Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History

By Fawn M. Brodie | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER XXXII

The Monticello Tragedy

There is a ripeness of time for death.

Jefferson to Adams, August 1, 1816 1

Jefferson's last years brought ill health and grinding anxieties. The panic of 1819 and a series of crop failures destroyed his ever-elusive hopes that he could climb out of the morass of debt into which he had been steadily sinking for many years. His failure to face his own increasing indebtedness, his chronic optimism about next year's bumper crop, unexpected disasters such as the flood that destroyed his mill dam, all contributed to the inexorable slippage toward bankruptcy. There were certain expenditures Jefferson would not reduce, especially the costs of hospitality. Even in Paris, when he had written diffidently to Madison about asking Congress to provide him more money so that he could properly meet the social duties of a minister, he would not let Madison press the matter to the point of angering the congressmen. "I had rather be ruined in fortune," he wrote, "than in their esteem." 2

Jefferson could not stomach the thought that anyone would believe him niggardly. Though he himself dined abstemiously, forgoing the quantities of meat thought normal for men of taste, drinking wine instead of spirits, his menus were always superb samples of French cooking, and his wine was of exceptional quality. Even at eighty-two he was ordering Muscat de Riversalle in 150-bottle lots. 3 Though his leechlike relatives and the hordes of visitors to Monticello were a constant drain, he could not think of sending them away other than well wined and dined.

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