From Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia
The Jefferson Lottery
Jefferson Randolph, to whom Jefferson had entrusted his business affairs in 1817, was forced to admit that, after eight years, he was unable to stabilize them. The old patriarch's financial burdens, brought on chiefly by the failure of his estate to handle his large obligations, were staggering. This, coupled with the bankruptcy of Wilson Cary Nicholas, whose note Jefferson had endorsed in 1817, gave him the coup de grace. The Spring of 1826 was a gloomy one for Jefferson and the household. The portents for Monticello and its occupants were ominous.
The aged patriot and his grandson cast about for possible means of relief. Bankruptcy would serve no useful purpose and, even if unavoidable, it would leave Martha and her younger children without a roof over their heads and with but few pennies in their pockets. From the recesses of a still active mind Jefferson drew out the ageold expedient of disposing of a part of his holdings by lottery. This had frequently been done in Virginia under similar circumstances. Lotteries were prohibited by law and this made it necessary for him to obtain permission from the State Legislature. He petitioned that body and accompanied his petition with a dissertation on lotteries in which he attempted to anticipate any possible objections.
Jefferson referred to his straitened circumstances and his plans to alleviate them in a letter of January 20, 1826, to his friend, collaborator on the University of Virginia, and a member of tlie Virginia General Assembly, Joseph C. Cabell:
My application to the Legislature is for permission to dispose of property . . . in a way which, bringing a fair price for it, may pay my debts, and leave a living for myself in my old age, and leave something for my family. Their (Legislature) consent is necessary. It will injure no man, and few sessions pass without similar exercise of the same power in their discretion . . . I think it just myself . . . To me it is almost a question of life and death.
As soon as the public learned of his plight the "liveliest sympathy heightened by surprise" was manifested in many areas of the country. Plans for his relief were advanced in the newspapers, and meetings were held for the purpose of raising funds by voluntary contributions. Even so, the favored scheme at this time continued to be the lottery.
Thomas J. Randolph arrived in Richmond in January to promote the bill, soon to come before the Legislature, that would allow his grandfather to pursue the lottery plan. Randolph's initial report to Monticello was optimistic. He noted "that the leading men have taken up the affair with zeal, and are making their impressions upon others . . . your friends are confident of success." Despite these early impressions, the bill was not to have smooth sailing; in fact, there were strong swells of opposition, even in Albemarle County. At home some demurred on religious and moral grounds while others thought it would hurt Jefferson's good name. Legislative opposition came from friend and foe: many were in no mood to assist the arch democrat even in an almost dying gesture, while the rest were honestly concerned with the effect on his reputation.
The petition was first introduced on the floor of the House of Delegates on February 8, 1826. The vote without debate on reading the bill was against passage, 95 to 94. "Its enemies," Randolph wrote, "bad been active against it and shunned debate." This was, however, only a temporary setback, for its proponents won permission, but by only four votes, to place it before the House a second time. Cabell was sanguine about eventual passage, but not without the stigma of an uncomfortably large minority opposing it.
The bill was presented again after an impassioned plea by Delegate Loyal1 of Norfolk. Delegate Blackburn then moved to lay the bill on the table for several days so that the delegates might have more time to consider the subject. After a discussion, Blackburn called for a vote on his tabling motion but it was defeated by 140 to 43. The vote on the bill was taken on February 20 and it passed the House by 125 to 62 and the Senate by 13 yeas to 4 nays.
The bill authorized Jefferson "to dispose of any part of his real estate by lottery, for the payment of his debts." A proviso which affected earlier plans allowed no more money to be raised by the sale of tickets than the amount of a fair evaluation. Randolph and Jefferson had hoped that the value of the tickets might be worth not more than $60,000 and this for one prize only, the Shadwell Mills and accompanying land. This proved to be very unrealistic because the depressed value of Albemarle County land would necessitate the inclusion of nearly all Jefferson's Albemarle and possibly some of the Bedford lands if the prize were to be attractive. When Randolph suggested Monticello might be included, his grandfather was reported to have "turned white," but he realized the hopelessness of the situation and "after a while came into it."
When the law authorizing the lottery was passed, Randolph thought of turning to lottery brokers in one of the large northern metropolitan centers. He decided in the early Spring that Yates and McIntyre of New York City might handle the scheme. They agreed, and added their agents' services without compensation. Their prospectus advertised that the winning combination would be drawn from 11,477 tickets at $10. each, a rather high fignre for that day. The following prizes were listed:
1 prize, the Monticello estate valued at per subjoined certificate under oath at $71,000
1 do. the Shadwell Mills at $30,000
1/3 do. the Albemarle Estate at $11,500
For a total of 11,477 blanks, $112,500
Unfortunately Randolph failed to give complete control of the scheme to his brokers at this time when the fervor for aiding Jefferson was at its highest. His failure to act caused his contemporary and, later, a Jefferson biographer, St. George Tucker, to write that "this course might then have been practicable as it certainly would have been efficient."
Final authority to begin the sale was postponed by the Committee of Citizens of New York City under the leadership of Mayor Philip Hone and other patriotic groups throughout the country. They believed, and convinced Randolph, that the needed money could be raised by voluntary public subscription in a dignified manner and at less expense and trouble to Jefferson. Their plan promised that Jefferson would not lose his much beloved patrimony, Monticello.
Jefferson did not object to the promises held out by Hone and the others but he was disturbed over the effect the subscriptions might have on the lottery, whose plans were now well advanced. Under the hope of quicker, easier, and less costly results, and the influence of Randolph, the old man gave in. The lottery was quietly laid aside. Mayor Hone's Committee raised $6,500; the Committee in Philadelphia subscribed $5,000; $3,000 came from Baltimore and lesser sums from elsewhere. The total was about $16,500. This gave Jefferson some measure of relief but it did not solve his problems because his total indebtedness was more than $100,000. The results, however, meagre, cheered the old gentleman in his last months for they did indicate the esteem in which he was held by so many of his fellow citizens. Even before his death signs indicated that the subscriptions might prove abortive. They finally did. Happily, Jefferson never knew this when he died on July 4, 1826.
As the contributions diminished Randolph returned to the lottery scheme and he urged Yates and McIntyre to revive it publicly. They did this by printing the prospectus in the Richmond Enquirer on July 28, 1826. Oddly, nothing further appeared until September 19 when the following notice was run in the same paper:
Jefferson Lottery. Orders enclosing the cash (post paid) for tickets in this Lottery, will be punctually attended to if addressed to Yates and McIntyre Agents for the Managers under the Eagle Hotel Richmond. Sept. 8.
This notice was of short duration and it was seen for the last time in the issue of October 31. Apparently this was the final attempt of the agents to dispose of the tickets.
The delay until Jefferson's death was as costly for the lottery as it had been for the subscriptions. Many who wished to assist Jefferson were not williig to do the same for his family. Other causes contributed to the failure of the lottery. Its prizes were not particularly attractive to the average purchaser. They were, after all, solely in over-valued land which could not he disposed of for anything near the lottery's estimated value.
Nevertheless, Randolph continued. Early in 1827 he was in Washington endeavoring to elevate the lottery to a national scale by an act of Congress. Again he was doomed to failure. Later a trip to New York City, where he tried to revive the original plan of a state lottery also failed. In Maryland permission to sell the tickets was refused if the drawing was to be united (which it was) with the proposed National Washington City Lottery to be handled by Yates and McIntyre. Finally, the New York State Legislature was threatening to do away with the sale of all lottery tickets.
One member of the family came to believe that these barriers would "blast the scheme." Randolph had become so discouraged in 1827 that he informed one of his sisters that he was ready to "let it go." When he did is difficult to ascertain. However, February 20, 1828, when James Madison wrote Jefferson's friend, the Marquis de Lafayette, that "the lottery owing to several causes bas entirely failed" might be an appropriate date.
His decision, of course, did nothing to help the still desperate state of his grandfather's affairs. He had now to look elsewhere for funds. These might be obtained from the sale of Jefferson's personal property and slaves. Unfortunately, there was nothing else left.
Original author: James A. Bear, Jr.; orignially published as a Monticello Keepsake, April 11, 1968.