term in early 1809. He hoped to leave office, not only debt-free but with sufficient income for his retirement years, and to enjoy the public’s approval for the work he’d done.
He would be disappointed. His public standing in 1809, while generally good, was considerably diminished from what it was in 1803. His personal debt was still far from being eliminated.