Jefferson's Nephews: A Frontier Tragedy

Jefferson's Nephews: A Frontier Tragedy

Jefferson's Nephews: A Frontier Tragedy

Jefferson's Nephews: A Frontier Tragedy


The brutal axe murder and dismemberment of a Negro slave, committed in 1811 by two brothers, Lilburne and Isham Lewis, whose mother was Thomas Jefferson's sister and whose father was his first cousin, form the core of this historical detective story and account of frontier life in western Kentucky in the first decades of the nineteenth century.

On the night of December 15, 1811, drunk and enraged over the breaking of a pitcher, Lilburne bound his seventeen-year-old slave, George, and, in front of the assembled household's other slaves, cut off his head. The brothers were indicted for murder, released on bail, and attempted suicide.

Boynton Merrill Jr. explores the tragic combination of circumstances and social forces that culminated in this ghastly event: the lawlessness of the frontier settlements, the dehumanizing effects of chattel slavery, and the Lewis family's history of mental instability and their ever-declining fortunes.


Looking back at Jefferson's Nephews eleven years after it was first published, I have but one real regret. It is that in the book the role of black slavery now seems understated as a contributing factor to the murder of the young slave, George. When I began writing, my intent was to unravel the events of the crime and to explain the depraved behavior of the killers. Slave murders were not uncommon; there were hundreds of them, but there were no other murders so horribly committed by killers of such high and unlikely family connections. At first, my plan for this book was to explain the question, “How could this murder have happened in Jefferson's family?” After a while, the basic question changed in my mind and became “How could this murder have happened in America?” Then, in spite of the historical record of black slavery, which is clear and detailed, I wondered how black slavery could have persisted for nearly two hundred years in America.

Slavery was widely detested by thinking men throughout the South, for the clear logic that condemned “the peculiar institution” had always been overwhelming. There was surely something else involved that was even more persuasive and powerful than reason, something ominous indeed, that sanctioned black slavery. When I discerned what I thought it was, I tried to show in the book what lay at the heart of prejudice against blacks. Now I realize I did not discuss the issue forcefully enough. For almost all of the published reviews and discussions of the book saw Jefferson's Nephews as the retelling of a grisly murder, historically accurate, but still a murder story. Both critics and readers were kind in their praise, but seemed to pass over the remarks about the existence of black slavery as one cause of the murder.

One particular comment about black slavery seemed especially compelling when I first read it in Alexis de Tocqueville's (Democracy in America. Tocqueville (1805-1859), a brilliant man, was a French liberal politician, writer, visitor, and observer of American democratic government. The statement of Tocqueville's that struck me as being germane, true, and concise, as holding the key to black slavery, was a mere footnote to his voluminous essay. Tocqueville was discussing a conviction that was almost universal in the South and was seldom questioned there, though it was by no means limited to that region. It was the belief that blacks are morally and intellectually inferior to whites. This was the belief that excused and supported the existence . . .

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