Newly Discovered Letter of President Thomas Jefferson Shows Him Struggling to Pay Household Expenses

Unpublished and Unseen by Scholars, This Important Historical Document was Acquired From the Heirs of an American Collector Who Purchased it During the Great Depression 


The Raab Collection today announced that it has discovered, acquired, and is offering for sale an unpublished letter of Thomas Jefferson that reveals his financial insecurity while president. Written in 1802, the letter shows Jefferson juggling funds to pay household expenses, such as groceries and servants’ wages, for his Monticello estate while he lived and worked at the Executive Mansion (White House). The president directs his agent to stretch his funds for “2 or even 4 months” instead of borrowing against future earnings. The long-lost letter is valued at $40,000.

“This letter, whose content was not known until now, is a remarkable historical discovery,” said Nathan Raab, president of The Raab Collection and author of The Hunt for History. “We can see in it Thomas Jefferson not as an unapproachable president, but as a regular guy with financial burdens and worries, just like the rest of us.”   

Jefferson’s Fragile Finances

Thomas Jefferson lived with debt throughout much of his life. He inherited debt from his father, and he spent lavishly on wine and books for Monticello, his Virginia estate. He often lived paycheck to paycheck, and even after he became president of the United States in 1801, his official salary did little to alleviate his tenuous personal finances. 

John Barnes, a tea merchant and grocer with ties to the Treasury Department, helped Jefferson manage his money while president. Throughout the spring and summer of 1802, the two men corresponded about financial matters, including outstanding bills, expenses, and the availability of bank funding. Jefferson tried to trim costs, particularly in relation to Monticello’s household expenses. By late summer, Jefferson was still calculating how to make his money last. 

Thomas Jefferson letter 1802

On October 15, he wrote to Barnes, discussing his current balance and confirming whether the funds might last a few months. The letter, in Jefferson’s hand, reads:

“In answer to my letter which had mentioned that I should be obliged to go again into the bank, you were so kind as to say, the balance then being between $1700 and $1800, that from this balance you could accommodate yourself for 2 or even 4 months rather than take it from the bank. I have taken an exact view of all the calls which will come to me through the winter and send you a statement of them and of the times they must be answered with the immediate sums of compensation to be received and applied to meet them. By this it appears that the balance due from me will always be under $1700 and will be completely surmounted March 4. This is longer than you had contemplated, and I therefore propose that the moment you find any inconvenience from it, now or any time hence, you accept my note to be discounted at the bank, which I shall always be ready to give you. Accept assurance of my affectionate esteem…” 

Thomas Jefferson letter verso

Unpublished and Unseen by Scholars 

Public sale records show that this document last exchanged hands nearly a century ago. An American collector purchased it in 1929 from the New York autograph dealer Thomas Madigan, and his heirs have held onto it ever since. Raab acquired it from them earlier this year. 

The Thomas Jefferson Papers project notes that “A letter from TJ [Thomas Jefferson] to Barnes dated 15 Oct. is recorded in SJL [Jefferson’s epistolary record book, “Summary Journal of Letters”] but has not been found.” In other words, scholars knew the letter once existed but thought it had been lost. Long in private hands, the letter had escaped the notice of twentieth-century cataloging projects and thus has not been seen or studied by scholars.

To learn more about this exciting discovery, Nathan Raab is available for interviews. The letter will be on display at The Raab Collection through July 9. Appointments for viewings are necessary; please email or call to schedule.

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