Last night I finished the new book on Thomas Jefferson, Twilight at Monticello by Alan Pell Crawford. It focuses on Jefferson’s retirement years and it’s a nice very readable, and in some places very insightful book with a lot of personal details that I had not known. The troubles with Jefferson’s son in law Thomas Mann Randolph and his grandson in law, Charles Bankhead were particularly distressing. Jefferson comes off as a doting grandfather and wildly impractical philosopher who could not resist spiraling blindly into more and more debt. One thing is certain: Jefferson could have used a second wife. Had he been married to someone who would have stood up to his spending, his fate would have been very, very different.
The most insightful part of the book is Crawford’s discussion of why Jefferson rejected the imprecations of Edward Coles to take a stand against slavery. As Crawford explains, Jefferson’s devotion to the philosophy of Stoicism in particular prejudiced him against moral heroism and leadership. By temperament, Jefferson was a shy man who did not like to be the one guy out front of a moral crusade. And his philosophical views absorbed this (or shaped it). This is reflected even in Jefferson’s views of Christianity—his Christianity was one of contemplative virtue, not of radical or messianic virtue. The idea of taking a bold and independent stand was, ironically, a very difficult thing for Jefferson. As Crawford writes,
Trained up in the early forms of utilitarianism, Jefferson believed for most of his life that the proper subject of ethics was the maximization of human happiness. Happiness consists of tranquility of soul, which is achieved not by the heroic gesture but through prudent conduct. Ethics, for Jefferson, was little more than the process by which the rational individual chooses the most commonsense course from among a finite set of options. By reducing morality to a matter of rational selection and removing it from the “Gothic” influences of religious faith and practice, Jefferson ruled out the bold, the adventurous, and the imaginative, by which great challenges, such as ending slavery, might be accomplished.
Of course I don’t think it’s true that a rational worldview necessarily leads to shunning the heroic gesture. But it is true that Jefferson’s views lacked the element of heroic individualism, and that’s more Stoic or Epicurean than “rational.” Ironically enough, heroic individualism would reassert itself in the closing years of Jefferson’s life with the rise of Romanticism—but of course that too would have awful side-effects in the plumped-up pseudo-nobility of the antebellum plantation aristocracy. In fact, the troubles of Jefferson’s declining years really seem like his rational life being swamped and slowly sunk in the rising sea of Romanticism, with its duels and its code of blood honor and whatnot. The Romanticism of Sir Walter Scott—on whom Mark Twain with good reason blamed the Civil War—would have struck Jefferson as manifestly absurd, but people gravitated to it because they craved the crusading spirit which the Enlightenment simply did not give them. It would be the task of rational philosophy in the years that followed to find a way of combining these two elements of rational contemplation and heroic action.
Anyway, it’s a good book and a very interesting focus on a part of Jefferson’s life that is almost always skimmed over by biographers.