“Twilight at Monticello: The Final Years of Thomas Jefferson” is Alan Pell Crawford’s third and most recent book, published in 2008. Breaking away from the tradition of most Jefferson-focused biographies, Crawford’s work spends the bulk of its energy not on Jefferson’s time in public office, but on his seventeen-year retirement.
At first blush, it might seem strange that anyone would set out to describe in two-hundred or so pages the same period that Dumas Malone spent five-hundred pages chronicling in his sixth and final volume on Jefferson written thirty-five years ago. What eventually becomes clear, however, is that Crawford’s book is no ordinary accounting of the last years of one of our most revered presidents.
“Twilight at Monticello” begins with a prologue which takes the reader to a day in 1819 when one of Jefferson’s grandsons is seriously injured in a fight with his brother-in-law. Much of this section seems to fall into the category of historical fiction, describing what Jefferson “may” have eaten for breakfast that morning and what he “perhaps” did the rest of that day before learning of the altercation. It seems intended to set a dramatic tone for the remainder of the book, but is unnecessary.
Crawford then takes the reader on a fifty-page whirlwind tour through Jefferson’s youth, his time as a lawyer, legislator, governor, diplomat, secretary of state and his two terms as president. This brief reference to Jefferson’s upbringing and public life is too superficial and rushed to serve as a meaningful introduction to the man, but does provide a quick reminder of how Jefferson spent his time prior to retirement.
The author then takes a more leisurely-paced and wonderfully detailed stroll through Jefferson’s post-presidential years. But rather than providing what might reasonably be described as an impartial, if critical, look at Jefferson’s last years of life, Crawford crafts a story of persistent heartbreak, misery, scandal and intrigue. There are few moments of homage to a man of great deeds, love for friends and family (particularly his daughter Martha), and fervent in his desire to establish the University of Virginia.
Most of all, we are reminded (constantly) of the almost unending misery borne by Jefferson and his family in his last decades of life: of the death of friends and family, alcoholism and domestic abuse within his extended circle, mental illness among his siblings, of achingly persistent financial woes and of his own ill health. The author seems to take special delight in highlighting Jefferson’s pervasive pangs. The Old Testament’s “Job” almost seems to have been fortunate by comparison.
Far from sympathizing with Jefferson’s misfortune and (often) self-inflicted woes, Crawford describes an impractical, self-focused and often delusional dreamer – a profligate shopper unable to control his spending, whose life and family is wracked by so much dysfunction and so many contradictions that it is a wonder his likeness is carved into Mount Rushmore.
The anguish and pain, the incomprehensible personal contradictions and Jefferson’s crushing financial debts are well-described and Crawford provides remarkable and penetrating insight into these darkest of shadows. He also describes the Jefferson/Hemings controversy in a comprehensive and balanced manner, repeating the conclusion of many (based on DNA studies) that Jefferson almost certainly fathered at least one of Sally Heming’s children.
One of the book’s missed opportunities, however, was the chance to more fully describe the renewed friendship between Jefferson and John Adams during their respective retirements. Their prolific correspondence, terminating only with their nearly simultaneous deaths, provides history with rich insight into these two unique men. And although his book might have served to complete the psychological profile provided by Joseph Ellis’s “American Sphinx,” Crawford stopped short of fully exploring how Jefferson’s lifelong pain (and fear) of loss shaped his character.
“Twilight at Monticello” does not end with Jefferson’s death, but goes on to tell the sorry tale of the years that followed, with Monticello virtually abandoned, Jefferson’s estate largely liquidated to repay old debts, and his family scattered geographically while attempting to recover from the shock of almost complete-ruin. Nowhere else have I seen such a fulsome and candid description of the fallout which followed Jefferson’s death.
Crawford’s book is far from perfect and it seems clear that his “angle” was to focus on the most miserable and contradictory aspects to an otherwise impressive (if enigmatic) life. What is left unconfessed is that many of these challenges, and contradictions, are present in almost every family. But most of us don’t author a Declaration or serve as president, or profess the evils of slavery while owning slaves. And in his fame, Jefferson seems to invite special attention.
“Twilight at Monticello” is an unconventional look at an already complex and mysterious former president. It is a skillfully written, entertaining and well-researched book focusing on the less transparent aspects of Jefferson’s last years. That the book seems imbued with a tabloid patina may be inevitable given the focus of the book, but in any respect it also seems somewhat unbalanced. For the reader with a robust existing knowledge of Jefferson’s life, “Twilight at Monticello” will likely provide greater color and some new insight to his final years. For others, the book will seem a strange jolt, inconsistent with fading memories of Jefferson acquired in a history class years ago.
Overall Rating: 4 stars