FIRE.087 This Country Started in Debt

My wife and I took a little journey thru the history of our country last month when we visited Virginia.  We encircled almost the entire state on our little journey exploring the mid-Atlantic.

We were able to see representation on what life was like in 1607, the 1770s, 1860s & 1960s.

We were quite surprised to learn that our nation’s founders were riddled in debt.  Behind the scenes, these leaders who lived on large plantations had large staffs, and even multiple businesses/business interests revealed upon their deaths that they owed so much money their families had to sell many items and assets to try and settle their debts.

Amazing and Enduring Accomplishments

We toured the grand homes and/or museums of Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe (third, fourth, fifth- presidents).  To be honest, there was so much historical information flowing at us (Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Bill of Rights, Monroe Doctrine, British, French, Civil War, Slaves, Ships, Cuba, more Cuba, etc) my facts could be a little jumbled.  I apologize if I’m inaccurate.

What you see is now what you get.

Here’s a little more detail to the best of my knowledge:

Thomas Jefferson:

was a well-educated man who knew many languages (seven?).  He researched multiple government structures and attempted to put together a structure that was fair and could prove long-lasting.  He owned a massive and growing plantation in Virginia.  The large staff included 100+ slaves at multiple locations.  Jefferson was a man of science and tinkered with, and displayed many technology items in his home.  Upon his death, his family has to sell his books/papers to the Library of Congress, then sell his slaves, then sell the plantation home to pay his debts.  I believe the debt was equivalent to 2.5 million dollars in today’s value.

James Madison:

also owned a very large plantation in Virginia.  When he passed away his debts that were managed by his family, yet the famous Dolly still lived quite well.  I recall the plantation/home was eventually sold after his books were sold off.

James Monroe:

had a plantation near Charlottesville VA which was sold upon his passing.  Monroe also had a home and a business in Fredericksburg VA.  The business location/building is now his museum.  I really wished we had known about his plantation while we were in Charlottesville so we could have visited the plantation as well as his Fredericksburg museum.

These presidents were worth 30m-230m in inflation-adjusted dollars according to online sources, but all struggled or were crippled by debt in their lives/deaths.  (references below)

What you see is now what you get (2019 version).

I can’t help but think about the huge plantations/homes the nation’s founders enjoyed while living.  Is there a comparison to today?  I think about the “Joneses” who have McMansions with fancy cars, amazing travel (vacations), workers around their home, and fine furnishings, only to wonder if that lifestyle is just modern-day following along the lines of the historical “American Dream” presented to us hundreds of years prior.

In this case, I’m not judging anyone’s lifestyle choices, not at all.  I was simply amazed and shocked that multiple founding fathers passing away without a positive net-worth.  The correlation of their stories to so many current news articles referencing US savings/debt.

Maybe this is just the “American way.”


*** Nothing in this article is to be construed as financial advice.  I am not a financial planner, nor do I pretend to be.  You should always consult your own professional when seeking advice.

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