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Published:

December 2, 2019
 

The Historical Enigma of Thomas Jefferson


Portrait of Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson was a man of paradoxes. Highly intelligent and analytical, with a keen eye for detail, he kept journal records of all his income and expenditures throughout adulthood—but was often mired in debt. Born a prominent agricultural landowner, he became one of history’s greatest political leaders, believing that “all men are created equal”—while also owning as many as 600 enslaved persons.

Using Jefferson’s personal records, Charles Richard Baker, PhD, professor of accounting and law, explored the revolutionary statesman’s extensive accounting notations for new insights on plantation management and slavery in colonial America and Jefferson’s views on Enlightenment philosophy for a special issue of Accounting History.

Dr. Baker wanted to connect historical accounting with the Enlightenment, a philosophical and intellectual movement primarily of the 1700s, which championed rationality, reason and knowledge, and individual political freedom.

“Jefferson was a meticulous record keeper. For 60 years, he kept track of every penny he spent and wrote them up in the journals he kept. It’s a very detailed record, an excellent archive,” said Dr. Baker, an authority on the history of accounting. “I wanted to find out what those records would tell me.”

In Jefferson’s accounting records details can be found of the everyday management of an American plantation in the 18th century, including the shift from cultivating tobacco to growing wheat, the establishment of a nail-making shop that proved an excellent source of income for Jefferson’s family for a time, and interactions with enslaved persons, who were among Jefferson’s greatest sources of wealth.

Among other things, the records revealed that keeping a comprehensive body of data on income and expenditures is, without appropriate analysis, not enough to understand assets and liabilities, Dr. Baker said.

“Even though he maintained meticulous accounting records, Jefferson was often in debt and had difficulty determining his financial position,” said Dr. Baker. “Ultimately, his inability to ascertain his financial position caused him problems throughout his life.”

Jefferson’s political activities, which kept him away from home for extended periods and necessitated leaving his properties to be managed by others, along with his taste for the finer things in life, such as wine and art, may have been primary sources of his money troubles, he said.

It’s likewise challenging to understand Jefferson’s ownership of enslaved persons, since he also promoted the Enlightenment-inspired ideals of freedom and democracy. “Of the Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson was the most well-connected with the Enlightenment. The Declaration of Independence reeks with Enlightenment,” said Dr. Baker.

Yet Jefferson must be viewed as a man of his time and the environment into which he was born. When he embraced the Declaration’s concept that “all men are created equal,” he did not, in fact, mean all men. “From our perspective today, this is a paradox. However, it’s in tune with ideas borrowed from Enlightenment philosophers,” Dr. Baker explained. “When they said ‘all men,’ they meant all people generically, but from a political decision-making standpoint, they meant white men of property.”

Still, these ideas inspired millions of people and later became more inclusive. “Enlightenment ideas were vital in creating much of the modern world,” he said. “Political freedom and democracy come from the Enlightenment.”

The author of more than 100 journal articles as well as seven books on accounting, Dr. Baker has taught for many years, including internationally. He joined the faculty at Adelphi in 2005. In 2008, he received the Bender Award for Outstanding Body of Work.

His teaching and research specialties include regulation, legal liability, disciplinary practices, and ethics in the public accounting profession. For the past 10 years, Dr. Baker has also studied the history of accounting, with a particular interest in the comparative differences in regulations between the United States and other countries, and how and why these regulations evolved differently over time.

Dr. Baker’s article, “What can Thomas Jefferson’s accounting records tell us about plantation management, slavery, and Enlightenment philosophy in colonial America?” is available online from Accounting History.

 

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