Jefferson's Nephews: A Frontier Tragedy

By Boynton Merrill Jr. | Go to book overview

PREFACE

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

-xxv-

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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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