I have considered your proposition of yesterday to endorse a bill of 500.D. [co-sign a loan] … it would be immoral for me to engage to pay 500.D. in 60 days on your failure to do it, when I know that it would be out of my power. it may be said indeed that you will not fail. I am sure you do not mean nor expect to fail in doing it. but circumstances not under your controul may put it out of your power, just as similar circumstances now embarrass your paiments to me. but for me deliberately to engage to do a thing in any event which I know it will be out of my power to do, is irreconcileable to my ideas of right.
To Jonathan Shoemaker, December 26, 2017
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Honest leaders should say no when no is all they can offer.
We have met Mr. Shoemaker before. He had leased Jefferson’s wheat-grinding mill, turned it over to his negligent sons, and had paid none of the agreed-to rent. In continuing distress, he now wanted Jefferson to co-sign a $500 loan for him. Jefferson was short of funds himself. He was in no position to guarantee Shoemaker’s loan.
Shoemaker assured Jefferson he was good for the money. Jefferson knew otherwise, since the other man was already delinquent in payments to him.
Co-signing loans was a common practice. Jefferson claimed the moral high ground with Shoemaker. He should have done the same thing in 1818, but for honor could not, when Cary Nicholas, his wealthy friend and father-in-law of his grandson Jeff, asked him to co-sign his $20,000 note. Nicholas lost everything in the economic panic the next year. The additional debt was the death blow for Jefferson’s already-precarious finances.