Planters often spent excessive amounts on luxuries from London to show that their tobacco was making them wealthy. One such was Thomas Jefferson, whose Monticello estate was styled after the homes of European aristocrats. English elites said that Jefferson was the first colonist to “properly house himself.”
This propensity to spend is apparent on a tour of the James River plantations in Richmond. There, the docent points out the furnishings that the tobacco growers imported from England. These plantation owners could not tell quality goods from fakes. They had never been to England and had to take the word of importers about what was truly fashionable.
Many of the homes prominently display family portraits. A single English painter did them all as he traveled along the James River. He billed himself a great portrait artist who had painted the English gentry. But the portraits all have the same unisex face, evidently the limit of his talent. The artist just used different hair and clothes in each picture. The hands in the portraits look like flippers, with indistinguishable fingers. Presumably, the Virginia planters didn’t know that they were dealing with a hack. They were not the last Americans to be seduced into buying shoddy goods to emulate European royalty. A hundred fifty years later, a new class of nouveau riche in America would expand this practice by buying a “royal” spouse for their daughters.
American planters, including Jefferson and Washington, responding to increased European demand for tobacco, expanded their plantations. This increased their need for capital, and bankers in London were happy to accommodate them. Heavy borrowing pressured them to produce a profitable crop. Consequently, the planters, like many farmers before and after, lived on the edge, afraid they would be unable to pay their debts. Jefferson stayed in debt all his life, thanks to a lavish lifestyle. When tobacco prices dropped sharply in the 1750s, many plantations faced insolvency. Debts threatened the colonial power structure and personal reputations. At Mount Vernon, Washington’s debt grew to an intolerable level by the late 1760s. Jefferson, on the verge of losing Monticello, developed conspiracy theories. He accused Londoners of unfairly depressing tobacco prices and forcing Virginia planters to take on unsustainable debts. Jefferson once wrote his daughter a letter extolling the virtues of thrift – a case of “do as I say, not as I do.” His heirs sold the beloved Monticello to pay his debts.
We revere these founding fathers, but truthfully, like millions of businessmen since their day, they succumbed to the lure of high prices and profits and expanded more rapidly than was prudent. They were eager to blame someone else for their own overreach. They cited the oft-used excuse, “The banker made me do it.” A global financial crisis and growing animosity toward British rule coupled with tobacco interests helped unite colonists and produced some of the strongest American revolutionaries. They claimed that insurmountable debts prevented the exercise of basic human freedoms. Undoubtedly true, but then too much debt always limits one’s freedom.
Tobacco was 75% of Virginia and Maryland exports. It is patriotic heresy to point this out, but the planters must have known that if the Revolution succeeded, they could repudiate their British debts – a great incentive to win the war. To find the real motive behind any action, “follow the money” is always a good rule.