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95 Thomas Jefferson Breeding and Buying Horses, Connecting Family, Friends, and Neighbors CARRIE B. DOUGLASS In eighteenth-century Virginia, newly imported English horses were among the many possessions that passed between family members and sealed relationships between friends. As a member of the Virginia planter elite, Thomas Jefferson moved in these horse-owning circles, in which horses were a “natural” medium of exchange. Like the exchange of plants and seeds, books and ideas, farming tips, architectural plans, even enslaved men and women, the trade, exchange, buying, and selling of horses often retraced lines of other social relationships. An important attribute of these horses was the carefully recorded pedigree that went with them as they passed from owner to owner or as offspring were “sold” to other members of the gentry. However, when one wades into the documentation relating to Jefferson’s domestic life, one constantly bumps up against disapproving accusations about Jefferson’s personal debt, about his debt as one of his “moral failings.” Scholars from various disciplines outside anthropology have asked me, in censorious tones, why Jefferson bought such expensive pedigreed horses when he was so deeply in debt and could not really “pay” for them. These questions may say more about our own preoccupations than they do about Jefferson. Jefferson inherited much debt from his father-in-law, accrued much debt, continued to spend himself deeper in debt, failed to pay off his debt, “foolishly” guaranteed others’ debts, died in debt, and then his house and, tragically, his slaves were sold to resolve his debt. Here I want to elucidate what Jefferson was doing when he “bought” expensive pedigreed horses on credit (the other side of debt) from the local “moral economy” of Virginia gentry and horsemen. For anthropologists (with nods to Evans-Pritchard, Graeber, Gregory, and Mauss), outside market capitalism and debt-based money, debt is a social promise, a form of communication, like the reciprocity Mauss says is owed a gift. Carrie B. Douglass 96 Marcel Mauss’s work in The Gift and elsewhere helps illuminate the eighteenth-century Virginia rural gentry’s relationship with “blood horses.” The plantation-owning gentry in colonial Virginia were still immersed in an honor culture, caught in the intersection and disjunction between gift economies and an emerging capitalist economy. Although the gentry spoke about “buying and selling” the blooded horses to one another, this was a special sphere of exchange, and in many ways these horses functioned as gifts: they created social ties and group solidarity and were inalienable from previous owners. This was precisely what made them status objects. In the seemingly irrational behavior of accruing “debt,” we can see the old forms of solidarity working within and through the newer mercantile capitalist world order (shortly to overtake the still rather provincial Virginia gentry). Yet the old colonial elite were soon to be challenged in post-Revolutionary Virginia by a new class of market-minded capitalists. By drilling down on Jefferson’s record and through thick description, to use Clifford Geertz’s term, I show how the “buying” and “selling” of horses in eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century Virginia gives insight into social aspects of the plantation economy. First, in many ways breeding and selling pedigreed horses in colonial Virginia mimicked marriage, in that it joined families and linked names of prestigious members of the gentry. Second, cash was rarely exchanged in a horse transaction between planters. Rather, hands were shaken, agreements were recorded in account books, money was owed, payments were postponed, later bonds were given, estates were credited, notes were passed, and debts were accumulated. Interest was not charged, years might go by, other horses were sold back, trades were made, and debts were voided or eventually paid off. The historian T. H. Breen wrote on the role of credit and debt in his book Tobacco Culture (1985). For the Tidewater planter society of eighteenth-century Virginia, credit and debt were a “form of communication,”1 and owing money was a way of establishing and maintaining enduring social relations.2 Horses were a conflation of that indissoluble social relation and bond with the original owner.3 The Horses After the 1720s in Virginia, tobacco wealth and the emergence of a gracious lifestyle produced a spate of mansion building and many other symbols of elite status. One of the most important icons of elite status at the time was the new blooded horse imported from England into Virginia after the 1730s. These champions on the turf in England...


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