Book Review

Crawford, Allen Pell, Twilight at Monticello: The Final Years of Thomas Jefferson, Random House, 2009,

  • ISBN: 0812969464

“A remarkably disciplined scholar… Jefferson spent money on books the way less purposeful young men spent it on whisky or women.”   Allen Pell Crawford begins his study of Jefferson’s retirement at Monticello by reiterating long-established traits in the Sage of Monticello’s character.  Crawford spends the first 50 pages concisely detailing Jefferson’s life through the presidency.  No new ground is broken and it is clear that the author included this introduction to fit with the book’s overriding structure, chronology.

Crawford crafts a detailed and …readable account of Jefferson’s retirement following 1809.  Ample time is spent exploring the personalities in Jefferson’s extended family including his intricate relationship with his daughter Martha.  Family was vital to Jefferson’s being and all the heartbreak he experienced is recounted in painstaking detail.  Crawford misses a real opportunity to examine loss, one of the accepted but underdeveloped themes in Jefferson scholarship.  Rather, Jefferson’s much maligned finances are retold as Crawford does his best to link them to some character flaw, though he never is able to attribute it to more than carelessness.  Readers unfamiliar with Jefferson’s retirement will read with disillusion of the attempted murder of his beloved grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph.  More examination of the crucial relationships with Madison and Adams could have brought much-needed depth to Crawford’s analysis of Jefferson’s intellectual character.  This remains the book’s weakest element, the examination of Jefferson’s mind.

Jefferson’s mind eludes Crawford… despite his best efforts to explain its inconsistencies.  “Jefferson’s view of himself as an empiricist may also suggest how little self-knowledge he possessed…”   Crawford’s error is applying traditional analysis to a mind like Jefferson’s.  Biographers long ago discovered that Jefferson possessed diametrically opposed psychological features.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the discussion of Jefferson and slavery.  Volumes have been written about Jefferson and the contradiction of his slave owning.  Crawford falls prey to the politically correct pseudo-scholarship that dominates current Jefferson discourse.  This brand of scholarship deals in absolutes forged in modern racial attitudes leaving no room for nuance or ambiguity.  “That Jefferson could not act when urged to do more to end an institution that he acknowledged to be a moral wrong indicates the extent to which he was lacking in moral imagination.”  Crawford ignores the clear and well documented evidence to contrary to make the socially acceptable conclusion.  The urgency with which Crawford recounts the rumors regarding Jefferson’s alleged affair with Sally Hemings nearly draws the narrative to the level of tabloid storytelling.  Readers familiar with the controversy can’t ignore the fact that Sally stopped having children after Jefferson started residing at Monticello fulltime.

Allen Pell Crawford never actually… decides what kind of book he is writing.  At times Twilight at Monticello is a chronological account of Jefferson’s retirement, while also trying to examine complex features of Jefferson’s psychological makeup.  The result is a confused narrative filled with interesting tidbits and politically correct platitudes.  Readers unfamiliar with Jefferson’s later years could find some use for Crawford’s study, but students of history won’t find much use for the book off their E-readers.

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