- Editor’s Page
As historians well know, history is open to interpretation. In the hands of professional historians, varied interpretations of past events can create a dialogue that leads to a greater understanding of the past—and, if we’re lucky, the present and future. In the hands of politicians, journalists, or activists, history can sometimes be misused, especially for ideological purposes. As Edward McInnis points out in his article, the death of Roman tribune Caius Gracchus in 123 BCE presented antebellum Americans with a story that could be used to support divergent ideological opinions. Gracchus was a reformer who supported the plebians against the elite patricians. As a result, Rome’s wealthy class incited mob action against him. Instead of dying at the hands of the mob, Gracchus asked his slave, Philocrates, to assist with his suicide. As depicted in the painting on the cover, Philocrates then killed himself.
Although few people from the United States likely viewed this painting by French artist Francois-Jean-Baptiste Topino-Lebrun in the decades after it was completed in 1797, many educated Americans knew the story of Caius’s death and had their own interpretation of its meaning. For proslavery southerners, the moral of the story was that ancient slaves were loyal to their masters—something they often claimed about their own slaves. For antislavery activists, the death of Caius Gracchus demonstrated the lengths to which an elite class would go to remain in power at the expense of the masses and those reformers who championed them. For antislavery Kentuckians in the antebellum era, the comparison to their own time was clear: slave [End Page 175] owners ruled their states with an iron grip at the expense of ordinary whites. Both sides in the antebellum slavery debate used—and sometimes misused—lessons from the Roman past to support their own contemporary viewpoints.
Likewise, Jeffrey Zemler has uncovered an example of the misuse of history by proslavery southerners in the late antebellum era. In his article, Zemler explores the constitutional views of Kentuckian George Nicholas. Born in Virginia around 1743, Nicholas served as a delegate to the Virginia convention that ratified the new federal Constitution of 1787. Nicholas was a federalist and a proponent of the new Constitution, which strengthened the authority of the central government. Soon after the convention he moved to Kentucky, where he remained aware of national political events. Although he opposed many of the policies of the Federalists who ran the new government, throughout the remainder of his life he continued to support the constitutional system that he helped create. Yet, in the winter of 1860-61, some southern secessionists used an excerpt from a speech he gave at the Virginia ratifying convention in 1788 to help support their position that states could, in fact, secede from the Union. Had those politicians actually studied Nicholas’s views on the Constitution they would have discovered he held a remarkably different position on secession than they did.
In his essay on the state of Kentucky Civil War historiography, John David Smith explains where the field has been, where it is going, and where it should go. As Smith notes, despite some major flaws, E. Merton Coulter’s The Civil War and Readjustment in Kentucky (1926), still casts a shadow over the field. Since the mid-1970s, professional historians have tried to fill many gaps in the historiography and have come a long way in challenging Coulter. Although much has been written about the Civil War experience of Kentucky, more work is needed. While there is some exciting new work being done on Civil War Kentucky, Smith offers excellent suggestions for new avenues of study. We hope all scholars of Civil War Kentucky, but especially [End Page 176] graduate students, will read this essay and take its suggestions to heart.
Finally, in their article on the Rural School Improvement Project (RSIP), Richard Day, Lindsey DeVries, and Amanda Hoover point to the importance of teacher education. Supported by Berea College, with a grant from the Ford Foundation, the RSIP was created to improve elementary and secondary education in parts of rural eastern Kentucky in the 1950s. In particular, project leaders...