Twilight At Monticello: The Last Years Of Thomas Jefferson, by Alan Pell Crawford, read by James Boles
As someone whose views of Thomas Jefferson are somewhat complicated , I found it rather noteworthy that this author too had a complicated view of Thomas Jefferson. This is not a straightforward book, and the author shows a high degree of ambivalence about his subject. It should be noted that my views of the subject are not identical with those of the author–they are particularly far apart when it comes to questions of religion and education–but the author finds himself faced with the difficulty of seeking to be honest while also praising and appropriating what he views to be particularly relevant aspects of the character and behavior of Jefferson. This is a particularly difficult task as the author’s attempts at giving Jefferson a charitable view are hindered by the author’s own ideological commitments. The author, in a position of wanting to praise and honor Jefferson while viewing his troubled later years as being symbolic for the overall decline of Virginia and the slave south, is forced into a great many difficult places that he finds himself unable to fully overcome, try as he might, making him rather like Jefferson in his attempts to get out of debt while maintaining an unreasonably optimistic view of the future.
In terms of its structure and organization, this particular volume is mostly but not entirely chronological. A substantial amount of space is given to Jefferson’s youth and family background and his ambivalent view towards his parents. There is also a fair bit of space given to the ruinous decline of Monticello after Jefferson’s death when it took decades for his grandson Jeff Randolph to put the family’s situation aright again before the disaster of the Civil War. In between we see a lot of Jefferson’s idealism, his utter lack of practical focus, the yawning gap between the world of his imagination and self-deception and the real world, his inability to properly understand whole dimensions of human life, such as faith, and his letters. Jefferson comes off in this book as being ineffectual in defending the well-being of his slaves and relatives, of being inconsistent with his own views of honor with regards to Sally Hemmings as well as his opaque and shady financial dealings, and of being someone who was unable to live up to his high-minded pronouncements and a poor example for how our nation or any nation should address religious faith. He also shows himself entirely too attached to the culture of Virginia for his own good, and unable to make real steps at either moral or financial retrenchment in the face of difficulties. The author may be generally sympathetic to Jefferson, but the facts he uncovers makes it hard for an honest reader or listener to be as charitable.
In reading this book one gets an autumnal sense of melancholy, seeing Jefferson’s ambition for high office and love of books and abstraction get in the way of a practical life. We see a man who had a hard time denying himself anything and so he behaved in such a way as to make life difficult on those who loved him the most. In particular, reading this book gives one a strong sense of sympathy for Jefferson’s son-in-law and grandson, who suffered the most from his debt, his divisive family politics, and from his behavior. The author covers all of the expected, and some unexpected, angles of Jefferson’s life, from his freethinking ways to his refusal to spend political capital to defend the well-being of slaves and free blacks, to his struggles with alcoholism and debt within his close family circle, as well as his frequent and expensive architectural alterations, some of which made it particularly easy for him to engage in a lengthy if clandestine relationship with his slave mistress while the menfolk of his family circle engaged in their own similar behavior. At the end, this book shows that Jefferson’s behavior made him feel unable to be the sort of moral guide to his family that he wished to be, and to seek escape through the life of the mind. Even for all of his flaws, it is hard not to have some sympathy for Jefferson and his difficulties, and to wonder if we would have done better ourselves.
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