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The Ghosts of Republics Past: Abolitionists and the Use of Ancient History in Antebellum–Era America

Edward McInnis. University of Louisville, Louisville. USA.


The Ghosts of Republics Past: Abolitionists and the Use of Ancient History in Antebellum–Era America

Edward McInnis. University of Louisville, Louisville. USA.

In this paper, I demonstrate how American anti-slavery writers in antebellum-era journals, speeches and magazines used selective episodes from the history of ancient Rome and Greece to both express their opposition to slavery and persuade others to oppose the peculiar institution. My essay highlights four specific ways anti-slavery writers did this. First, I reveal how anti-slavery writers promoted slave-free land reform efforts in the United States by explaining how Tiberius and Caius Gracchus sought to revive civic virtue by distributing slave-free public lands to poor Romans. Secondly, I highlight how abolitionists invoked slave rebellions in ancient Greece and Rome to warn readers that similar uprisings could occur in United States should slavery continue. Thirdly, I illustrate how antebellum writers invoked ancient Sparta to show how slavery led to the cruel and inhumane treatment of individuals in a republic. Finally my essay shows that antebellum writers reminded readers that the apostles living in Rome never condoned Roman slavery to show that the institution contradicts Christian values.

Only a few other studies have addressed history’s role as a medium for opposing slavery, especially during the antebellum period. Carl Richard in The Golden Age of the Classics and Margaret Malamud in Ancient Rome and Modern America offer a start by describing how abolitionist such as David Walker attributed Rome’s decline to slavery. I build on their analysis by featuring many more examples of journals and publications that invoked classical Greece and Rome to attack slavery. This includes publications such as the Liberator, the Western Luminary, National Era, and the Philanthropist. In essence, this essay will show that the deployment of history to attack slavery ran deep in the United States and that even in slaveholding regions one could find journals that attacked the peculiar institution such as the Lexington Free American.

I situate this use of history by anti-slavery writers in the broader context of social, political, economic, and cultural forces that made it both easier and harder for nineteenth-century writers to drive home their argument using historical allusions. First, as Caroline Winterer points in Culture of Classicism, the expansion of education during the first half of the nineteenth century made both ancient and modern history accessible to large numbers of Americans. This paralleled a wave of revolutions both in the Americas and Europe where Americans concluded that oppressed people inevitably rose up against their rulers. A sense of humanitarianism flowing from the Enlightenment and religious revivalism also shaped people’s sensibilities during this time, leading to more critical views of slavery. Finally new notions of equality emanating from the American Revolution and the Second Great Awakening led to increased questioning of notions of a natural hierarchy.

The story of how antebellum reformers used Rome and Sparta to attack slavery indicates that new ideas reinforced by references to history and religion, rather than economic forces, ended slavery in the United States. This argument reinforces David Brion Davis’ point in The Problem with Slavery in the Age of Revolution in which he contends that abolitionists found it harder to show the economic benefits of a slave-free society since many slaveholding regions experienced greater prosperity than slave-free regions. Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman in Time on the Cross echo this point more strongly by featuring economic data that shows slavery’s compatibility with a capitalist society. Finally, this essay makes the larger point that nineteenth century antebellum America represented a unique moment in the use of history. Rather than simply featuring examples of civic virtue for the elites to emulate or for cultivating nationalism, historical narratives, especially episodes from ancient Greece and Rome, became tools for promoting social reform and making the United States into a more just country.


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