Visitors to Thomas Jefferson’s beautiful Virginia estate Monticello are often astounded that the designer and master of the plantation where he died in 1826 left this world penniless and heavily in debt. Shortly after Jefferson died both Monticello and his lesser-known but equally elegant estate named Poplar Forest were sold to help pay the debts of the former third President.
Jefferson, also former Governor of Virginia, and writer of some of America’s most treasured documents, owned thousands of acres of prime Virginia land, all of which were behind in taxes to a cash-strapped commonwealth. His other source of potential income – in the harsh reality of the day – lay in his ownership of several hundred human beings.
Throughout his career as a diplomat in Europe, Jefferson developed a taste for the finer things in life, including expensive furnishings, books (then almost prohibitively expensive), wines and tapestries, and architectural adornments. All of these he acquired for display and use at his home and nearly all were paid for on credit. The prime product of his plantations was tobacco, and throughout his life, decreasing crop yields failed to meet annual expenses, let alone generate disposable income.
After the British burned Washington DC in 1814, Jefferson sold his nearly 6,500 books to the government to re-establish the Library of Congress and to provide an influx of much-needed cash to his coffers. He then immediately began to collect a new library, at great expense. His collection of fine European wines in the Monticello cellars was likely the greatest – and most expensive – in America at the time.
Shortly before his death, Jefferson petitioned the Commonwealth of Virginia to allow him to conduct a lottery to raise funds to pay off some of his debts, which were in excess of $100,000 – over $2.25 million today. After his death Jefferson was buried at Monticello, defraying his final expenses, and his possessions, estates, and slaves were sent to public auction to help settle his debts. Despite the appearance of great wealth Jefferson left little to his heirs besides memories and crushing debts.