Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1195
Jeremiah Beaumont is born in Kentucky in 1801. His father is Jasper Beaumont, one of the first settlers in Glasgow County, and his mother is the disinherited daughter of a wealthy planter. Jasper never prospers as he hoped, and his unfulfilled ambitions breed in him a strain of awkward moodiness that is reflected in his son.
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Jasper dies, debt-ridden, when Jeremiah is thirteen. Before that time, the boy is in school with Leicester Burnham. Hoping for a better life than his father’s, Jeremiah is diligent in his studies. He is also stubbornly independent, for he refuses to become his grandfather’s heir because the old man insists that he take his mother’s maiden name, Marcher. When he is seventeen, Dr. Burnham introduces him to Colonel Cassius Fort, a famous frontier lawyer and politician who is looking for a young man to train in his law office at Bowling Green. Jeremiah is eager to accept Fort’s offer but cannot do so because of his ailing mother. Fort says that he is willing to wait for anyone Dr. Burnham recommends so highly.
The next spring, Mrs. Beaumont dies, and Jeremiah goes to Bowling Green to study law, not in Fort’s office, however, for the lawyer returned to Congress. Jeremiah’s only friend in the town is Wilkie Barron, another law student, from whose mother Jeremiah rents a room. Fort returns from Washington in 1820 and takes the young man under his patronage. From him, Jeremiah learns to look on the law not as a collection of dry statutes but as humanity’s agent of truth and justice. Times are hard in Kentucky following the Panic of 1819, and the legislature passes a law allowing a twelve-month stay of sale for debt. Fort is on the side of the Relief Party, as those who support the measure are called.
Wilkie first tells Jeremiah of a scandal linking Fort’s name with that of Rachael Jordan, daughter of a planter who died heavily in debt. Called in to help settle the estate, Fort is supposed to have seduced the girl and fathered her stillborn child. Grieved by that story of innocence betrayed, Jeremiah decides to have nothing more to do with his benefactor. In a letter he informs Fort, who is away at the time, of his decision. Fort writes in reply, but before his letter reaches Bowling Green, Jeremiah goes to visit Wilkie’s uncle, old Thomas Barron, in Saul County. The Jordan place is only a few miles away from his host’s. There he meets Rachael, wins her confidence, and, after hearing from her own lips the story of her shame, marries her. She accepts him on the condition that he kill Fort.
In the meantime, Jeremiah becomes involved in local politics. Percival Scrogg, fanatic liberal editor of a Frankfort newspaper, and Wilkie arrive to take part in a disputed election. After a riot at the polls, in which he and Wilkie fought side by side, Jeremiah is dismayed to learn that his friend is working for Fort. Wilkie advises him to put aside personal grudges for the public good.
Jeremiah and Rachael are married in 1822. At the time, Fort is away on private business. Taking over the Jordan plantation, the young husband devotes all his energies to making the place productive. Sometimes he feels that he has his father’s score to settle as well as his wife’s, that his hard work will vindicate his bankrupt father against men such as Fort, to whom wealth and fame come easily. Ambitious for the future and foreseeing expansion of the settlements, he forms a partnership with Josh Parham, a rich landowner, and, with Parham’s son Felix, surveys town sites in the unclaimed western lands. The venture in land speculation falls through, however, when Desha, the Relief candidate, is elected governor in 1824. Parham, an anti-Relief man, swears that he will never spend money opening up land in Kentucky while the Relief Party is in office.
Rachael and Jeremiah are expecting their first child when Fort returns from the East. Rachael, begging her husband to give up his intention of killing Fort, persuades him that his first duty is to her and the unborn child. A week later, Wilkie arrives at the plantation with a handbill in which Fort, announcing his candidacy for the legislature, disavows membership in the Relief Party. Urged by Wilkie, Jeremiah also becomes a candidate for office. The campaign is a bitter one. Unknown to Jeremiah, the Relief Party prints a broadside in which the scandal involving Fort and Rachael is revived. Jeremiah is defeated by Sellars, the candidate he opposes.
Two months later, Rachael has a miscarriage. On the same day, a handbill is mysteriously delivered to the house. Signed by Fort, it refutes the campaign slanders against him and accuses Rachael of having her first child by a mulatto slave. That night Jeremiah reaches his decision to kill Fort. As soon as he can leave his wife in a neighbor’s care, he rides to Frankfort. Disguised, he goes at night to the house in which Fort is staying, calls him to the door, and stabs him to death. He then rides home and tells Rachael what he did.
Four days later, officers appear and summon him to Frankfort for examination in connection with the murder. Believing that there is no evidence against him, he goes willingly. His enemies, however, are already busy manufacturing false clues, and, to his surprise, he is bound over for trial. By the time of his trial, bribery and perjury do their work. In spite of the efforts of Dr. Burnham and other loyal friends, his case is lost when Wilkie appears to testify against him. Although many believe him innocent, Jeremiah is sentenced to be hanged on August 20, 1826. Meanwhile, Rachael is arrested and brought to Frankfort, where she and her husband share the same cell. Jeremiah’s lawyers appeal the sentence. When they fail to produce one of the handbills defaming Rachael, the appeal is denied.
Two days before the execution date, Wilkie and several men break into the jail and free the prisoners, who are taken secretly to a refuge ruled by La Grand’ Bosse, a river pirate. There, from one of Wilkie’s former henchmen, Jeremiah learns that Scrogg and Wilkie forged the handbill responsible for Fort’s death. In despair, Rachael kills herself. Realizing how he was duped, Jeremiah tries to return to Frankfort and reveal the truth. Wilkie’s man overtakes him and cuts off his head.
Wilkie goes into partnership with the Parhams and becomes rich. Still politically ambitious, he is elected senator. One night in Washington, he shoots himself. Among his effects, to be uncovered in an old trunk years later, are some letters and a manuscript in which Jeremiah, during his months in prison and in the outlaw camp, wrote his story of deceit and betrayal. No one will ever know why Wilkie kept those incriminating papers. Unable to destroy the truth, he tried to conceal it. Perhaps at the end, like Jeremiah, he wondered whether the striving, pride, violence, agony, and expiation were all for nothing.