THE SHIPWRECK OF
ALTHOUGH Col. Charles L. Lewis's prospects appeared to be bright in 1792, there were bad times ahead for him, as there were for most Virginians. Economic depressions, crop failures, business, and probably personal errors as well, combined over a ten-year period to bring about what Jefferson would describe laconically as “the shipwreck of the fortunes” of the Lewis family.1
That spring there was a stock market collapse that affected the entire nation. This panic followed a two-year speculative boom in purchases of the government debts.2 As a whole, Virginians were not responsible for this crash, even though they felt its sting. Virginia had only a few private banks, which deserved little confidence, and after the crash Virginians experienced a great shortage of sound bank notes in circulation.3 Most of the speculation took place in the mercantile circles of the Northeast, while Virginians in general, and Jefferson in particular, looked on in rage at the result of the Federalist policies.4 No evidence has been found to indicate that Colonel Lewis was involved in this speculation himself, but as a business man and farmer he would have been indirectly affected by it.
There was a general business recovery beginning in 1793, when France declared war on Britain and Holland, and the warring nations bought great quantities of American food and raw materials.5 This prosperity was followed by a sharp depression in 1798, traceable to our disputes with France, and another in 1802, following the peace of Amiens.6 Apparently Colonel Lewis was very much affected by these last two depressions. In 1799 the number of slaves he owned dropped from twenty-seven to ten, and in 1802 he lost not only all his remaining slaves, but also all of his horses.7 He never recovered financially after this, and was dependent on his children for the remainder of his life.
Another situation that unquestionably contributed to Lewis's decline was the exhaustion of the soil in Albemarle, which resulted from the reckless farming practices used by generations of Virginians.