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The Final Years of Thomas Jefferson

by Alan Pell Crawford

Pub Date: Jan. 15th, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-4000-6079-5
Publisher: Random House

Event-filled but melancholy history of the 17 years following Jefferson’s departure from the presidency in 1809.

The 66-year-old retiree was an international icon who received a steady stream of visitors and mail, writes Crawford (Unwise Passions: A True Story of a Remarkable Woman and the First Great Scandal of Eighteenth-Century America, 2000, etc.). His visitors eagerly set down their experiences, and Jefferson was an indefatigable letter-writer, so scholars have access to a mountain of material, capped by the legendary correspondence with John Adams. Money rarely left Jefferson’s thoughts during his final years. Presidential pensions did not exist, and he was juggling huge loans. He expected to live off his 10,000 acres and 200 slaves, a characteristically unrealistic financial plan—much of the book is taken up by accounts of his ineffectual efforts to better his fortune. Crawford’s chronicle of the founding of the University of Virginia, which Jefferson considered his greatest achievement next to the Declaration of Independence, details the president’s difficulties with the state legislature: True Jeffersonians, the lawmakers didn’t want to spend the money. A dedicated acolyte of the Enlightenment, Jefferson disliked the increasingly urban, populist and religious America of his retirement years. He also disliked the uneducated, pugnacious politicians (such as Andrew Jackson) preferred by new states west of the Appalachians. This distaste belied his credentials as a fervent, egalitarian democrat, but Jefferson was a man of disturbing contradictions. Historians love to quote his eloquent youthful denunciations of slavery, but Crawford reminds us that in retirement, immune from political damage, he refused to speak out and counseled correspondents against action. During the first great political debate on slavery in 1820, he unconditionally supported the Southern position. Detailed explanations of the Negro’s inferiority from a man who prided himself on his scientific acumen make sad reading, as does the steady decay of Jefferson’s personal and financial fortunes. Nonetheless, nearly all of his thoughts and actions merit attention.

Insightful analysis and lucid prose make this autumnal portrait a rewarding experience.