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Jefferson Loses Money Despite a Very “promising crop of tobacco”
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Thomas Jefferson had a sophisticated eye, a philosophical mind, and an inventor’s hands. He was skilled at architecture, law, languages, scientific agriculture, education, and politics. He was also a poor businessman and financial planner who died deeply in debt due to champagne (literally!) tastes, profligate spending, and bad management. Written to George Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson’s first cousin (once removed) and a partner in Gibson & Jefferson, a Richmond mercantile firm dealing primarily in agricultural products.

THOMAS JEFFERSON. Autograph Letter Signed, to George Jefferson Jr. Poplar Forest, [Virginia], August 21, 1811. 1 p., 7¼ x 9¼ in. Jefferson’s retained copy docketed by him on verso.

Inventory #23823       Price: $25,000

Complete Transcript

                                    Poplar Forest Aug. 21. [18]11.

Dear Sir

I have sold my wheat crop of this place at what shall be given in Richmond from the 16th of the presents, to the 25th of the ensuing month, deducting 2% for carriage & all other expenses. I must rely on your friendship to be on the watch for this maximum, and to be furnished at the close of the period with a certificate by which I may settle with the purchaser. That of Albemarle I shall have ground and sent down as flour, in the fall or winter, according to the prospect of prices.

We have here a more promising crop of tobacco than that of the last year. The quality of that was admitted to have been equal, or superior to any brought to Lynchburg, & as well handled. It brought, as I am told 13 ½ D. in Richmond, while I got here but 7. D. I had been persuaded to believe that the prices here were quite equal, & sometimes superior to those of Richmond, deducting carriage. This I find is a mere puff, and that buyers have a different gage. four of the capital purchasers offered me 7. D. for that crop of tob[acc]o and not one would go a cent beyond that. this coincidence imposed on me for the moment, and lost me 2000 D. which would have counted pleasingly to us all at the bank. but it proves the ratio of the profits aimed at here, & that they are immoderate. I set out for Monticello tomorrow. accept assurances of my

constant affection.

                        [signed]: Th: Jefferson

[to]: Mr. Jefferson  [on verso]: Jefferson George Aug 21 11

Historical Background

Thomas Jefferson, since retired, discusses problems more associated with those of a gentleman farmer than those of a former president. While is primary residence, Monticello is well known, his most private retreat, Poplar Forest, lay just outside of Lynchburg, Virginia, 75 miles southwest of Charlottesville. The retreat, built in 1806, served as Jefferson’s plantation and originally included 4,800 acres. The main house was octagonal in shape and like nearly all of Jefferson’s architectural endeavors, modeled on neoclassicism of Palladian design.

He used it primarily after his retirement, from 1809 until his death in 1826, and considered it a place to enjoy his books, scientific endeavors, grandchildren, and the life of a gentleman farmer, and  “live in the solitude of a hermit, and quite at leisure to attend to my absent friends.”

Jefferson’s primary crops grown at Poplar Forest were tobacco and wheat. He considered tobacco “infinitely wretched” it depleted the soil, offered no food value, and took considerable labor, and time to reach market. Any misstep, from weather, to spoilage, to, in this case, economic fluctuations, could kill profits. By contrast, Jefferson praised wheat, as it fed the laborers and did not deplete the soil. The reasoning behind his contrasting opinions of the two crops is clearly spelled out in this letter, as his wheat crop commanded a decent price while his tobacco earned him barely half of what he had expected.

Unsurprisingly, Jefferson was in the vanguard of scientific agriculture. “Our rotations are corn, wheat & clover, or corn, wheat, clover and clover, or wheat, corn, wheat, clover and clover, preceding the clover by a plaistering, but some instead of clover, substitute mere rest.” he wrote to friend, fellow farmer, and famed artist Charles Willson Peale.

Because of Jefferson’s docketing, this is likely his polygraph copy….


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