Editor's Page
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Editor's Page

Denton Offutt, who usually appears in the history books as a minor character in the story of Abraham Lincoln's early life in New Salem, Illinois, takes center stage in Gary O'Dell's essay, "Denton Offutt of Kentucky: America's First Horse Whisperer?" This is an absorbing story on several levels. Offutt was a struggling western entrepreneur in the hardscrabble world of early-nineteenth-century capitalism. And, to put it bluntly, he failed and took to flight, leaving some angry creditors behind.

The story might well have ended there, with Offutt disappearing from history. Unexpectedly, however, he resurfaced as, O'Dell persuasively argues, America's first horse whisperer whose mysterious methodology enabled him to achieve spectacular feats of horse training without the use of brute force intended to "break" horses into obedience. Indeed, it may not be entirely fanciful to view Offutt's story in this regard as a part of the broader current of nineteenth-century American humanitarian reform, though this perspective would doubtless have puzzled Offutt himself.

Still, it is a fascinating story in its own right. Offutt had to learn what countless other innovators have had to learn before and since—that the innovation is not always enough: marketing and sheer luck are also essential. But to say more would deprive you of the pleasure of learning in vivid detail just how Gary O'Dell's article ends.

The second essay in this issue, "Jesuit Education and Slavery in Kentucky, 1832-1868," by C. Walker Gollar, explores the on again–off again relationship between the Jesuits and the Catholic Church in Kentucky which involved some of the iconic figures in early Kentucky [End Page 171] Catholic history, including, most notably, Bishop Benedict J. Flaget (1763-1850). The story also casts light on the priorities of the Jesuits, an often-beleaguered order, as it struggled to fulfill its educational responsibilities with inadequate resources.

The aspect of the story which, perhaps, resonates most powerfully with us involves the Jesuits' use of slavery to help advance their goals. Professor Gollar clearly shows how deeply conflicted the Jesuits were about slavery, how they continued, reluctantly, to use slave labor, and how, ultimately, slavery contributed to their decision to leave the state for more congenial environments.

Moving beyond the immediate context of Professor Gollar's essay, we can also position it in the broader framework of the relationship of religion not just to politics but also to the ethical imperatives of everyday life. The question is the perennial one of the application of broad ethical principles to specific situations, particularly when they are in conflict with personal benefit and economic advantage. Scripture commends the one "who swears to his own hurt and changes not" (Psalm 15:4). It is, perhaps, all too easy for us to see the failures of previous generations in this regard while remaining curiously blind to our own. History may or may not be "philosophy teaching by example" (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, ca. 60BC–7BC), but it certainly affords us ample context for exploring contemporary ethical dilemmas. [End Page 172]

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