Stephen Gallup's Reviews > Twilight at Monticello: The Final Years of Thomas Jefferson

Twilight at Monticello by Alan Pell Crawford
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Apr 03, 2011

it was amazing
Read from March 18 to April 03, 2011

Till now I've never talked about binding and paper, but this is one of a handful of paperbacks that are a delight to hold (another good example being The Art of Racing in the Rain. To my surprise, book designers and printers I've talked to can only guess at what makes it this way, although they're in agreement. Since no printer samples I've been given match this effect, my own book (going to print this week) will have to take an ordinary glossy cover.

In terms of content, this book helped me to see Jefferson as a flesh-and-blood mortal, as opposed to the icon he'd always been, at least in my family. I lived many years in Charlottesville, went to his University (The University, as it's called in those parts), toured Monticello innumerable times, and had a father who not only studied the man's biographies but shared some of his traits (the delight in tinkering and the incessant counting and measuring of observable phenomena).

The book skims rather quickly over Jefferson's early years and public life, but this high-level view makes it easy to see both his brilliant moves (such as seizing the "fugitive" opportunity to buy 828,000 square miles of North American territory from France) and those that were incredibly wrong-headed (esp imposing a punitive trade embargo against England and France that hurt only Americans). It also puts today's poisonous political climate in perspective, since opposing parties were at each other's throats in Jefferson's day as well--and over essentially the same basic issue, i.e., how much authority the federal government should be allowed to assume.

Jefferson's opposition to an all-powerful central government derived from his belief that Americans were and needed to be a "self-governing" people. That is what had motivated him in writing the Declaration of Independence, but in later years he perceived that

America was fast becoming a republic in name only, where power may have been derived from the people, but where they possessed it 'only on the days of their elections. After that it is the property of their rulers.' The steady transfer of power from the local governments to the states and from the states to the federal government threatened to turn all the challenges of self-government--of what later generations could call democracy--into problems of administration. Self-government required the active participation of well-informed citizens. Problems of administration relied, instead, on a professional class of increasingly unaccountable government agents.

Jefferson's opinion was often sought during his retirement, and his writings in that time period show a startling degree of perception regarding the crises ahead for his country, all the way up to the present day. Crawford mentions modern historians who belittle this Jefferson as a "crabbed and distrustful old man with little faith" in government, but he argues convincingly that Jefferson's views on this matter were consistent throughout his life. In other words, objecting to his later writings is tantamount to objecting to the rationale for the American Revolution.

Rulers derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, and the friends of self-government must remind their rulers of this fact whenever they forget it, as they always do. Jefferson reiterated these principles throughout his life, and it is surely evidence of their radicalism--and of Jefferson's timeless relevance--that they retain their power to offend even now.

Aside from that, however, the book shows a man who did have his share of contradictions. Although a keen observer of literally everything and a deep thinker, he lived far beyond his means and instead of dealing with his problems objectively, took refuge in impractical projects like experimental gardening (realizing only very late in life that he should have delegated critical matters such as management of his farms to someone else). Although he disapproved of gambling in general and state lotteries in particular, he eagerly sought approval by the state government for a raffle that he hoped would enable him to get out of debt. Most importantly, although he hated the institution of slavery and early in his career was a solitary voice urging its abolition, he kept slaves of his own, including one with whom he probably had conjugal relations.

One other important factor of his later years was strife in the family. Both his daughter Martha and his granddaughter Ann married poorly, with unions that subjected everyone to a great deal of recurring misery. Against the sage wisdom of Jefferson, the propriety of Martha, and the long-suffering decency of his grandson Jeff Randolph was the alcoholism and mental instability of others that would have made for soap-opera material had they lived in our era of media intrusiveness.

Having read this, I feel that I understand Jefferson far better than ever before. What I see is a man who didn't especially want to be in public life but who rose to the occasion far more capably than do most career politicians. I see an affable, generally cheery fellow who trusted people perhaps more than was wise but who remained relatively serene despite severe personal disappointments. I wouldn't call him a paragon, but my admiration for him has been enhanced, and to it has been added a kind of affection.
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