Dark days at Monticello: Thomas Jefferson’s environmental misfortunes.

monticello darkdays

In the archives this week, among other things I’ve been looking at the papers of Thomas Jefferson, 3rd President of the United States, and one of my personal heroes (his record on slavery notwithstanding). Because my research focuses on the environmental history of the “Cold Decade” (1810-1820), I’m interested in his letters and papers after he left the Presidency, and whether they mention environmental–and particularly climate–issues. As it turns out, they do. In fact, I’ve been struck by the extent to which Jefferson’s retirement years were governed by environmental factors–usually negative ones.

After serving two terms in the White House, Jefferson retired to Monticello, his plantation near Charlottesville, Virginia, after his friend James Madison replaced him as President on March 4, 1809. Being an ex-President in the early 19th century was a lot different than it is today. He drew no income from the federal government–Presidents weren’t even eligible for pensions until the 1950s. There was no speaking tour in 1809, and he couldn’t sit back and raise money for his Presidential library. He went back to being what he had been before his years of public service: a farmer. Monticello was a big farm, to be sure, staffed by many slaves as well as free members of Jefferson’s family (he had family members who were slaves, too), but it was still a farm. He raised tobacco, wheat, corn and some other incidental crops, like hemp for use around the plantation. As a farmer, Jefferson’s fortunes were dependent upon the environment.

Jefferson had the misfortune to return to his farm right as the Cold Decade was beginning. The winter of 1809-10 was relatively normal–the full effects of volcanic climate change hadn’t kicked in yet–but the next winter, 1810-11, was dreadful. Jefferson wrote to President Madison on March 8, 1811: “We have had a wretched winter for the farmer, great consumption of food by the cattle and little weather for preparing the ensuing crop.” The next winter was also very hard. By now Jefferson was starting to run out of money. It didn’t help that he had expensive tastes–wine and books, most of which had to be imported from Europe. His bill for wine alone in the White House came to $11,000, and he still owed a lot of debts from his presidential years.

monticello1

Monticello, Jefferson’s plantation, didn’t look nearly this good when he died in 1826–or ten years earlier, when the “Year Without Summer” ravaged its fields and Jefferson’s finances.

Two disasters struck Monticello and Jefferson’s fortunes in 1812 and 1813, one manmade, one environmental. The manmade one was the War of 1812, which resulted in a naval blockade of many American ports by British ships. This meant that no sellers of agricultural products, including Jefferson, could sell their goods abroad. The second was a terrible drought that turned his fields to dust. I’ve found letter after letter, written during 1813, where Jefferson complains about the drought. “The wheat was killed by the drought as dead as the leaves of the trees now are,” he wrote on November 9. “The stells fell before the scythe without being cut, & the little grain in the head shattered on the ground.” Much of his correspondence consists of letters begging suppliers and lenders to let him have more credit, and promises to pay them once a good harvest came in, or the war ended, whichever came first. Yet at the same time Jefferson was still ordering wines and other goods when he could get them.

In August 1814, the British sailed up the Potomac and burned the White House and the Capitol. The Library of Congress was also destroyed. This calamity proved to be Jefferson’s salvation. In September 1814 he wrote the federal government, offering to sell his private collection of books–about 6,000 of them–as a replacement for the Library of Congress, which had only had about 2,000 books. After some political wrangling, Congress accepted. Jefferson packed up his beloved library and sent it on several carts to Washington in January 1815. He also pocketed $23,000–the equivalent of about $251,000 today. He used most of it to pay off his creditors and resupply Monticello, but also began ordering more books, writing to John Adams, “I cannot live without books.” As soon as the War of 1812 was over he put in orders for more wine from Europe.

tambora

The “Year Without Summer” was triggered, in part, by the eruption of this volcano in Indonesia, called Tambora, in April 1815. To my knowledge Jefferson never heard of this event.

As far as the weather was concerned, Jefferson couldn’t get a break. After another harsh winter, 1814-15, the worst was yet to come: the “Year Without Summer.” The bizarre weather of 1816, caused in part by the effects of the Tambora eruption, played havoc with farmers all over the world, not least of which was the Sage of Monticello. Several times Jefferson feared the effects on crops would plunge Virginia into an actual famine, like the one he remembered from his youth in 1755. In the 18th century people did starve to death in America–even rich people.

Still, Jefferson managed to eke out a marginal existence for the next ten years, somehow managing to keep Monticello–though it was a very near thing. His debts continued to mount and he couldn’t afford to make repairs to his beloved plantation, which began to look run-down and shabby. Contemporaries speak of the mansion being emptied of furniture in the final years, sold off to try to pay his debts. Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, with his mistress of 38 years and the mother of many his children, Sally Hemings, by his side. Jefferson’s daughter Martha was forced to sell Monticello in the succeeding years to pay off her father’s debts. It’s a miracle it managed to survive as a historical monument.

Certainly not all of Jefferson’s fortunes in his post-White House years were environmental in nature, but many were. It’s amazing to see the degree to which weather, water, winds, rains and temperatures really dictated the contours of Jefferson’s existence. For someone we think of as a man primarily of ideas–the Declaration of Independence, the University of Virginia, etc.–it’s surprising to see that Thomas Jefferson was, like all of us, dependent upon his environment, and subject, as all of us are, to its misfortunes.

The photo of Monticello is by Martin Falbisoner and is used under Creative Commons 3.0 (Attribution) license.
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