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Thomas Jefferson, Reexamined

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Reviewed by Michael Grunwald
Sunday, February 3, 2008


The Final Years of Thomas Jefferson

This Story

By Alan Pell Crawford

Random House. 322 pp. $27

How can you justify yet another book about a founding father?

If you're Joseph Ellis dissecting George Washington or David McCullough tackling John Adams, the answer isn't so hard: You're Joseph Ellis or David McCullough! But if you're anyone else, you'd better have an angle. You can (A) write new stuff about an obscure founder: How Charles Pinckney Saved America! Or you can (B) unveil a lesser-known aspect of a famous founder: John Adams, Meticulous Gardener! The only other option (C) is to recast old material with some counterintuitive spin: George Washington's Willing Executioners!

In Twilight at Monticello, Alan Pell Crawford has chosen option B, compiling a well-researched narrative of Thomas Jefferson's post-presidential years -- with a notable non-emphasis on the best-known aspect of those years, Jefferson's correspondence with Adams. Crawford deserves credit for focusing on less trampled ground and for shedding new light on Jefferson's dysfunctional family life and shopaholic tendencies. His tale is not gripping, but it is often revealing, and at times it smartly flirts with option C. Americans justifiably revere Jefferson for the Declaration of Independence, the Louisiana Purchase and his belief in religious freedom and popular democracy. But in Crawford's pages he comes off as an irresponsible, impractical, self-serving and self-deluded man who rarely lived up to his ideals.

Structurally, the book is a mess, starting with a rambling prologue that purports to recount the events of Feb. 1, 1819. Crawford doesn't have much documentation of that day, so he pads his narrative with dull conjecture about Jefferson's activities -- he might have been "singing softly to himself," because he did that sometimes -- along with discursive background about the painful boils on Jefferson's backside, the layout of Monticello's fields and gardens, Jefferson's views on slavery and banking, and so on. After 13 pages of additional digressions about cherry blossoms, telescopes, songbirds and classical texts, we finally learn the intriguing fact that on Feb. 1, 1819, Jefferson's grandson, Jeff Randolph, was stabbed by Charles Bankhead, the husband of Jefferson's granddaughter. But that's it for the prologue; Crawford then veers away from twilight to provide a misplaced, 50-page rehash of Jefferson's life before and during his presidency.

Crawford's story really begins in March 1809, when Jefferson leaves office, buys three dozen fancy chairs and returns home to Virginia. The rest of the book chronicles his last 17 years, a time of mounting debt, deteriorating health, agricultural fiascos, political maneuverings, architectural tinkerings, opiates and a variety of family tensions and tragedies. It is also the time when Jefferson renewed his memorable friendship with Adams and founded, designed and helped secure public funding for the University of Virginia, a triumph he included on his tombstone.

But Crawford mostly focuses on the relatively boring daily routine at Monticello. There's a lot about weather, thanks to Jefferson's meticulous meteorological records. Crops keep getting lost to frost or drought or hail or untimely rain. There are horseback rides and dinner parties. And then there is family life, full of illnesses, miscarriages, deaths and disputes, but not as exciting as Randolph's stabbing makes it sound. The 19th-century cast of The Jeffersons has a familiar feel: Bankhead is the drunk who causes everyone pain, Randolph the dutiful workhorse who has to sacrifice his education to try to rescue the family's mismanaged farms. And Jefferson is the manipulative patriarch who showers his brood with costly gifts purchased on credit, while undermining the other men in his house. Crawford unearths a devastating anecdote about Jefferson hanging Randolph's portrait in a second tier of paintings, below Adams, Franklin and Lafayette. "Had you been educated, you would have been entitled to a place in the first," Jefferson tells him. "You'll always occupy the second."

There's also a lot about Jefferson's chaotic finances, partly because Jefferson meticulously documented them as well, partly because they reveal one of the least flattering facets of Jefferson, who was certainly a deadbeat and arguably a swindler. He was generous with other people's money, spoiling his grandkids with guitars and silk dresses while stiffing his creditors; his will directed the purchase of five new gold watches for bequests despite his massive debts. He also spent lavishly on elegant clothing, immaculately groomed horses and expensive books for himself. There is something endearing about his ridiculous plan to achieve financial independence for his heirs by building them a grandiose Palladian home; the roof leaked, and he forgot to build stairways to connect the lower level to the main floor. But there is no way to defend his shakedown of his friend Philip Mazzei, a Florentine horticulturalist who trusted Jefferson to oversee his American holdings, only to find out that the Sage of Monticello had sold them and loaned himself the proceeds to continue his architectural experiments.

In his final years, Jefferson tried to bail out his heirs by persuading Virginia's politicians to create a public lottery for his benefit, a scheme that violated his stated principles. (It didn't happen, so his heirs inherited his debts, and most of his slaves were sold to help pay them.) Crawford reminds us that Jefferson constantly violated his stated principles, most notoriously by owning slaves, advising others to keep slaves and supporting the extension of slavery into U.S. territories while supposedly loathing slavery. Of course, Jefferson's stated principles are what made him so important; many of them became America's principles. And Jefferson wasn't the only American who failed to live up to them.

But he sure didn't. Crawford connects the dots by portraying Jefferson as a failed idealist who preferred theory to practice, maintaining a constant state of denial that allowed him to denounce partisanship, political intrigue and fiscal irresponsibility as well as slaveholding with genuine vehemence in his public life while practicing them all with vigor in his private life. It's a polite way of saying that Jefferson lived in a dream world, a world where man's interests and duties miraculously coincided, where enlightened agricultural and architectural theories were correct regardless of miserable yields or leaking roofs, where no one dared to point out that Sally Hemings's children looked an awful lot like Thomas Jefferson.

There's a less polite way to say this: The guy on the nickel was a hypocrite. This became especially clear after his public life was over. We should celebrate Jefferson's enduring ideals, but this book reminds us that there's no need to whitewash his reality. *

Michael Grunwald is a senior correspondent at Time magazine and the author of "The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise."

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