Tag Archives: Tobacco

This virus is messing with business!

In consequence of your friendly letter of May 23. I wrote you on the 8th. of June that I should immediately order 10. hhds [hogheads, large wooden barrels holding 10,000 pounds] of tobo. [tobacco] from Richmond to New York, consigned to you … [I write} to enquire whether they got safe to hand and are sold or likely to be so, & what prospect there would be of selling our whole crop of the same quality? I am aware that the yellow fever may have disturbed the operations of commerce so far as to have prevented the sale. I only wish to know the fact.
Thomas Jefferson to Henry Remsen, October 14, 1799

In the face of coronavirus, I’m excerpting correspondence about the yellow fever that ravaged coastal cities in the nation’s earliest years.

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Extenuating circumstances leave even leaders in the dark.
Four months earlier, the Vice-President  directed his agent in Richmond, VA, to ship a quantity of tobacco to New York for Remsen to sell. Jefferson knew it had been shipped but didn’t know if it arrived or had been sold. (The value would have been from $7,000-9,000 in his time.) He asked Remsen for an update.

August and September were always the worst months for the yellow fever in coastal America. Jefferson acknowledged the illness might have delayed the shipping or sale. He just wanted to know where he stood.

Remsen replied on October 21, a letter which hasn’t been found. Jefferson wrote again in mid-January, still uncertain about the fate of his crop. Tobacco was one of only two crops farmers could raise and sell for cash. The other was wheat.

Mr. Jefferson will not be uncertain when he inspires your audience!
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NOTE: The link to Thomas Jefferson’s letter is subject to change by Founders’ Archive. It was accurate when this post was written. If the link is now wrong, search FoundersArchives.gov or call me. I’ll help you find it.
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When I get paid, you will get paid.

Messrs. Gibson & Jefferson having had my tobacco in their hands for sale a considerable time, I have been in the constant expectation of sending you an order on them for one thousand dollars … by a late letter from them I find they have not yet been able to sell for a reasonable price. the object of the present is therefore merely to assure you that so soon as they shall have sold the tobacco I shall forward you such an order on them.
Thomas Jefferson to James Lyle, June 3, 1805

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
All leaders have their blind spots.
Wheat and tobacco were the only cash crops available to most Virginia farmers. Jefferson would transport his tobacco to Richmond, with instructions to his business agents, Gibson & Jefferson, on when to sell it and for what price.

Perhaps it was his unrelenting financial pressures that regularly caused Jefferson to over-estimate the size of his crops and the price they would command. He was continually on the spot to pay his debts from the sale of tobacco. In this excerpt, he was unable to honor a commitment to pay $1,000 toward a debt to an old friend because his tobacco hadn’t sold at what Jefferson considered “a reasonable price.” He promised to pay as soon as it sold.

There is some indication that payment had been due for several years. Nearly seven months later, Lyle, himself in financial distress, still had not received the money owed him.

“… your portrayal of Thomas Jefferson …
was definitely one of the highlights of our annual event.”
Executive Director, Nevada Association of Counties
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NOTE: The link to Thomas Jefferson’s letter is subject to change by Founders’ Archive. It was accurate when this post was written. If the link is now wrong, search FoundersArchives.gov or call me. I’ll help you find it.
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Would you like a cigarette?

It [tobacco] is a culture productive of infinite wretchedness.  Those employed in it are in a continued state of exertion beyond the powers of nature to support.  Little food of any kind is raised by them; so that the men and animals on these farms are badly fed, and the earth is rapidly impoverished.
Notes on Virginia, Query XX [Chapter 20], 1782

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Smart leaders recognize bad deals.
January 11 of last week marked the 50th anniversary of the Surgeon General’s report on the hazards of smoking. 160 years before that, Jefferson wrote that tobacco produced “infinite wretchedness.”
His claim was based not on the health of tobacco users but on tobacco growers and the effect of that crop on the soil. Tobacco was (and still is) a very labor-intensive crop. Farmers who raised tobacco devoted all their efforts to it, excluding crops that would have nourished those farmers and their livestock.
Tobacco was “hard” on the soil, meaning it stripped nutrients from the ground to produce its crop. Tobacco could not be raised on the same land year after year, because it depleted those nutrients. Some land could produce tobacco only once every seven years.
He saw deliverance for his state: “But the western country on the Missisipi, and the midlands of Georgia, having fresh and fertile lands in abundance, and a hotter sun, will be able to undersell these two states [Virginia & Maryland], and will oblige them to abandon the raising tobacco altogether.  And a happy obligation for them it will be.” (Same source as above.)
Tobacco and wheat were the only cash crops in Virginia. Tobacco itself was even used as currency. Jefferson raised it out of necessity. About 1790, upon his return from France and finding his lands greatly depleted through both tobacco farming and absentee supervision, he abandoned that crop in favor of wheat and a rotating system of other grains and cover crops to replenish the soil.
An interesting aside… Tobacco was packaged for sale and shipment in large barrels called hogsheads. About 4 feet tall and 3 feet wide, each held 1,000 pounds of compressed tobacco. Learn about hogsheads here.

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Past President, Washington [State] Municipal Treasurer’s Association

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