Jefferson's final years subject of new book

February 1, 2008 12:45:17 PM PST
This intimate and detailed biography focuses on Thomas Jefferson from his return to Monticello, his beloved Virginia plantation, after two terms as president, to his death on the 50th anniversary of the signing of his Declaration of Independence.

Jefferson had hoped that his twilight years would be blissful and serene, spent surrounded by his family and away from the public spotlight. Instead, he was beset with a series of personal and financial problems, including a nearly fatal assault on his oldest grandson, several serious family illnesses and a crushing debt that he feared passing along to his heirs, according to author Alan Pell Crawford.

Crawford, who had a residential fellowship at the International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello, had access to thousands of family letters - some previously unexamined by historians - that he used to create his portrait of the complex idealist.

Jefferson owned many slaves and considered whites to be superior to blacks, but he also believed that slavery was immoral and that states - not the federal government - should abolish it. His support for states' rights and disdain for centralized government never waned in his post-presidency.

Much of America's recent interest in Jefferson has to do with the possibility that he fathered children with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. Such rumors swirled about even during Jefferson's lifetime, but he apparently never spoke or wrote about it.

Crawford says not only does it seem likely that Jefferson fathered at least one of Hemings' six children, but that other white men routinely impregnated the enslaved black women at Monticello.

"The presence of light-skinned slaves at Monticello, though taken for granted by Thomas Jefferson and his family, often surprised visitors," the author writes.

Jefferson's debt prevented him from freeing his slaves. Upon his death, creditors seized most of them and sold them at auction. Monticello, meanwhile, fell into ruin because of the enormous expense of its upkeep and eventually was sold.

Few figures in early U.S. history have been written about as much as Jefferson, so much of what is in "Twilight at Monticello" is not new. Still, there are some surprising tidbits to be found, including that Jefferson used opium to ease his pain from a prostate and bladder problem and that one of the mourners at his graveside funeral was a young Edgar Allan Poe.

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