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