COVER- Unhappy grandpa: the rough retirement of Thomas Jefferson
It was March of 1809 when the third president, then 65 years old, was leaving Washington. "Within two or three days," he wrote, "I retire from scenes of difficulty, anxiety & of contending passions to the elysium of domestic affections & the irresponsible direction of my own affairs."
Yet for the Sage of Monticello, peace at his mountaintop home would be shattered by incapacitating disease, financial ruin, and domestic violence that literally brought him to his knees.
A stunning revision of the popular modern image of Jefferson's retirement is the subject of Twilight at Monticello: The Final Years of Thomas Jefferson, a new book by Alan Pell Crawford.
Certainly, the traditional image of Jefferson's last 17 years at Monticello is of a doting family patriarch, amazingly healthy for a man his age, surrounded by adoring and well-behaved progeny, indulging his scientific interests, tweaking his favorite vegetables, and fixed on the hobby of his old age: the University of Virginia.
"But," says Crawford, "it's a more interesting place if you know the things I know."
By the time the next president, James Madison, was inaugurated, ex-President Jefferson had packed his personal papers and effects, several wagon loads from the President's House, and settled the $11,000 debt he had incurred in his eight years as chief executive.
On March 6, happy to have escaped the burdens of public office, Jefferson was writing "as a private individual" to John Armstrong, the American minister to France, that never again would he suffer from "difficulty, anxiety" or from "contending passions."
The tranquil modern impression of Jefferson's retirement has been created by many well-meaning sources. Because of his many-faceted life– his over 30 years in office, his wide-ranging interests, his amazing accomplishments– the public has been fed a steady diet of "topical" Jeffersonian books and articles, most written with a very narrow focus.
Hundreds of books and essays bear titles like "Jefferson and the American West," "Thomas Jefferson: Architect," "The Wines of Monticello," "Jefferson the Gourmand," or "Deism and the Declaration." (I should know, as I've written close to 20 such articles.)
Very rarely have we seen a straight narrative of his life, or a part of it, wherein all of his life's various elements are explored. Enter Allen Crawford.
A former U.S. Senate speechwriter, Congressional press secretary, and magazine editor, Crawford, who lives in Richmond, has written about politics and history for many top newspapers, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and The Wall Street Journal. In his previous book– Unwise Passions: A True Story of a Remarkable Woman and the First Great Scandal of Eighteenth-Century America– published in 2000 by Simon & Schuster, Crawford tells the tale of a young Virginia belle, Nancy Randolph, who in 1793 was accused, along with her brother-in-law, Richard Randolph, of killing her newborn infant. But there was much more to this salacious story: Richard Randolph might have been the child's father.
"In researching Unwise Passions," Crawford says, "I learned a fair amount about the Randolph and Jefferson families. I remember being struck by Nancy Randolph's description of Monticello (recorded during a visit in the 1790s, I believe) as dusty and noisy, a construction site."
That account was such a contrast to the typical image of the stately plantation that Crawford pressed forward to learn more "about life as it was really lived" at Monticello.
While he was here in Charlottesville, as a fellow at the International Center for Jefferson Studies, for example, Crawford researched Jefferson's proposal for "ward republics"– small state-government entities that would help the American people retain more of the power of government. The book focuses on the years from 1809 to 1826 and includes a small section on Jefferson's "wards."
In Twilight at Monticello, Crawford proves that he has learned plenty about the autumn of Jefferson's life. He chronicles that period in detail both delightful and disheartening.
Here we see the familiar, successful Jefferson– the loving family man, the founder of the University of Virginia– juxtaposed with the perhaps unfamiliar afflicted and long-suffering retired statesman, a man beset by family scandal and tragedy, and overwhelming, calamitous debt. Ironically, Jefferson's indebtedness was so deep that he reversed his long-held opposition to lotteries to ask the General Assembly to let him hold a lottery– for himself.
Fast-paced and engagingly written, Twilight at Monticello delivers Thomas Jefferson warts and all. Or should one say "boils" and all?
Writing about Jefferson's 1818 visit to Hot Springs, a Bath County health spa, Crawford notes that the 75-year-old found the experience "delicious" and soaked in the foul-smelling 98-degree water three times a day. During the second week, however, a "large swelling" appeared on one of his buttocks, apparently the result of an infection. The swelling had increased "for several days past in size and hardness," he told [daughter] Martha Randolph, preventing him from "sitting but on the corner of a chair."
While Jefferson's retirement began in 1809 when he left Washington, Twilight opens with a day-in-the-life: February 1, 1819. It's chock-full of gardening details ("Jefferson would inspect with boyish glee the condition of the vegetables and medicinal herbs that grew, pale green to a ghostly gray, in winter"), and information about his reading habits ("Jefferson was once again losing himself in Thucydides' account of the Peloponnesian War– in Greek, of course.")
After 14 pages, this prologue finally reveals its purpose: February 1, 1819 was the day Jefferson learned that near Court Square in Charlottesville his first granddaughter's husband, Charles Lewis Bankhead, had assaulted and stabbed his favorite grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph. It was the first of many such shocking and outrageous incidents perpetuated by Bankhead, a hard-drinking brute.
Crawford next presents us with a 50-page rendition of Jefferson's life up to and including his two-term presidency. Of his mother, Jane Randolph, we learn that Jefferson "never seems to have spoken fondly of her even to his own children."
And we discover the uneven distribution of intellect among the siblings of the Jefferson clan. Crawford relates a conversation between Jefferson and his younger brother Randolph about a typical farming dilemma.
"'Tom, I'll tell you how to keep the squirrels from pillaging the corn," Randolph Jefferson supposedly said. "You see they always eat on the outside row. Well, then, don't plant any outside row."
This section of the book will be familiar fare for even a beginning student of Virginia history. Jefferson grows up on the Virginia frontier, receives the best Virginia education possible at William and Mary in colonial Williamsburg, is elected to the House of Burgesses, and marries well-to-do widow Martha Wayles Skelton (thereby more than doubling his wealth in lands and slaves).
With the outbreak of war, Jefferson becomes famous for his authorship of the Declaration of Independence then serves two years as governor of the Old Dominion– a post that ends, rather tragically, with him fleeing Monticello at the approach of British dragoons. With peace come Jefferson's five years as minister to France– 1784-1789– followed quickly by service as our nation's first secretary of state (under President George Washington), second vice president (in the John Adams administration), and third president.
This is the book's thesis, a notion nicely summed up in the opening quote by Sébastien-Roch Nicholas Chamfort, a French contemporary of Jefferson's: "Nature intended illusions for the wise as well as for fools lest the wise should be rendered too miserable by their wisdom."
Crawford writes that from his earliest education, "Jefferson was an idealist, though he never thought of himself as such. Seeing himself as a scientist... Jefferson was firmly convinced that he based his conclusions on observable phenomena... Jefferson's view of himself as an empiricist may also suggest how little self-knowledge he possessed, for the struggle between the life of the mind and the hard facts of material reality would form the tragic drama of his life."
During his 17-year retirement, hard facts came at Jefferson fast and furious.
First were his mounting physical ailments. Jefferson, we need to remember, lived into his early 80s– and died at 83– probably a good 25 years beyond what an average American of his day could expect.
Aside from boils, he was hounded by a broken wrist he suffered many years earlier in Paris while cavorting along the Seine with Maria Cosway, a married woman with whom he "carried on an intense, though perhaps unconsummated, love affair," Crawford says. He was afflicted with rheumatism– his feet and hands so swollen at times that he was barely able to walk– as well as severe constipation, a "cholic which was attended with a stricture of the upper bowels" (as Jefferson related to Madison in 1818). Add to these prostate and bladder difficulties that made urination extremely painful, and it's easy to understand why Jefferson relied on opiates– both opium and laudanum prescribed by his physician– to ease his suffering.
Then there was his steadily mounting debt.
Born into the gentry, and with extravagant tastes in just about everything, Jefferson simply could not rein in his spending (especially after leaving the presidency and its $25,000 salary). He bought lavish gifts for his descendants and built another expensive home, Poplar Forest in Bedford County, all the while borrowing heavily because his crops were not bringing in enough cash.
"He now realized," writes Crawford, "that despite his interest in the theoretical aspects of agriculture, he was ‘an unskilled manager of my farms,' and it was time to turn to someone who might handle things better."
In his meticulous manner, however, Jefferson kept incredibly detailed account books. "His record keeping," writes Crawford, "seems to have performed a primarily psychological function rather than a functional one. These minute entries, one following another, day after day, month after month, year after year, accumulating over a lifetime... gave Jefferson the feeling that he exercised more control than he did...."
Sadly, when he died, he was $107,000 in debt– a total that in today's money would be several millions of dollars.
As for the violent Bankhead, he caused never-ending sorrow and desperation at Monticello. He drank, gambled, got into fist fights, and– more distressing to the Jefferson and Randolph families– beat his young wife, Jefferson's beloved granddaughter, Anne Cary Randolph.
When she died in 1826 at the age of 35 (not due to a beating), the 82-year-old Jefferson was led into her room where, according to Dr. Robley Dunglison, "he abandoned himself to every evidence of intense grief."
The early University of Virginia students were another a source of grief for Jefferson in his final days. One of his finest accomplishments– and certainly his greatest gift to his county– the University opened for business in 1825, the year before his death.
The first students were the proud and well-heeled sons of plantation owners– youngsters who brought their guns, horses, and body servants to Charlottesville's "academical village." Within a short time "nightly disorders" broke out. Fueled by strong drink, the students broke windows on the Lawn, "cursed the foreign-born faculty members," and even attacked two professors with brickbats.
Infuriated by their behavior, Jefferson attended an assembly in the Rotunda at which the faculty hoped to identify the student ringleaders.
"The students filed in," writes Crawford, "and among those suspected of having assaulted their professors sat the nephew of one of Jefferson's own grandchildren. Jefferson rose to address the students, but... he recognized this young face in the crowd and was too overcome to go on."
In Twilight, Crawford reveals Jefferson's tendency to shy away from painful realities, such as his own greatest contradiction– that the man who wrote in the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal" was himself a slaveholder.
When Albemarle native Edward Coles announced his desire to free his slaves and take them out of Virginia, Jefferson expressed the wish that "your success may be speedy and complete." In typical paternalistic fashion, however, he warned Coles that black people were "as incapable as children of taking care of themselves," and reminded him that it was his duty to "feed them and clothe them well, [and] protect them from ill usage." Upon his death, Jefferson freed only five of his own slaves– all of them from Sally Hemings' family.
Through it all, Jefferson maintained an upbeat and positive attitude. Following the UVA disturbances, for example, he wrote that the institution had in fact gained "from what appeared at first to threaten its foundation."
What was the source of Jefferson's inner strength? According to Crawford, it was his unflinching belief in the tenets of the prevailing philosophy (a belief that proved to be both fortifying and debilitating).
"Jefferson thoroughly accepted the ideas of the Enlightenment," Crawford says, "that man is above all a rational creature, fully capable of managing his life through the application of Reason. This view of life simply refuses to acknowledge the existence or reality of human evil– of depravity."
The attitude would help explain Jefferson's silence when word got back to him that two nephews had taken part in the murder and dismemberment of a slave. Crawford concedes that Jefferson's optimism had become "a kind of self-deception."
The book, however, contains some factual errors that might raise some eyebrows such as placing the town of Milton "west" of Monticello, when it actually lies to the east.
More serious are mistakes in a chapter entitled "The ‘Yellow Children' of the Mountaintop."
Here Crawford stretches the truth in his effort to prove that Sally Hemings could slip into Jefferson's bed chamber undetected. During one period of reconstruction and alteration at Monticello– there were many– porticles, or Venetian porches, were attached to the outside of his library (and the library, as every visitor to Monticello knows, is connected to his bedroom).
"Around the time that Jefferson installed the porticles," Crawford writes, "he added one further access to his bedroom. This was a circular staircase that led directly into Jefferson's library from the slave quarters under the terrace where Sally's ‘servant's room' was located."
But the Venetian porches and the staircase were constructed at two very different times– 1805 and 1796 respectively– and the staircase leads into a hallway, not directly into Jefferson's library. These two sentences are "very misleading," according to Cinder Stanton, Monticello's senior research historian.
"I still think that he fathered children by Sally Hemings," Crawford nevertheless maintains, "but that's because the alibis are so weak."
The chapter on Jefferson's passing contains a few more errors. Crawford lists John Adams's age, at death, as 91 (he was 90). More alarmingly, Crawford misstates Jefferson's time of death as "ten minutes to twelve." He died one hour later at 12:50pm.
Despite these problems, Twilight at Monticello is a wonderful addition to the Jefferson bookshelf. Readers will find Crawford's book to be enjoyable and easy to read, a much shorter successor to the last great treatment of Jefferson's retirement years– Dumas Malone's The Sage of Monticello, published in 1981.
In Crawford's pages readers discover Jefferson's turbulent twilight, the years when he seemingly refused to acknowledge the chaos swirling around him. "Of course if he had," says the author, "he would not have been able to accomplish the things he did."
Rick Britton is a Charlottesville-based writer and cartographer. He is editor of The Magazine of Albemarle County History and author of the soon-to-be-released Jefferson: A Monticello Sampler.