lan Pell Crawford's head, it could be said, is stuck in the 18th century. In Twilight at Monticello: The Final Years of Thomas Jefferson, to be released this month, the historian turns his gaze to the third president's later years. For those looking for a light read, this ain't it. Seeking peace and the comfort of family life after his presidency, Jefferson instead grappled with fire, death, debt and scandal. Crawford, who previously wrote about a 1700s sex scandal in the Randolph branch of Jefferson's family, also weighs in on historical and modern politics.
Q: What drew you to Jefferson's retirement years?
A: I think that is where all of the flaws in his thinking caught up to him. He was always — not only financially, but in other ways — sort of living on borrowed time. This dream, this idyllic dream of going to Monticello — in this wonderful, pristine condition — he was going to be surrounded by the love and support of his family, as this sort of retired philosopher. Then he goes there, and it's a horrible mess. So, suddenly all these issues in his life that he has managed to hold at bay are visited upon him. One of the tragedies of Jefferson's life is by the time he would have been able to complete this masterpiece [Monticello], he was out of money and could barely pay for its repairs. You would walk out on those terraces, and the boards would collapse under your feet, and people would break their legs. It was not what you see today.
Q: What was the most surprising thing you found?
A: The family situation Jefferson faced. I didn't realize how complicated it was with [his relatives'] alcoholism and the spousal abuse, fistfights going on inside the house.
Q: What about Sally Hemings?
A: Because it has become the conventional wisdom that Jefferson had the long-term relationship with Sally Hemings, I was very eager to see if I could poke holes in that. I did a number of things, one of which was simply to check Jefferson's health at the times Sally Hemings was pregnant. He suffered from a lot of small ailments. If you check and say, OK, nine months before this baby was born would have been last April. What was Jefferson's health like during that period? [He] was in tip-top shape! I thought the one thing I could show was when this child was conceived, Jefferson was laid up with rheumatism or had one of his various other attacks. But in fact, when she got pregnant, he was in excellent health.
Q: I understand you were U.S. Rep. Ron Paul's press secretary [in the early 1980s]. What do you think about his presidential campaign?
A: It's a joyous thing. He's the only candidate, with the exception of [U.S. Rep. Dennis] Kucinich, who's been consistently against the war, he's the only one talking about the Constitution, he's the only one who voted against the Patriot Act. All these things the Democrats were supposed to be for, the only guy who's been consistently outspoken and forthright on the matter is a Republican. He's also a very nice man.
Q: What do you think about the Republican Party today?
A: I wasn't that crazy about it under Reagan, but [the party] certainly tests one's patience as a Republican in this day and age. Things have come to a pretty sorry state when the party that says they're about limiting government and [protecting] individual freedom in the U.S. Constitution plunges us into a pre-emptive war that's being fought off the books.
Q: You wrote about an 18th-century sex scandal in 2000's Unwise Passions. What's your favorite modern one?
A: I think it's one people have forgotten about. [Democratic U.S. Rep.] Wilbur Mills was going to a Washington strip joint called the Silver Slipper, spending about a thousand dollars a night on champagne. This dancer was called the Argentine Firecracker. One night they left, they got in an argument, and she jumped out of the car and ran into the Tidal Basin and was splashing around there when the police came. Her name was Fanne Foxe. She wrote an autobiography called The Stripper and the Congressman.
It was a good book.