“Read Your Destiny!”: Kentucky Antislavery Sentiment and the Uses of Roman History
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“Read Your Destiny!”:
Kentucky Antislavery Sentiment and the Uses of Roman History

Nearly two thousand years before Cassius Marcellus Clay launched his attacks against the South’s “peculiar institution,” Plutarch wrote a work on Roman history that would significantly affect how Clay and other Kentuckians debated slavery. Plutarch’s history chronicled the travels of Tiberius Gracchus across Italy and Spain. Gracchus, a descendant of the famous Roman general Scipio Africanus, observed on his travels that small farms worked by freeholders had nearly disappeared from the countryside, replaced instead by large plantations employing slave labor.1 Disturbed that this condition threatened republicanism, Gracchus ran for and was elected as a tribune of the people. Using his excellent oratorical skills, he publicly called for the enforcement of Rome’s Licinia laws. These laws distributed land to poor citizens and restricted the amount of public land any one Roman could use. Members of Rome’s patrician class vehemently opposed enforcing the Licinia laws. For generations, they held public lands as their own and viewed the Licinia laws as a threat to their continued ability to exploit public land for profit. From their viewpoint, Gracchus was a demagogue who only sought power by promising commoners land that patrician families had controlled for decades. [End Page 199]

In 133 BCE, to stop Gracchus and his land reform, the patrician class in Rome incited large mobs to attack and kill him and his followers. A decade later, when his younger brother Caius Gracchus supported similar land reforms, the patricians incited large mobs to kill him too, thus ending the attempts by these two brothers (together called “the Gracchi”) to preserve a sense of economic fairness in Rome. Although their reform initiatives caused their deaths, the Gracchi became champions to many Americans in the antebellum era. For some proslavery writers, Tiberius and Caius Gracchus were patriotic sons of Rome who supported slavery and were exemplars of republican virtue. Yet, conversely, their story was used by antislavery activists in Kentucky and other border states as proof of the negative impact of slavery on a republic.2

Historians have examined the place of the Gracchi in nineteenth-century American cultural history. Studies by Margaret Malamud and Carl Richard, for example, show that nineteenth-century activists and politicians frequently invoked ancient Greece and Rome (including the Gracchi) in selective ways to justify their policies and points of view at the national level.3 However, these scholars feature only a cursory analysis of how antebellum Americans used history to explain problems and offer solutions at the regional and state level, especially in the Ohio Valley region. Slavery supporters in the Lower South frequently invoked ancient civilizations, especially Rome, to support slavery. By contrast, in Kentucky, a state in which conflicting ideas about slavery existed, people deployed narratives of the past in different ways. In fact, commentators in the commonwealth often used histories of Greece and Rome, including the historical episodes involving Tiberius and Caius Gracchus, to illustrate the harmful effects of slavery on a republic. In doing so, they contributed to a process of reshaping history to advance contemporary social causes. By deploying simplified narratives of historical events from ancient [End Page 200] Greece and Rome, especially the lives and deaths of the Gracchus brothers, antislavery Kentuckians believed they could demonstrate how slaveholding both threatened free-labor values and contradicted the ideals of republicanism.

History for Americans was not a quaint story of a bygone era but a device that aided in bringing change. During the Revolutionary era, writers urged young readers not only to read the classics but also to emulate the actions of “heroes and patriots” from ancient Greece and Rome. This pattern continued into the antebellum period as political leaders and social reformers used these histories to advance their causes in a number of different forums and mediums. In addition, schools were already exposing readers to key events and actors from classical times. As early as the 1770s, some textbooks featured comprehensive histories of ancient Greece and Rome. In addition, translations of Plutarch as well as histories of Rome by Barthold Georg Niebuhr during the 1820s and George Bancroft during the 1850s provided readers...