Charity Begins at Home? Jefferson and Presidential Philanthropy

<a href="" target="_self">Martha King</a> | November 02, 2023

In August of 1787, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter from Paris to his teenaged nephew Peter Carr back in Virginia instructing him on a course of education and advising him on several topics, including moral philosophy. He added to his list of recommendations, “above all things lose no occasion of exercising your dispositions to be grateful, to be generous, to be charitable, to be humane, to be true, just, firm, orderly, couragious &c. Consider every act of this kind as an exercise which will strengthen your moral faculties, and increase your worth.”

“To be charitable” was not just a platitude for the future president. Throughout his life, Jefferson adopted a habit of charitable giving—at least a financial one that focused on indigent and ailing whites or on causes and institutions he deemed worthy of support. In Jefferson’s worldview, patriarchy, patriotism, and philanthropy went hand in hand and were not incompatible. It was not incongruous for him to enable some people and enslave others. Charitable giving was a customary practice in his life and that of many of his contemporaries, and it is not surprising that he would advise others to adopt similar philanthropic pursuits.

Jefferson was often in precarious financial straits with unbalanced accounts from inherited debts, fine tastes acquired in France, as well as a depressed market for his tobacco. Yet he frequently recorded small sums in his financial account books of his periodic gifts “in charity.” Some of these were a consequence of a request for assistance from a friend or stranger; some of these records of financial transaction show anonymous recipients and only a date and dollar amount noted without an intended purpose for the charitable funds disbursed.

Woodcut showing fire in Portsmouth, New Hampshire

This woodcut depicts another fire in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on 22 Dec. 1813. (Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society)

Among the recipients of Jefferson’s largest targeted altruism during his presidency were victims of fires, including in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in late December 1802, and in Norfolk, Virginia, two years later. Perhaps the loss by fire in February 1770 of his own childhood home of Shadwell made him more sympathetic to those who suffered great personal or material damage in conflagrations. According to his correspondence with a friend John Page, Jefferson reported loss in that fire “of every paper I had in the world, and almost every book.” So, he seemed especially empathetic to victims of fires. During the first years of Jefferson’s presidency, Princeton University became the recipient, in April 1802, of his personal contribution of $100 toward the rebuilding of Nassau Hall after a fire. And because of the Norfolk fire of 22 February 1804, Jefferson not only donated $200 of his personal funds to relief efforts but also signed legislation to aid the suffering victims, suspending for up to one year the collection of bonds due to the United States by merchants who had incurred losses.

An image of the transcription and annotation for a letter from Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Newton, 5 March 1804, from the Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. 42: 582, alongside an image of the original manuscript of that letter at the Library of Congress.

Jefferson writes about his charitable donation toward relief efforts following a fire in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1804. The manuscript image on the left shows Jefferson’s retained press copy (image from the Library of Congress). The version on the right shows our transcription and annotation of this document from the Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. 42:582.

In his memorandum book, Jefferson analyzed several categories of expense during his first year as president, including payments for a secretary, provisions, fuel, miscellanies, servants, groceries, wines, stable, dress and saddlery, “Contingencies,” books and stationery, debts prior to 4 March 1801, loans, acquisitions, building, and furniture, for a sum of $28,219.69. He also tabulated his personal household and plantation expenses at Monticello as well as “family aids.” For the total of these combined expenses in both Washington and Charlottesville, Jefferson calculated $33,634.84. Included in this amount for the first year of his presidency was $978.20 given “in charity.” This total, connected by a brace in his table categorizing his payments, results from two unspecified sums of $215 and $763.20 and represents 2.9% of his annual expenses from 4 March 1801 to 4 March 1802. This does not account for any money gifted to family or contributions he made in kind or amounts donated but not recorded or characterized as charity. Jefferson met these financial costs from his annual presidential salary of $25,000, in addition to tobacco sales, estimated profits from his nailery at Monticello, and a debt contracted with his friend and financial agent, John Barnes. Jefferson noted in his analysis that there was an “error somewhere” of approximately $700 “which probably proceeds from having set down the same article of expense twice in some cases, yet it is exact enough to give general ideas.”

A manuscript page from Thomas Jefferson's account book, Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library.

A page from Thomas Jefferson’s account book highlights some individual amounts given “in charity” as well as Jefferson’s analysis of his expenses from his first year as president. (Courtesy of the Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library)

There is a discrepancy between the sum of Jefferson’s itemized charitable outlay during his first year in office (from specific entries in his memorandum book recorded as in “charity”) and what he himself listed in his annual table of expenses under “charities” ($978.20). In the itemized accounting of more than seven dozen entries indicating charitable contributions, most individual payments are recorded in amounts of only a dollar or two at a time and do not list the recipient, with only about a dozen named exceptions. Of these named recipients, Jefferson recorded gifts in charity to notorious political pamphleteer and journalist James Thomson Callender, $50 (28 May 1801); to General Robert Lawson, who played a critical role in the defense of Virginia during Jefferson’s governorship but who had fallen into an intemperate lifestyle, $50 (20 June 1801); to his footmen John Christoph Süverman and John Kramer, $10 and $20, respectively (2 October 1801 and 25 January 1802); to a struggling artist Charles Peale Polke who had painted his portrait in 1799, $25 (27 February 1802); to Revolutionary War veteran William Dunnington, $10 (19 January 1802); to millennial preacher and inveterate office seeker David Austin, $25 (5 November 1801); to Samuel Quarrier, an applicant for a military commission and one of 13 children of a Richmond coachmaker, $25 (2 February 1802).

During his second year in office, President Jefferson recorded in his account book an amount of $1,585.60 under “charities” for 4 March 1802 to 4 March 1803, a $607.40 increase over the previous year. While Jefferson continued to record individual entries for amounts “in charity” throughout his entire presidency, he only included these annual digests of expenditures for his first two years.

In early March 1806, Jefferson summarized his philosophy for charitable giving in a reply to New England Baptist ministers William Rogers and William Staughton. “I deem it the duty of every man to devote a certain proportion of his income for charitable purposes,” he wrote, adding, “it is his further duty to see it so applied as to do the most good of which it is capable.” The best way to achieve this, he reasoned, was to keep “within the circle of his own enquiry & information the objects of distress to whose relief his contributions shall be applied.” He recognized that while one may be disposed to do “unlimited good, our means having limits, we are necessarily circumscribed by them.” While others might legitimately feel compelled “for effecting benevolent purposes in remote regions of the earth,” he chose to relieve distresses “nearer home.”

Jefferson largely made unrestricted contributions and left it to the discretion of the recipient to apply the funds where most needed. While one might think lending his famous name to causes would increase public awareness and contributions, Jefferson preferred that newspapers keep his contributions anonymous in print as the publicity would likely generate further requests from cash-strapped constituents who saw him as a financial cushion of last resort or a paternal charitable supporter with deep and bottomless pockets.

After his retirement from the presidency, when his own finances took a turn that ultimately left him bankrupt after he endorsed a loan for lifetime friend and political supporter Wilson Cary Nicholas who predeceased him, Jefferson had time to further elaborate on his philanthropic philosophy. In January 1810 he responded to Samuel Kercheval, an innkeeper in western Virginia who solicited the former president’s support for an academy in Stephensburg. As the former president considered “the multitude of applications” he received “from every quarter of the union on behalf of academies, churches, missions, hospitals, charitable establishments Etc.,” he reckoned that the sums he parceled out among them would be “too feeble” to make much difference. Jefferson reiterated his sense of duty to assist charitable and other useful public institutions but puzzled over how to apply contributions in “the most effectual way we can.” He questioned whether the sum available for charitable giving should be divided among all the institutions of his state or country or whether charity should begin at home, to be disbursed “to the institutions within our own reach, under our own eye, & over which we can exercise some useful controul?” He also clearly recognized that others might understand their own charitable duty differently and did not dictate the terms of their own philanthropy.

For Jefferson, especially in his later years, charity began at home, as he focused on providing for his immediate family and laying the groundwork for the pet project of his retirement, the creation of the University of Virginia. When Jefferson died in 1826, his estate was at least $107,000 in debt. Sales from the initial publication of his correspondence by his grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph were meant to help ease that heavy financial burden on the family. While some scholars have speculated on the context and psychological motivations behind Jefferson’s actions, we may never know the full reasons, reach, and results of his philanthropy. We do know his meticulous record keeping did not always add up. Nonetheless, because of his financial records and the begging letters he received, we are able to piece together some of the story of Jefferson’s charitable legacy.


For Further Reading:

Thomas Jefferson to John Page, 21 February 1770,

Thomas Jefferson to Peter Carr, 10 August 1787,

Jefferson Memorandum Books for 1801,

Jefferson Memorandum Books for 1802,

Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Newton, 5 March 1804,

Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, 15 January 1810,

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