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Response to Margaret Malamud, African Americans and the Classics: Antiquity, Abolition and Activism

Daniel R. Moy

Harvard Kennedy School of Government

Illustrating how the Classics served as potent weapons in the expansion of liberty for African Americans from the pre-revolutionary period through emancipation, Margaret Malamud’s analysis underscores both the relevance and adaptability of the classical canon in the battles over slavery and equality.  My own research on the influence of antiquity in the American founding, which addresses the loyalists’ use of the Classics as a counter-narrative to the patriots’ revolutionary agenda, intersects with Malamud’s study in two key areas.  The first concerns the way the classical canon provided a language and mentality for perceiving ideas about liberty and freedom; beyond legitimacy and status, the classical notion of virtue was central to the understanding of what it meant to be a free citizen.  The second concerns the tactics of rhetoric and narrative described by Carl J. Richard—how those engaged in public discourse turned to the literature of ancient Greece and Rome to leverage models and anti-models to defend and advance their respective arguments.            

The culture of classicism, particularly in the late eighteenth-century, served an important legitimizing function in the transatlantic, providing a common language and vocabulary for how Americans viewed themselves and one another.  As Malamud highlights, racial prejudice deemed African Americans, and slaves in particular, incapable of participating in this arena of civic discourse.  Malamud’s discussion of Phillis Wheatley, the first published African American writer, vividly illustrates how a classical education enabled some African Americans to defy common racial stereotypes.  However, beyond the legitimacy afforded by her classical education, Wheatley’s articulation of liberation throughout her poetry, both with respect to the transatlantic crisis and the condition of slavery in the colonies, demonstrated the true mastery of her classical acumen.  As John C. Shields highlighted, the potency of Wheatley’s discourse stemmed from her radical application of the classical principle of a moral and civic virtue to all people, whether slave or free.  This principled, ideological foundation emboldened Wheatley to serve as an advocate for liberty during a period of political upheaval, paving the way for others to challenge the barriers to African Americans in the new republic.

Malamud’s discussion concerning ancient and modern slavery describes how abolitionists and slaveholders alike leveraged classical models and anti-models to defend and advance competing narratives, illustrating how ancient literary references and meanings shifted to perform different, even opposing functions.  This interplay of ancient history with contemporary politics enlightens our appreciation for the ideological potency of the Classics, not only as rhetorical weapons of discourse, but as modes of thought shaping deeply-held beliefs.  With respect to contrasting perspectives on the liberty of African Americans, were the moral and ethical lessons of antiquity opaque, even contradictory enough to enable an abolitionist and a slaveholder to lay claim to the same classical references in defending their opposing arguments?  Malamud’s analysis makes a persuasive case against such a conclusion, revealing how racial prejudice skewed the literary models of the ancient world to support the institution of slavery.  The ways in which abolitionists and slaveholders strategically and selectively employed the Classics to serve their political objectives reveals not only the rhetorical value, but also the ideological influence of the classical canon in its capacity to serve as an ideological plumb line, a repository of models and anti-models on liberty, that over time, were capable of bending the arc of American freedom toward emancipation and equality.

There is a common thread that I see running through my examination of the loyalist’s use of antiquity in the Revolution and Malamud’s research on how African Americans leveraged the classical world to their advantage in the long road to emancipation; beyond serving as a cache for the weapons of rhetoric in these monumental political battles, the Classics provided the essential models of virtue and liberty instrumental in shaping the meaning and trajectory of freedom in the American experience.

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African Americans and the Classics by Margaret Malamud

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