It’s no secret that Thomas Jefferson lived in a crippling amount of debt. He owed over $107,000, about $2,000,000 by today’s standards, at the time of his death in 1826 and throughout his life he took many different approaches to handling that debt. In 1815 he sold his library, a collection of some 6,700 books, to the US Government for $25,000. This deal alleviated some of his financial burden, but more importantly, these books became the Library of Congress, and they continue to be the nucleus of that library today.
Now the day after these books are boarded up and sent away, Jefferson writes in a letter to John Adams “I cannot live without books”. For just about two centuries Americans have lauded these words, we use them to illustrate the importance of reading, learning, and education. What most Americans don’t know, is that in a separate letter to John Adams, sent years later, Jefferson writes:
“I cannot live, without scented hair powder”.
You laugh, but he actually writes this. I’m not kidding. There’s no way we at Lost and Founders could have made this up. Now some will look at this and assume that Thomas Jefferson was overly fond of Hyperbole, that perhaps this exaggeration was just a part of what made him such a good writer, but we at Lost and Founders, committed as we are to “Following the truth wherever it may lead” (TJ said that too), have uncovered the truth. Jefferson literally could not live without his scented hair powder. The man who penned the Declaration, was an addict.
We’re all familiar with TLC’s hit television show “MyStrange Addiction” in which we witness the compelling stories of individuals battling unusual obsessive behaviors (like drinking urine, and eating your deceased husbands ashes, you know common things like that). Had the show been around in the early 19th Century, Thomas Jefferson would undoubtedly have been the star.
There’s no way to know exactly when or where the addiction began, but leading historians do believe that Jefferson would have first been exposed to scented hair powder in 1760 when he begins his time at the College of William & Mary, an institution notorious for the abuse of this substance.
While in the company of his mentor George Wythe and Royal Governor Fauquier (both wig wearing men) Jefferson might have been peer pressured into dabbling with scented hair powder. During the Revolution, and afterwards, while Jefferson is in Paris serving as Minister to France, there was no shortage of hair powder and Jefferson would have found it easy to keep up his habit. Problems begin when his times in Paris end.
Jefferson’s close contemporaries grow concerned about their friend’s abuse. In 1800, shortly after Jefferson secures the presidency, John Adams decides to host an intervention at Monticello. When Jefferson walks into his parlor to find Adams, George Washington, and Alexander Hamilton preparing to address his problem, he is so enraged that he has Dolley Madison forcibly remove them from his premise. This event marks the schism between the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans, Jefferson and Adams wouldn’t speak again for twelve years.
In this period scented hair powder begins to ravage his fortunes, leaving him in a suffocating amount of debt that eventually forces the family to auction off their entire estate. The deterioration extends to his body. This portrait depicts a Jefferson clearly suffering from hair product abuse, I mean, just look at his wig.
On July 4th, 1826, 50 years to the day he signed the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson’s habit finally catches up with him. At the young age of 83, he dies an untimely death from what most historians believe to be an overdose. Also, old age.