Jefferson's Nephews: A Frontier Tragedy

By Boynton Merrill Jr. | Go to book overview

33
THE EPILOGUE

IN TRYING TO understand how this tragedy could have happened one cannot avoid the most important fact that there was an inbred strain of mental instability in Lilburne's family. Jefferson referred to it as “hypochondriacal affections,” and stated it was a “constitutional disposition in all the nearer branches of the family.” He said further that this was a fact “for whose truth I have no hesitation to make myself responsible.” There seems little doubt that at the time of the murder Lilburne was not only deeply disturbed, but drunk as well. This is enough to explain the murder.

The other aspects of the situation—the time, the place, and the circumstances of Lilburne's life—merely set the scene, and were passive elements in the tragedy; nevertheless they deserve some discussion. They cannot all be determined with certainty, for too much of the evidence is missing. The conclusions that follow are therefore based on the author's opinion and should not necessarily be accepted as proven facts.

It was the American frontier, with its siren song of natural wealth, that drew the Lewises into the tide of people migrating to Kentucky. Each emigree had his reason. The rambler wanted room, the hunter wanted pelts, the fugitive wanted anonymity, and bankrupts and debtors wanted a new start. Rich speculators in land wanted greater wealth, young lawyers wanted clients, sons of the influential hoped to found new dynasties, and the multitude of destitute poor wanted a life of some dignity and hope. The frontier was settled by people who had been more or less discontented east of the mountains. The poor had had no chance and the rich were still covetous. The planter had mined out his soil and used up his credit, and the criminal feared the day of his accounting to the law. As long as the frontier existed, Americans could be prodigal. They could find new farms in the west to use up after they had destroyed their ancestral lands in the east. Errors or sloth in business did not mean final ruin as long as the west lay empty. As long as the frontier existed, judgment was suspended for the profligate and incompetent. The

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Jefferson's Nephews: A Frontier Tragedy
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vi
  • Constructing Jefferson's Nephews ix
  • Preface xxv
  • Preface to First Edition xxix
  • Acknowledgments xxx
  • 1: Colonial Days 3
  • 2: The Fight for Freedom 12
  • 3: A Colonel in the Militia 20
  • 4: Prosperity 29
  • 5: The Virginia Planter 38
  • 6: The Shipwreck of the Fortunes 44
  • 7: Craven Peyton, Thomas Jefferson, and the Hendersons 55
  • 8: Jefferson and the Lewises 71
  • 9: The Plan to Emigrate 84
  • 10: The Trip to Kentucky 97
  • 11: The Land and Towns 111
  • 12: Houses and Crops 123
  • 13: The Smithland Neighbors 134
  • 14: Issues in West Kentucky, 1808 143
  • 15: The County Court 151
  • 16: The Year of Trouble, 1809 163
  • 17: Lilburne Enters Public Life 175
  • 18: The Church in West Kentucky 189
  • 19: The Presbyterian Lewises 203
  • 20: Insecurity 215
  • 21: Community Affairs, 1810 226
  • 22: Slavery in Livingston 234
  • 23: Tremors in the Dynasty 240
  • 24: Annus Mirabilis 248
  • 25: The Murder 256
  • 26: After the Murder 266
  • 27: The First Grand Jury 274
  • 28: The True Bill 285
  • 29: The Graveyard 293
  • 30: The Orphans 303
  • 31: During the War 312
  • 32: The Aftereffects 322
  • 33: The Epilogue 329
  • Appendix 1 - Notes on Lewis Genealogy 339
  • Appendix 2 - The Colle Sale 348
  • Appendix 3 - The Interview with Matilda 351
  • Appendix 4 - Medical Notes 353
  • Appendix 5 - Lilburne Lewis's Estate 359
  • Index 441
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