IN his first year as president, Thomas Jefferson was paid $25,000, a handsome sum for the times. But illustrative of the habits of a man who spent lavishly on books, wine, art, furniture, useful gadgets, and friends, his expenditures were $32,635 for the year. Before that, as ambassador to France, he also overspent his salary. Add to this eager consumption some bad years in farming, some inherited debts, a nonchalant attitude toward balancing accounts, a growing family to support - at one time Monticello
housed 11 grandchildren - and Jefferson reached the last year of his life $200,000 in debt. "Like a lot of farmers," Daniel Jordan, executive director of Monticello says, "Jefferson thought next year's crop was going to bail him out."
But whatever shortcomings darkened Jefferson's personal fortunes, they never encroached upon his desire to achieve solvency for the nation whose political principles he shaped and loved. He knew that if men were to be free to run their affairs and prosper, so too must the stewards of the nation conduct the business of the republic with skill and economy.
When Jefferson took office, the nation was $80 million in debt. Immediately he asked Congress to submit a budget before money was spent, a switch from the prevailing English model of spending money first, then submitting bills. To further tackle the debt, Jefferson initiated a system that applied $7.5 million annually to paying off the debt. By the end of the Jefferson administration, the national debt was reduced by $27.5 million.
"Jefferson looked upon public service as a moral obligation," Mr. Jordan says. "There was a lot of hyperbole there when he protested that he wanted only to be with his family at Monticello. He protested too much. He wasn't in office to see how long he could stay; everything started with Jefferson on the basis of his fundamental values, and public service wasn't any different."