American Revolution Vignette – Finances

It was difficult for the founding fathers to make ends meet in revolutionary times.

Adams was a lawyer and a farmer, with very limited means and no great wealth to draw on. Living in Europe was exceedingly expensive, particularly if your status was measured by how many “servants” you had. He only had eight as embassador in France. The Spanish ambassador had 75. Congress’ salaries for their envoys was not enough for their day-to-day living expenses, let along lavish entertaining and travels.

Washington and Jefferson were in a somewhat different position. They were some of the richest men in the country. While Adams never owned slaves, both Washington and Jefferson had vast plantations and both owned over 200 slaves.

Jefferson always spent more than he made. He was constantly in debt, and when he died still left an estate of debt of over $100,000. Adams, in contrast, due to being of  modest means, lived comparatively frugally and left an estate of about $100,000 in value when he died. Jefferson was in such financial straights that he had the Commonwealth of Virginia put up a lottery with the proceeds going to pay off his debts. The lottery was a failure, however.

One way Jefferson raised money late in his life was by selling his library to Congress to re-start the Library of Congress. The British, when burning the Capitol and White House in the war had ended up ruining the fledgling Library of Congress. Jefferson sold 6700 books for $23,000. They were carted from Monticello to Washington and were the seed of the new library. This was only a drop in the bucket of Jefferson’s debt.

Living expenses, paying for travel, having their families make ends meet at home, and paying for the war, were constant sources of agony for all three of the men.

Washington couldn’t even afford shoes for thousands of men of his army even in winter, let alone pay them adequately, feed them and equip them. The tiny and shaky United States of America had to repeatedly borrow from the Dutch financiers to just stay solvent, paying off old debts and interest with the proceeds of new loans.

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