In this week's Informer, my colleague Pete Terenzio gives a well-deserved thrashing to our nation's third president. The reason? A relatively obscure episode from Jefferson's later life that is quite revealing of his character. The short version of the story is that Jefferson borrowed an absurd amount of money from William & Mary and never paid it back, so yes, this is personal. Terenzio writes:
First, he took almost a fifth of the College’s endowment (around $20,000) by securing a corrupt loan in the late 1810’s. This loan, which allowed Jefferson to live comfortably in his old age and then was passed on to his grandson, was never collected upon by the College.
So yes, Jefferson borrowed a large sum from the institution, and used the money to fuel his own personal profligacy. He was so indebted that his heirs were forced to sell Monticello. It gets worse.
Jefferson, who owed his continued financial survival to the College, criticized the institution, saying that it had been “much reduced by ill management of its funds.” Of course, Jefferson neglected to point out that he had gained much from this “ill management.” Meanwhile, the College was virtually in ruins by 1824, and there were only eight students enrolled.
I bring up this episode because Jefferson could use being knocked down a notch or two. The Declaration was a brilliant document to be sure, but the man was no saint. Ricochetistes are well aware of his slave-holding for which he is today still criticized endlessly, and for which I think conservatives too easily forgive him. He was a vocal opponent of slavery who nonetheless perpetuated the practice, and an advocate of limited government and fiscal restraint who couldn't be bothered to keep his own house in order. In an age in which the Tea Party returns us to the founding documents and rediscovers the wisdom of the Founders, it is healthy to remember that even a man as exceptional as Jefferson was human, and thus capable of indecency and hypocrisy.
If you're curious about this bizarre drama, check Ludwell H. Johnson III's Sharper than a Serpent's Tooth: Thomas Jefferson and His Alma Mater, published in the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, and available on JSTOR.