It is with real mortification that, instead of a remittance … now due, I am obliged to send you this letter. … I have now been for 13. or 14. years a customer … and have never failed beyond a few days over the term of remittance … my [cash] income is mainly from the produce or the rents of tobacco & wheat farms … we have no banks here to relieve disappointments, & little money circulation. all is barter … I have trespassed on you with these details, that you may perfectly understand my situation, & ascribe a failure, not to a want of faith, but of those accomodations which do not exist here…
To Jones & Howell, August 10, 1809
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
A leader in debt is a compromised one.
Jones & Howell were iron merchants who provided the iron rod that Jefferson’s slave boys turned into nails. It had been profitable when he managed it directly but not during the eight year absence of his Presidency. He hoped to resurrect the business. He needed more raw material but had not paid for his last order.
The man who leased his wheat-grinding mill for $1,200/year had paid him nothing in the last two years. Prospects for future payments were iffy.
There were no banks to provide cash for transactions like buying iron. Everything was bartered. Jefferson had no cash and nothing to trade.
He frequently lived beyond his means. As early as the 1780s, as ambassador to France, his expenses regularly exceeded his income, and he would borrow to cover the shortfall. Then he would borrow more to pay back previous loans.
He often had reasons for his inability to pay his debts … absences while serving in government, bad weather, falling land prices, low crop prices, unfaithful tenants, no banks. Rarely if ever did he identify himself as part of the cause.
In his 1825 “Decalog of Canons for Observation in Practical Life,” 10 points of advice that summarized his life experience, point # 3 was, “Never spend your money before you have it.” It was a lesson he learned too late.