American Culture

WordsDay: Jefferson no Lion in Winter in "Twilight at Monticello"

Twilight at MonticelloAlan Pell Crawford’s Twilight at Monticello: The Final Years of Thomas Jefferson tries to simultaneously be a Jefferson lovefest and an attempt at balanced history.

Jefferson himself was a man of well-documented contradictions: he said “All men are created equal,” yet he owned slaves; he opposed strong central government, yet he made the unilateral decision to buy the Louisiana Purchase; he suffered under crushing debt yet spent lavishly beyond his means. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that a book about Jefferson might be filled with contradictions, too.

Crawford, like most Jefferson defenders, tries his hand at explaining away inconvenient contradictions. Take slavery, for instance:

“Although he was sincerely opposed to slavery, Jefferson simply could not imagine a realistic way to end it,” Crawford writes. “Jefferson genuinely believed that all men were equally free moral agents who functioned at their best as individuals—a position convenient for the slaveholder but less so for the slave.”

Such explanations never ring true to me. Of course, it doesn’t help that Jefferson left very little written record about himself for scholars to use in his defense. Jefferson was, “too vain and too sensitive to appear to be either,” Crawford writes. “He felt nothing but repugnance toward revealing much about his life. To divulge such information would savor too much of vanity.”

Still, that doesn’t stop Crawford from painting early- and mid-life portraits of Jefferson that are unabashedly admiring. Jefferson is the Man Who Can Do No Wrong, the center of the Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary universe. No one else seems to matter; no one deserves any credit.

Crawford is entirely dismissive of John Adams, for instance, despite the fact that the end-of-years correspondence between Jefferson and Adams is one of the most enduring (and, at times, poignant) records of the Revolution. Crawford makes a point of trying to dispel any romanticism related to the two men’s near-simultaneous deaths on July 4, 1826—the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. It’s the poetic stuff of American legend, and Crawford poo-poos it.

Crawford also basically ignores the important political relationship and personal friendship Jefferson shared with James Madison. And as for George Washington: George who? Perhaps because these topics have been written about elsewhere at length, Crawford hardly deems them worthy of attention.

That would be understandable, but then Crawford spends considerable time exploring Jefferson’s relationship with his slave, Sally Hemmings. That topic, too, has been extensively written about elsewhere, but Crawford chooses to take a crack at it, perhaps because it’s too titillating to resist.

It’s at that point in the narrative—about halfway through the book—that the lovefest expires. Crawford doesn’t tip the other way but rather presents his story in a more balanced fashion, although whenever possible, he stresses Jefferson’s tendency to “put his hopes over his fears,” as well as Jefferson’s “remarkable sense of possibility.” Despite—or maybe because of—those biases, Crawford’s book finishes strong.

Where Crawford excels is in his discussion of Jefferson’s financial situation. Most late-life portraits of Jefferson mention Jefferson’s appalling-but-hidden financial state, but they tend to focus more on Jefferson’s mental/emotional state, his hobbies, his work establishing the University of Virginia, or his correspondence with Adams. Crawford, too, mentions these things (especially the University of Virginia angle) but he delves into Jefferson’s dire financial straits with gusto.

Jefferson made poor investment choices, depended too much on gentlemanly honor, suffered poor crop yields, and spent money like it was going out of style. As a result, his weak finances got steadily worse.

They got so bad, in fact, that as a last desperate measure, when Jefferson had to finally reveal to his family the true extent of his financial ruin, he suggested they resort to a state-sponsored lottery to try and bail them out—another contradiction since Jefferson opposed gambling his entire life. The “lifetime rationalist,” Crawford writes, seemed oblivious to the contradiction that he was pinning his fortunes on “what was, at the bottom, a game of chance.”

The real hero who emerges from the story is Jefferson’s oldest grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, known by his family as Jeff. The two had a deep and abiding love for each other, and Jefferson trusted his grandson the way he trusted few others. Jeff managed the day-to-day operations of the plantations while his grandfather benevolently ruled over the kingdom. It would take him years to do it, but Jeff would eventually pay off debts of his grandfather’s that totaled more than $150 thousand dollars.

Jefferson at Monticello doesn’t paint a portrait of a great Revolutionary lion in winter; rather, he’s more of a kindly—and sometimes intentionally self-deluded—grandfather garbed in housecoat and slippers and lost in the bliss of his own escapism. That’s not such a bad way for Jefferson to spend his final years, I suppose.

Readers might enjoy spending a few hours with Jefferson in similar fashion—so long as they don’t mind slogging through the lovefest to get there.