The last years of Thomas Jefferson’s life were plagued by terrible financial problems. Perpetually in debt because of his loose spending habits and the never-ending construction at Monticello, Jefferson also suffered from lower-than-expected income from the crops he produced on his various plantations. But the ultimate ruinous blow came from an unexpected source: Jefferson’s friend Wilson Cary Nicholas, a former senator and governor of Virginia and president of the Richmond branch of the Bank of the United States. Jefferson’s involvement with Nicholas would lead to the loss of everything.
In the fall of 1817, Jefferson asked to borrow $6000 from the Bank of the United States, and Nicholas gladly co-signed two separate notes of $3000 each. Six months later, Nicholas asked Jefferson to return the favor and be co-signer on a loan for him – this time two notes of $10,000 each, for the total sum of $20,000. He assured Jefferson that he was worth at least $350,000 and would easily be able to repay the notes, to come due in the fall of 1819.
Nicholas had been a close friend and political supporter of Jefferson’s for years. Jefferson’s beloved grandson Jeff Randolph was married to Nicholas’s daughter. With no reason to doubt Nicholas’s solvency, Jefferson signed the papers “in utter confidence” and the loans were approved. He seems not to have given the matter much thought.
Fast-forward to August 1819, when Jefferson received a letter in the mail from Nicholas. Something had gone terribly wrong. Despite his earlier assurances, Nicholas confessed to Jefferson that he had been not been able to keep up with his loan payments. The bank had investigated and found that Nicholas was far from solvent – in fact, rash speculation in western lands had put Nicholas $200,000 in debt. They were calling in the loan.
Jefferson realized immediately that if Nicholas went bankrupt, as co-signer of the loan, he was now on the hook to pay back the money. “He said very little,” Jefferson’s granddaughter wrote, “but his countenance expressed a great deal.” Unfortunately, Jefferson’s next action made a bad situation worse. He asked the bank to extend the term of the loan for a full year, and offered to bring in another co-signer—to whom he would deed land worth $20,000—to help guarantee the loan. The second co-signer was Nicholas’s son-in-law and Jefferson’s grandson, Jeff Randolph.
Wilson Cary Nicholas’s unexpected death on October 10, 1820, plunged the Jefferson family into an unfathomable financial disaster. In the days before Chapter 11 and other bankruptcy protection laws, the family stood to lose everything. There was no way Jefferson could pay back $20,000 plus interest – about the equivalent of four years of earnings on his farms. But if he defaulted or died – he was then 77 years old – the debt would pass to his grandson, saddling him with a crushing liability.
Desperate, Jefferson conceived of a plan for the family’s salvation that came to him “like an inspiration the realms of bliss,” according to his daughter Martha Randolph. The family could sponsor its own public lottery, selling tickets and offering as a prize some of Jefferson’s farmland that his obligations to the bank left him unable to sell. Jefferson hoped to raise $60,000 from the public raffle, enough to pay off the debts, secure the family’s immediate future, and live comfortably for the remainder of his life. Jefferson even had secret hopes that the Virginia state government would buy all the tickets and burn them in a great patriotic bonfire, allowing him to keep both the land and the money. All he needed was approval from the Virginia legislature.
Unfortunately, that approval was not easily forthcoming. Then as now, “family values” were an important part of political rhetoric, and the lottery Jefferson proposed was considered gambling – and gambling fostered immorality. Jefferson was crushed by the legislature’s chilly reception. “I see in the failure of this hope a deadly blast to all my peace of mind during my remaining days,” he wrote disconsolately. “I am overwhelmed at the prospect of the situation in which I may leave my family.”
In February 1826, the Virginia legislature relented and approved the lottery bill—but with important and chilling alterations. The farmland being offered as a prize would have to be independently appraised to make sure the $60,000 raised did not exceed the value of the prize – which it most certainly did. Therefore, the land prize would not be enough to get the lottery approved. A more attractive prize must be offered – Monticello itself. As a generous concession, the bill would allow Jefferson and Martha to remain in the house for the rest of their lives.
The thought of losing the home was unbearable. Due to the family’s dire financial straits, Monticello was already suffering from lack of upkeep. When the public learned of Jefferson’s plight, many people began to raise money outright and donate it to the Jefferson family. Though touched by these patriotic gestures, Jefferson tried to discourage them because he feared it would divert attention and money from the lottery.
Jefferson did not live to see the outcome. He passed away on July 4, 1826, surrounded by his family, and was buried in the family graveyard. Months later, his family held a public auction in a last-ditch attempt to raise much-needed cash. Over five days in January 1827, they watched forlornly while eager buyers picked through Monticello and carted off everything from Parisian furniture, prints and maps, and stemware to hogs, horses, saddles and ordinary household items. The auction of Jefferson’s slaves was an awful ordeal, as families that had lived on Monticello and served the Jeffersons for years were sold off and dispersed. It was, Jefferson’s grandson wrote, “a perfect hell of trouble.”
Unfortunately, interest in the lottery quickly waned after Jefferson’s death, and the idea was abandoned. In July 1828, after laboring heroically for years to save the family from his grandfather’s debts, Jeff Randolph put Monticello up for sale. By the time he finally found a buyer three years later, the mansion was decrepit, dilapidated and a shadow of its former self. The new owner was a druggist from Charlottesville, who purchased the mansion and grounds for $7000, about half of the asking price.
Adding insult to injury, he had poor taste. Proving that blood will tell, Jefferson’s granddaughter Cornelia wrote sadly: “[I] have some fear that he may disfigure that beautiful & sacred spot by some of that ‘gingerbread work’ which grandpapa used to hold in such contempt.”
More great reading: Marc Leepson’s Saving Monticello