By Woody Holton
Sunday, July 5, 2009; B03
Thomas Jefferson died so deep in debt that his beloved estate, Monticello, had to be sold to satisfy his creditors. James Madison also left behind mounds of financial obligations. But John Adams, the man Jefferson turned out of the White House in 1801, died rich and debt-free -- despite sharing his predecessor's careless attitude toward money. What was his secret?
Long famous for her political partnership with her husband and her advocacy for women's rights, Abigail Adams was also something of a financial wizard. Some of the first lady's investment choices were a tad unsavory, but all of them were prudent, and many of her strategies remain useful today. Adams understood the difference between panic and reasonable caution. She largely avoided exposure to the speculative bubbles of the 1790s that did so much damage to her son-in-law and two of her sons. Had she been alive in July 2008 and owned stock in Abigail Adams National Bancorp, I suspect she would have sold it. (That financial institution named for Adams hasn't done as well as she did: It lost two-thirds of its value in the past year and is now being sold.)
This weekend, as we look back on all that this country's founding families bequeathed us, why not ask for just a little more help? We could all use it. If you were to hire Abigail Adams as your financial adviser, here's the advice that the Massachusetts matriarch would offer.
Invest with your head, not your heart. For John Adams, land was a feel-good investment, since it bolstered his sense of personal independence. He wanted to invest all of his savings in real estate. But Abigail showed her husband that his farmland returned as little as 1 percent annually, while she could earn as much as 25 percent each year speculating in depreciated government securities. (These bonds had been disbursed to Continental Army soldiers and then inveigled from them at a fraction of their face value.) John continued to buy real estate, but he shifted a large chunk of his portfolio to bonds.
Wait for the motivated seller. In 1785, the Adamses's daughter, also named Abigail, jilted her faithless fiance, the playwright Royall Tyler -- a move that her parents enthusiastically supported. After that, Tyler had no interest in remaining in the mansion that he had purchased for her in Braintree, Mass. He walked away from the house and stopped making payments to the seller, who had financed the transaction. The frustrated seller agreed to unload the house at a bargain price. The new buyers were Abigail and John Adams.
Take risks. During the Revolutionary War, Abigail convinced John, who had traveled to Europe as a diplomat, to start sending her merchandise to sell. In time she would import everything from bulk linen and calico to gauze, lace, ribbon and "Barcelona handkerchiefs." Some of John's early shipments, which were uninsured, were captured by the British, and he got cold feet. But Abigail urged him not to become discouraged. The war had driven the price of European merchandise sky-high, so she could still make a handsome profit even if the majority of the vessels carrying her goods were captured. "If one in 3 arrives I should be a gainer," she told John in a 1779 letter, and he continued his shipments.
Stay coy while bargaining. When buying real estate, Abigail sometimes had third parties approach potential sellers on her behalf. She instructed her agent in Massachusetts not to reveal that he was representing her until the bargain had been struck. Her concern was that if the seller knew he was dealing with the wealthy Adams family, he would demand a higher price.
Negotiate with the taxman. While John was president, the tax collector in Quincy, Mass., the site of the Adams mansion, wanted to pay him the compliment of giving his house the highest valuation in town. Abigail protested, since a high valuation of course meant a high tax, and in the end the Adams home received a valuation 50 percent lower than that of the town's most expensive place.
"Do not be affraid." Last fall and winter, when the Dow dipped below 7,000, hundreds of thousands of Americans panicked and got out of the market, only to kick themselves when stocks rallied during the spring and summer. Abigail would not have joined the panic. During the fall and winter of 1786-1787, Shays's Rebellion, a farmers' revolt in western Massachusetts, sent prices plummeting for federal bonds as well as for those issued by the state of Massachusetts. Abigail's investment adviser, her uncle Cotton Tufts, suggested that she get rid of her federal securities. On the contrary, she informed her uncle on Jan. 24, 1787, she and John wished to purchase another 210 pounds sterling worth of "congress Paper." "Do not be affraid," she wrote.
Finally, perhaps the best personal finance advice that Abigail's example can provide is more personal than financial. She knew well how to successfully mix money and marriage.
Keep a close eye on your spouse. After Abigail joined her husband in Europe, John got in the habit of showing her the letters he wrote to his business agent in Massachusetts before mailing them. That's how Abigail discovered that John planned to purchase a notoriously unproductive farm near their own. By the time John posted the letter, she had talked him out of it.
Prevent your spouse from keeping a close eye on you. One of Abigail's favorite techniques was the cover letter. Since John had no compunction about opening his wife's incoming mail but considered letters received by Abigail Junior to be sacrosanct, Abigail sometimes asked her correspondents to enclose their messages for her inside letters to her daughter.
If you fight about spending, find your own income. During the late 1770s, Abigail was after John to buy her a new carriage. But he resisted, pointing out that the Revolutionary War had driven prices sky-high. Once Abigail developed her import business, she was able to purchase the carriage primarily using her own profits, and there was not much John could say.
Share the credit. Abigail never objected when John took credit for investment decisions that she had actually made. And she portrayed herself as the passive consumer of the investment advice she received from her uncle -- though she actually managed her portfolio quite aggressively.
She accomplished all this by heeding "an old adage" she had once quoted to her husband while trying to enlist him in one of her speculative ventures: "Nothing venture nothing have."
Woody Holton is the author of "Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution" and the forthcoming "Abigail Adams, A Life." He teaches at the University of Richmond.