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Twilight at Monticello: The Final Years of Thomas Jefferson    by Alan Pell Crawford order for
Twilight at Monticello
by Alan Pell Crawford
Order:  USA  Can
Random House, 2008 (2008)
Hardcover, CD

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* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Though I didn't know a great deal about the life of Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) before reading Twilight at Monticello, I learned a great deal from Alan Pell Crawford's portrayal of the great statesman and patriarch. He shows us a highly intelligent, but not always practical man (though he was a pragmatic politician), who loved his family, mishandled his tangled finances, and was passionate about his building projects.

Jefferson comes across as a Renaissance man with a broad range of interests from science to architecture and homeopathic medicine, a man who believed that 'the secret of happiness was the diligent avoidance of despair, and despair was most efficiently avoided by keeping busy.' He also appears as an oft reluctant politician, and one who would back down from personal conviction - particularly on the issue of slavery - when he believed his own position to be unpopular and politically untenable.

The author begins his study of Jefferson's last (unfortunately debt-ridden) years by describing the Virginia Piedmont he returned to after retiring from the presidency in 1809. He then summarizes Jefferson's early life and education, experiences as a young revolutionary, drafting of the Declaration of Independence, role as secretary of state under President Washington, and his own presidency (a significant achievement being the acquisition of the vast Louisiana Territory from Napoleon).

After this brief introduction to Jefferson's career, Crawford describes his last years - when he eagerly anticipated 'the blessings of domestic society, and pursuits of my own choice' - in some detail. We learn of his close family relationships and indulgent involvement with his grandchildren; his octagonal retreat, Poplar Forest, in Bedford County; his friendship and correspondence with John Adams; his views on both American Indians and African-American slaves; and his unwillingness to lead the fight for emancipation (for which the author considers him 'lacking in moral imagination'.

After the British burned the U.S. Capitol, destroying its library, a public-spirited Jefferson (also 'in dire need of money') sold the government his own collection of 6,487 volumes, which became the nucleus for today's Library of Congress. Crawford also discusses Jefferson's support for radical government decentralization (recommendations that were rejected); his relationship with Sally Hemings and the paternity of her children; his leadership in launching the University of Virginia; the plan for a Jefferson Lottery to assure 'his family's financial salvation'; and Jefferson's worry to the end 'about his place in history.' He died on the Fourth of July, 1826 (as did his close friend John Adams), leaving his family in financial crisis.

I enjoyed reading about Jefferson's life at Monticello, his wide interests, 'garden pharmacy', and his great pleasure in the company of his daughter and grandchildren. In his Epilogue, the author discusses the fate of Jefferson's estate after his death - Monticello falling to ruin; the 'excruciating ordeal' of the auction of slaves; and Jefferson's grandson's long struggle - 'a perfect hell of trouble' - to pay off the debts. It's a sad ending to a long and remarkable life, that would fairly soon be followed by the devastation of the Civil War. If you have any interest in this period of history, I recommend Twilight at Monticello to you as a most interesting read.

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