31 December 2008

Review: Twilight at Monticello by Alan Pell Crawford

Crawford's in-depth examination of Jefferson's life after he left the White House presents a candid picture of the third president of the United States. Most people remember Jefferson as an innovator, inventor, architect, statesman, thinker, and reader. What is less well known is that Jefferson's private life was often unhappy and his actions were not always admirable.

The book opens with a hurried summary of Jefferson's life up to the end of his presidency. We then follow Jefferson to Virginia, where he hopes to spend his time working in his gardens, running his plantation, and building his library. Unfortunately, his final years were not peaceful.

The ex-president returned home heavily in debt, believing that profits from his plantation would allow him to meet his obligations. When the land failed to generate the needed income, Jefferson took out bank loans, which he had difficulty paying. Eventually, he sold his personal library to the federal government as way to raise cash (these books helped establish the Library of Congress). But even when he came close to becoming solvent, Jefferson was unable to make adjustments to live within his means. After his death, Jefferson's family was forced to sell many of his personal affects at auction to settle his estate.

Jefferson doted on his family, often providing them with housing and sustenance. But here too he found mostly sadness. Jefferson lived long enough to see children and grandchildren and their spouses die. Some of his offspring and younger relatives were scoundrels or drunks, and none was able to step into Jefferson's shoes to help keep the family afloat.

Crawford covers a variety of other topics, such as Jefferson as slaveowner and the nature of his relationship with Sally Hemings, his correspondence with John Adams and other political notables, his ideas about religion, his thoughts on the Missouri Compromise, and his founding of the University of Virginia.

Although Crawford sometimes presumes to know exactly what Jefferson was thinking on a given day and often presents almost too much detail about life on the plantation, Twilight at Monticello is a well-researched study of the aging Founding Father. The Jefferson revealed in this book is more complex, sadder, and more real than the portrait painted in high-school U.S. history texts. This is not a look at the politics of the early nineteenth-century--though they certainly affected Jefferson--but more a look at how one man struggled with the realities of life once he stepped out of the spotlight.

I listened to the unabridged audiobook (Tantor Media) read by James Boles. Nonfiction can be a difficult listen, but Boles was able to maintain my interested throughout.

I read this book as part of the U.S. Presidents challenge. More information about that challenge can be found here. This book was also on my list for the Winter Reading Challenge; to see what other people are reading this winter, click here.

Published by Random House, 2008
ISBN-13: 9781400060795
Challenges: U.S. Presidents, Winter Reading
Rating B-


Anonymous,  12/31/08, 7:53 AM  

I love history, so this is right up my alley! Always amazing to put the "real" back into the lives of historical figures...heck, for that matter historical times!

Lezlie 12/31/08, 7:59 AM  

Great review! He was such an intersting person. Thanks for linking your review to the U.S. Presidents Project!


Robin M 12/31/08, 10:26 AM  

Interesting and informative. Makes me want to read the book. Good job.

Happy New Year.


Nicole (Linus's Blanket) 12/31/08, 10:34 AM  

Happy New Year!

This looks interesting. I have read some fictionalized accounts of Jefferson, so I will keep this in the back of my mind for some non-fiction.

Marie Cloutier 12/31/08, 1:48 PM  

Sounds like a great book for an alternative take on Jefferson's life. Thanks for writing about it! :-)

Sherry 1/3/09, 12:33 PM  

I'm working on the U.S. Presidents Project, too, reading a biography of G. Washington right in which Jefferson comes across as untrustworthy and cranky. Perhaps I'll choose this one for my Jefferson book after I read McCullough's John Adams.

Joyful Days 1/22/09, 10:15 AM  

I need to read more biographies. This sounds like a good one to add to my list.


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