Twilight at Monticello is something entirely new: an unprecedented and engrossing personal look at the intimate Jefferson in his final years that will change the way readers think about this true American icon. It was during these years–from his return to Monticello in 1809 after two terms as president until his death in 1826–that Jefferson’s idealism would be most severely, and heartbreakingly, tested.
Based on new research and documents culled from the Library of Congress, the Virginia Historical Society, and other special collections, including hitherto unexamined letters from family, friends, and Monticello neighbors, Alan Pell Crawford paints an authoritative and deeply moving portrait of Thomas Jefferson as private citizen–the first original depiction of the man in more than a generation.
Crawford (Unwise Passions: A True Story of a Remarkable Woman) does a thorough if artless job of narrating Thomas Jefferson's postpresidential years. Crawford's narrative is a slave to chronology, which works against him. The first 50 pages are a highly condensed account of his life up through his presidency: information which, if it must be included, could have been more elegantly inserted into the main narrative. After this false start, Crawford's story improves as he delivers an exhaustive account of Jefferson's tangled dotage: the attempted murder of his much-loved grandson by another relative, his dealings with other descendants both white and black; his de facto bankruptcy; and his late relations with such fellow founders as Adams and Madison. Much of this has been recounted before, though interesting and surprising details abound. For example, a young Edgar Allan Poe was at Jefferson's funeral. Despite all this diligence, however, Crawford's narrative regularly stops dead in its tracks, especially when the author crawls inside Jefferson's head, presuming to know his thoughts at a given moment. Crawford is quite sure, for example, that on the first day of February 1819, Jefferson dwelled upon "the planters' financial plight, and his own... but this difficulty, Jefferson told himself, was surely temporary."