Charles City, Va: July 9, 1773.
 pp. manuscript letter, signed by Jefferson and with internal address in his hand. Plus an additional manuscript note Signed by Jefferson, with thirteen lines of text, titled in Jefferson's hand. Jefferson Seeks to Settle His Father-in-Law's Estate, Including the Sale of Hundreds of Slaves: An Early and Important Letter. Expertly repaired at fold separations, affecting about than ten words of text. Very good. In a half morocco and cloth folding case, spine gilt Papers of Thomas Jefferson 15, pp. 643-649 and 657-661. Dumas Malone, Jefferson and his Time, Volume 1: Jefferson The Virginian (Boston: 1948), pp.161-163 and 441-445. Item #346761
An outstanding, early, and lengthy Thomas Jefferson letter, written in the immediate aftermath of the death of his wife's father, John Wayles, and seeking to settle the outstanding debts of the Wayles estate. Jefferson's early experience with indebtedness, and specifically with the inherited debt of the Wayles estate, colored his thinking about debt - both personal and public - throughout his life. Dumas Malone writes of the impact of the Wayles estate and its debt on Jefferson: "Here also is the personal background for the philosophy of economy and hostility to debt which he voiced in public life, both as Secretary of State and President. The whole of his later life was colored by the fateful Wayles inheritance, which first enriched and then impoverished him." Jefferson's bitter experiences with the debts he inherited from his father-in-law strongly affected his personal views on debt and inheritance. As he famously wrote James Madison in a letter of September 6, 1789, no doubt with the ongoing dissolution of the debts of John Wayles firmly on his mind: "The question whether one generation of men has a right to bind another...is a question of such consequences as not only to merit decision, but place also, among the fundamental principles of every government...I set out on this ground, which I suppose to be self-evident, that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living."
This is one of the earliest and most substantial Jefferson letters that we have seen on the market. Its interest is heightened by the fact that it involves the young Thomas Jefferson (then only thirty years old) dealing with the legacy of his father-in-law, John Wayles. The relationship between Jefferson and Wayles lasted long beyond Wayles' death in 1773. Jefferson married Wayles' oldest daughter, Martha, in 1772, and the marriage brought Jefferson land wealth and currency debt. When John Wayles died some eighteen months after Jefferson's marriage to Martha Wayles, Jefferson and two of his brothers-in-law, Francis Eppes and Henry Skipwith, became the executors of the Wayles's estate. The present letter was written at the beginning of that process, which was not completely resolved for decades. Jefferson inherited (through his wife) more than eleven thousand acres of land upon the death of his father-in-law, doubling his own estate, and adding more than 100 slaves. Some of this land Jefferson kept, including Poplar Forest - on which he built his second home, as a retreat from the constant stream of visitors at Monticello. Taking on debt and selling land in order to pay for it was a common theme in Jefferson's life, from before his marriage into his retirement years. This process was expanded by the responsibility for the John Wayles debt.
Among the slaves Jefferson inherited from his father-in-law were members of the Hemings family, including Sally Hemings, who was the daughter of John Wayles by his slave mistress, Elizabeth Hemings. Martha Jefferson died in 1782, at the young age of thirty-three. A few years later Thomas Jefferson would take Sally Hemings, his deceased wife's half-sister, as his own slave mistress, fathering several children with her and adding another aspect to the complicated relationship between Thomas Jefferson and John Wayles.
This letter is written to Wayles' primary creditors, the English merchant firm of Farrell and Jones. John Wayles' relationship with the Bristol-based firm was complicated and deep. As a Virginia tobacco farmer he was one of a number of tidewater planters who relied on the British merchants to market and sell their tobacco. Wayles' relationship with the firm went beyond the mere receipt of credit for tobacco, however. He was also the attorney for Farrell and Jones in the colony, and was responsible for collecting debts owed to the firm by his fellow Virginians. Moreover, a considerable part of Wayles' debt to Farrell and Jones was over the consignment of more than 400 slaves that Wayles and his partner, Richard Randolph, hoped to sell in Virginia. Jefferson and the other executors were greatly hindered by the fact that many of the slaves, sent to Virginia the previous fall on the ship, Prince of Wales, remained unsold. Furthermore, Richard Randolph could not collect the bonds of the Virginia planters and slave dealers who had in fact bought some of those slaves. The letter is a long and detailed account by Jefferson of the current state of the Wayles estate, his efforts to liquidate portions of it, and the prospects for the payment of John Wayles' outstanding debt to Farrell and Jones. We relate here some of its significant aspects.
Jefferson begins by assuring Farrell and Jones of Wayles' intention, voiced even on his deathbed, to settle his debts to the firm: "Gent. Your favors of April 23, 1773 came to hand a few days after the death of Mr. Wayles an event of which I doubt not Mr. Evans [a Farrell and Jones agent] has before this advised you. We are assured that you sympathize on this occasion with his family and friends here, as a correspondence kept up, and we hope approved thro' a long course of years must have produced on your part some degree of that friendship which we know him to have expressed and felt for you. The favors received at your hands he spoke of with particular warmth to the hour of his death, a very few days before which he added a codicil to his will almost solely to secure to you a proper return. The words of it, relating to yourselves, are as follows, 'Messieurs Farrell and Jones have on every occasion acted in a most generous manner to me. I shall therefore make every grateful return in my power. I therefore direct that my estate be kept together and the whole tobacco made thereon be shipped unto the said Farrell and Jones of Bristol until his debt and interest shall be fully and completely paid and satisfied: unless my children should find it to their interest to pay and satisfy the same in a manner that may be agreeable to the said Farrell and Jones.'"
Jefferson continues, "On his death the settlement of his affairs devolve together with his estate on his three daughters, all of whom are married, the eldest to myself, the second to Mr. Francis Eppes, and the youngest to Mr. Henry Skipwith; and we can assure you with truth that we enter on the transactions of his estate with every friendly and grateful disposition towards you, fully purposing to exert every effort for the paiment [sic] of your debt, and to touch no shilling of the estate till that be accomplished." Jefferson goes on to write that he and the executors are surprised by the size of the debt to Farrell and Jones, and that they will consign future tobacco crops to the firm, in an effort to pay the debt. However, he writes that tobacco alone will not settle the debt, and that they will need to sell some of the Wayles lands, but that these lands are generally of low value. Jefferson then describes the plight that he, Eppes, and Skipwith find themselves in - the situation in Virginia being so unsettled that they are having difficulty collecting debts owed to them, while at the same time having to pay their own debts in a timely fashion. He writes: "There is indeed another circumstance necessary to be mentioned here. We estimate that the debts due to the estate in the country are much about equal to the country demands against it. But as the former are in a great measure unsettled, and indeed as yet unknown to us, our debtors take advantage of the delay which will necessarily attend the settlement of our accounts against them, and withhold the monies due to us; whilst those to whom we owe, are ready and pressing to have their demands answered." Jefferson writes that as a result they may have to borrow even more money from Farrell and Jones. He lists some of his creditors, so that the firm is aware of them. Among these are "Thomas Waller of London Bookseller" to whom is owed some £200 sterling.
Jefferson devotes an entire paragraph to a discussion of the debt owed on the consignment of more than 400 slaves, ordered by John Wayles and Richard Randolph and delivered to Virginia the previous fall. He writes: "The Guinea consignment you were so kind as to engage the last year for Messieurs Wayles and Randolph becomes a matter of serious attention. Two courts have now passed at which considerable sums should have been paid, yet little is done, and at so low an ebb is the circulating money of this colony at present that the business of a collector is of all the others the most subject to disappointments. That you should suffer no inconvenience in a matter which in no way could have brought you advantage we should think peculiarly hard, and therefore shall do every thing to guard against it. For this purpose the activity of Mr. Skipwith will be called to our assistance who is in that season and situation of life best equal to the task. He will act in this matter in concert with Colo. Richard Randolph and we think we may expect from his efforts whatever the times will admit." This entire passage is underscored in manuscript, showing the attention that Jefferson wanted to draw to this particular aspect of the Wayles debt.
Shortly after he wrote this letter Jefferson, along with the co-executors of the Wayles estate, attempted to sell large tracts of Wayles' land. A notice in the VIRGINIA GAZETTE of July 15, 1773 announced the sale of some 5,420 acres of land in Cumberland, Goochland, and Charles City counties from "the estate of the late John Wayles." Two months later, on September 9, another advertisement was placed in the GAZETTE, again offering much of the same land for sale (for this notice and the previous notice, see Jefferson Papers, Volume 1, cited below). Both advertisements were signed in print by Jefferson, and by his brothers-in-law (and co-executors), Francis Eppes and Henry Skipwith, and payment was offered on liberal time terms. Ultimately Jefferson personally sold some 6000 acres of land to try to settle his proportionate share of the Wayles debt. These transactions did not, however, settle the Wayles estate. Jefferson and his co-executors did not get cash for the lands they sold, cash being in very short supply in Revolutionary-era Virginia. Rather, they accepted notes for the land against future payments. The English creditors, however, would not accept the notes as payment for the debts, so although Jefferson had covered the debts, they were not actually paid. These notes were later paid to Jefferson with badly depreciated money during and after the Revolution, and Jefferson was therefore forced to pay the Wayles debt all over again. In all, Jefferson wrestled with the Wayles debt for nearly three decades, and had to pay not only the principal, but decades worth of accumulated interest. He paid these monies by selling land, his crops (primarily tobacco) and slaves.
This letter was unknown to the PAPERS OF THOMAS JEFFERSON project when the first volume in their series was published in 1950, but they did include it in their Volume 15, which contained a supplement printing previously unlocated letters from the period 1772 to 1790, including a series of letters relating to the estate of John Wayles. The present letter is the longest and most consequential letter by Jefferson included therein. This letter is not written in Jefferson's hand, though it is signed by him on the fourth page, and the internal address at the bottom of the fourth page is also written in his hand. The copy of the letter used by the Jefferson Papers, found in the United States Circuit Court files in the Virginia State Library, is also not written in Jefferson's hand. Jefferson apparently wrote an original draft of the letter, and then had an assistant make copies, which he signed. This letter is accompanied by a manuscript list, titled in Jefferson's hand "Invoice of goods to be sent to the Executors of John Wayles" and signed by him. Jefferson referred to this list in the letter to Farrell and Jones as "such British goods as will be necessary for the use of the plantation." The list consists of twelve lines of text, in the same clerical hand as the letter, listing goods that Jefferson is requesting be sent to him in Virginia. The list includes "50 sacks of salt," "six frying pans," "Dutch blankets," and a variety of thread, yarn, hose, and other linen goods.
An outstanding and lengthy Thomas Jefferson letter, written at the outset of a financial responsibility that would burden him for decades, and which would influence his thinking about personal and public debt. Jefferson inherited lands and slaves (including the Hemings family) from his father-in-law, and had to sell land and slaves to settle the debt, making this letter deeply illustrative of the tangled relationship Jefferson had with his father-in-law, John Wayles.
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