Jefferson's Nephews: A Frontier Tragedy

By Boynton Merrill Jr. | Go to book overview
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5
THE VIRGINIA PLANTER

THERE IS little reliable information about the personalities of Col. Charles L. Lewis and Lucy, or about the way they lived. The few existing scraps of information about Colonel Lewis indicate that, like most gentrymen, he took an interest in the pedigree and breeding of horses.1 The records indicate that all of the men and women in his family were literate, and the estate inventories of several generations of Lewises show that they had some concern for books. Their collections were modest, but on several occasions they borrowed books from Jefferson's fine library at Monticello.2 In spite of this interest, it is doubtful that any of Colonel Lewis's sons went to college. As they reached the age of sixteen, Colonel Lewis took them into partnership with him, and probably assigned them some responsibility for his business and plantation affairs. This, and the fact that the sons married early, ruled out advanced education for them.3

It is certain that the Lewises were not intellectually deficient. For the most part, they took their place in community affairs. They served eagerly in the military and local government organizations, and were active in the fight for religious freedom.

These few facts reveal very little about the personalities and customs of this family. Their social affairs, recreation, daily routines, and attitudes cannot be described with assured accuracy. Few of their letters survive, and no diaries or pictures of them are known to exist. The Lewises were, however, members of the wealthy slave-owning class of Virginia plantation owners, and that particular group has been described many times, and in some detail, by interested and literate observers who visited in Virginia, both before and after the Revolution. Whether or not their comments and generalizations could be applied to the Lewises must remain conjecture.

Prior to 1800 most of the books supplying information about Virginia and her citizens were written by Europeans.4 Some of these writers were military men, while others were ministers, doctors, or philosophers. In general, these travelers looked down on Americans, and believed that the Western Hemisphere was inferior in most ways to western Europe. Their reports were somewhat biased and were widely resented by Americans.

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