Thomas Jefferson — Founding Father, statesman, diplomat, lawyer, architect, philosopher, and American president — shed this mortal coil on July 4, 1826, Independence Day. Jefferson died in debt, owing roughly $107,000 (more than $3 million in 2022 dollars). Could any good come from a lifetime of debt?
To be fair to Thomas Jefferson, he began his adult life taking on his father-in-law's debt, in 1774. TJ foolishly added to his debt burden throughout his life by spending wildly on projects, farming, and home furnishings.
President Jefferson's debts fell to his grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, who spent a substantial portion of his adult life paying off ol' TJ's debts.
Payment in Full on the Founding Father's debt was not attained by TJR until 50 years after his grandfather's death.
Could anything good come from Jefferson's perpetual optimism and lifetime of debt?
Perhaps the creation of the Library of Congress (LOC) is a kernel of good emerging from Jefferson's lifelong profligacy.
In 1815, as a scheme to reduce his own debt while helping to rebuild the federal government after the War of 1812, Jefferson offered to sell his private library to Congress.
The British Army had set fire to Washington, DC in 1814, destroying Congress's modest collection of research books (among other things; the White House went up in flames, too, but that's a different tale).
Congress agreed to buy a substantial portion of Jefferson's books, settling on the sum of $23,950 in 1815 ($454,577.22 in today's dollars). Some 6,000 volumes left Monticello and were housed in Washington, DC. Surely that cash infusion into the Founding Father's coffers helped, right?
Alas. While the Library of Congress is admittedly a Greater Good that came from Jefferson's struggles with personal debt, Jefferson just continued to spend.
… Mistakes Were Made
How could a man so instrumental in the very founding of our representative democracy, a nation whose origins we celebrate on Independence Day every year, be so bad with money?
How could Jefferson — inventor, wordsmith, farmer (though, admittedly, he also was a slave holder) — be so deeply in debt?
Debtors today shoulder the same burden as TJ.
Not until 1770 did Jefferson keep a ledger tracking income and expenses. Sure, he wrote down a lot of details about his spending, but did not tabulate any of it. Once he started his ledgers, he simply recorded that he spent more than he earned, without regard to reconciling the figures or adjusting his own spending habits.
- Jefferson was eternally optimistic that, somehow, the debt would simply disappear, even telling his daughter shortly before his death that he expected a lottery to erase his debt
- Jefferson gave selflessly to public service, forgoing business opportunities to throw himself into noble but financially unwise tasks. As ambassador to France, he concentrated on getting loans for the newborn United States government, rather than dealing with his own expenses. He cosigned a $20,000 loan for a friend, Wilson Cary Nicholas, that he could simply not afford to take on.
This Independence Day, we can all learn lessons from Tom.
Our Founding Father has passed down three valuable tips to us, through his own behavior:
- Keep track of your expenses and income. Be scrupulous about your finances. Track everything, no matter how small, since those tiny cash outlays add up quickly.
- Be optimistic but realistic about your financial position.
- Be a little bit selfish. Few of us rise to the levels of public service Jefferson did, but how many of us who are in debt are in that “miserable” place (Jefferson's word, not ours) because we have given selflessly to our family members and friends while ignoring our own financial peril?
This Independence Day, this 245th celebration of our nation's beginnings, gives you a new birth of freedom (thanks, Abe!). Learn the lessons that eluded Thomas Jefferson.
- Keep an honest ledger
- Keep emotions out of your finances
- Keep your debts and assets to yourself
Make this July 4th the celebration of your journey to financial independence.
If your debts are piled higher than the books in Thomas Jefferson's library, you need the expertise and compassionate service of a good bankruptcy attorney. You cannot afford to depend on a lottery, optimism, or the sale of your assets to Congress.
Bankruptcy can protect your home, vehicle and retirement savings, stop creditor harassment, and help you manage your debt. Contact us at The Page Law Firm today. You may also schedule a complimentary strategy session by telephoning 214-618-2101.