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What Made Thomas Jefferson Such a Financial Failure?

By Kevin Hellyer
Updated May 16, 2024
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Back in 1825, Thomas Jefferson – one of America’s favorite Founding Fathers – published a list he called Rules to Live By. Rule No. 3 on that list was: “Never spend your money before you have it.” Unfortunately, Jefferson routinely spent more than he could earn.

At the end of his life, his financial outlook was particularly bleak. In 1826, Jefferson’s debts totaled more than $107,000 USD, the equivalent of over $1 million today. Experts say that he was never out of debt during his adult life, and was never able to say "no" to expensive French wine, books, art, and other finery.

Do as I say, not as I spend:

  • As America’s third president, Thomas Jefferson was a key public figure of his time, at the heart of a country’s first days. This exalted status may have demanded that he live a luxurious life few could afford – perhaps an early example of the American Dream.

  • Jefferson even had to auction off his beloved Monticello estate so that his daughter would not be burdened by his massive debt. Ironic maybe that Jefferson's face is on the quirky and short-lived $2 bill.

  • In 1826, on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, John Adams’ last words were: “Thomas Jefferson survives.” Jefferson had passed only hours before, and it’s still unclear what Adams meant exactly.

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