The Last Days of Jefferson

There have been so many books about Thomas Jefferson that it’s hard to see what more can be said about him. But Alan Pell Crawford, in this elegant, elegiac book, suggests that looking at Jefferson’s last years will help us understand his greatness as a Founder and as a president.

Alan Pell Crawford, Random House, $27, 352 pages

There have been so many books
about Thomas Jefferson that it’s hard to see what more can be said about him. But Alan Pell Crawford, in this elegant, elegiac book, suggests that looking at Jefferson’s last years will help us understand his greatness as a Founder and as a president.
Jefferson was surprisingly active in his later years. He struggled to provide for his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. He continued his research on religion and government. And he founded the University of Virginia, which remains one of the nation’s great universities.
Jefferson’s achievements after he left the presidency are notable because of his limited resources. Jefferson never left Virginia after his second presidential term ended in 1809. Politicians who wanted to see Jefferson had to come to Charlottesville, and occasionally some did, most notably the Marquis de Lafayette and Andrew Jackson.
Moreover, Jefferson did not have any of the resources we routinely provide former presidents. Jefferson had no assistants, and conducted his extensive correspondence with his increasingly infirm left hand. In 1786, the right-handed Jefferson broke his writing hand when he tried to leap over a fence to impress a potential girlfriend. (Jefferson’s wife, Maria, had died four years before.) Jefferson never remarried, but his right hand ached for the remainder of his life.
Most importantly, Jefferson had no pension. His only source of income was his land, and a bad crop or a financial depression increased his debts. In 1825, Jefferson was so desperate that he asked the Virginia state legislature to sponsor a lottery to help raise funds for him. After debating for several months about whether such a lottery would be state-sponsored immorality, the legislature approved the measure — provided that the winner would own Monticello. The lottery plan was suspended when Jefferson died and was never implemented.
Jefferson also spent some time writing. Jefferson was interested in theology, and his thin faith would most closely resemble Unitarianism today. He believed in God, but, as Crawford writes, Jefferson’s God was “Nature’s God, a benevolent but detached Creator whose universe operated on strict, and scientifically knowable, laws.” Jefferson did not talk about his faith when he was president and also kept quiet when one of his opponents, Rev. William Lunn, said that Jefferson schemed to “destroy religion, introduce immorality, [and] loosen all the bounds of society.”
Jefferson spent years cutting up Bibles and re-arranging the pieces to come up with a life of Jesus. Jefferson’s The Life and Morals of Jesus, which was not published until 1903, omitted the Annunciation, the Resurrection, and any sermon that included a miracle. “Jefferson’s Jesus,” Crawford observes, “went about preaching a simple message of universal benevolence . . . . [He] is kind-hearted, contemplative, democratic in his sympathies, quietly dismissive of tradition, and scornful of despots and priests.”
Yet what faith Jefferson had did him little good in the great moral crisis of his late years. In 1819, Jefferson’s son-in-law, Charles Bankhead, a vicious alcoholic, stabbed Jefferson’s grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph. Bankhead fled the scene and was never charged for his crime.
While Randolph eventually recovered, Jefferson did nothing to ensure that his son-in-law faced justice. Crawford says that Jefferson’s weak faith made him passive. According to Crawford, “While the men in Jefferson’s household drank too much, abused their wives, and tried to kill each other, Jefferson seems to have been capable of doing little more than looking with sympathy on those who bore the brunt of their attacks.”
Jefferson was also concerned with the growth of government. In 1815, he proposed that nearly all state powers be devolved into “wards” which would be no larger than six square miles. The federal government, in Jefferson’s view, should conduct foreign policy, the states would conduct interstate relations, and the wards would be responsible for all other governmental functions, including education.
Yet Jefferson’s support for limited government, Crawford contends, was fatally compromised by his passive acceptance of slavery. While personally thinking slavery was immoral, Jefferson thought slavery should be ended voluntarily and not by state action. Jefferson supported the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which allowed Missouri to enter the Union as a slave state. While a few of Jefferson’s slaves were freed upon his death, most were sold. By arguing that slavery and limited government were intertwined, Jefferson’s views strengthened champions of a stronger federal government.
Thomas Jefferson accomplished less in his seventies and eighties than he did in his thirties or forties. But as Crawford shows, we can’t understand Jefferson — or his age — without understanding his later years. Even those who have studied Jefferson closely will earn a great deal from this well-written, authoritative look at Jefferson’s last years.

Martin Morse Wooster’s book reviews have appeared in the
Washington Post, the Washington Times, and the Wall Street Journal.

Martin Morse Wooster


Martin Morse Wooster is a visiting fellow at the Capital Research Center, a contributing editor to Philanthropy, and a education book reviewer of The Washington Times.

  • Joseph Susanka

    This sounds like a fascinating book, particularly in its acount of the shameful way in which Jefferson was allowed (or required?) to “ride off into the sunset.” Allowing someone so profoundly important to our country’s founding to undergo such financial troubles seems churlish…though perhaps Jefferson would not have wanted it any other way.

    I was curious as to whether or not Crawford draws any connection between Jefferson’s “thin faith” and his “passive acceptance of slavery?” Could his concession of the “moral high ground” to those in favor of a more powerful federal government have simply been an extension of the way he responded to Charles Bankhead? Or is this a distinct principle from his desire for limited government? They seem intertwined in my mind…