Thursday, 16 January 2014

The Rise of Horse Racing and the Endorsement of Slavery in Kentucky, 1780-1830

Yesterday, 15th January 2014, the Centre was pleased to welcome Dr. Catriona Paul (Dundee University) to the sixth of the Centre’s 2013-2014 seminar series. In what was a thoroughly enjoyable and highly informative talk, Dr. Paul discussed ‘The rise of horse racing and the endorsement of slavery in Kentucky, 1780-1830.’ Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.




Kentucky, known for its two best exports – the Kentucky Derby and bourbon – has a rich history of horse racing and rearing. With this, Dr. Paul argued that by focusing on horses and what they meant to society, we can learn a lot about the development of Kentucky. Indeed, horses were vital to Kentucky becoming established as a viable economic entity. Settlers relied on horses for transportation to travel the vast openness of the state and to get their goods to markets in the east, and by the year 1800 taxpayers owned 90,000 horses in the state, with 87% of all householders owning at least one horse. Moreover, horses were used by settlers to defend their homeland against Native Indian raids as the state began to take shape in the rough frontier of early America.

As Dr. Paul highlighted, from the beginning of the 19th century, Kentucky was acquiring a reputation for producing good quality riding and racing horses, and from this history grew a sense of pride in Kentucky-bred horses and a sense of identity which Kentucky still revels in today. Indeed, Dr. Paul opened her talk by showing the audience the above image of Kentucky’s state slogan ‘Unbridled Spirit’  incorporated into marketing materials, government stationary and license plates since 2004 – to show the importance of the animal to the state’s history and development.

However, although Dr. Paul acknowledged the importance of these positive associations, it was the deeply negative aspects of slavery and its relation to horse racing that formed the focus of her talk. Breaking it down into three main arguments, Dr. Paul sought to show (i) how horse ownership helped Kentucky elites (many of whom were coming from Virginia) to promote themselves and their views of slavery, (ii) how horse ownership was used to claim that other forms of ownership were acceptable (thus, legitimising the pro-slavery argument), and (iii) how theories of horse breeding were applied by these elites to propagate a vision of purity among white human beings.

As Kentucky was entering statehood, there was a crucial battle being waged among its settlers over whether it would become a slave holding or Free State. Dr. Paul’s argument was that horses played a pivotal role in this. For the reasons highlighted above, elites used horses in various ways to convince the state’s population that slavery was a positive thing. According to Dr. Paul, the elites went on a ‘…charm offensive’ in order to do this. At this crucial juncture in the state’s history, elites brought thoroughbred horses to the outskirts of the frontier to announce their status and sponsored race events that brought the whole community together, with numerous race courses opening up quickly and jockey clubs forming all over the state. Kentuckians from across the social spectrum took an interest in racing even though the majority could not afford to run a horse personally, and by the 1820s, gate tolls were even introduced due to the popularity of these events.

And many who owned, breed, and raced horses also held political office as the state developed and thus played a key role in wielding public opinion. For example, Henry Clay was an early patron of the sport of horse racing, as were George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. Attached here is a detailed article about ‘Henry Clay’s Legacy to Horse Breeding and Racing.’[1] These elites then made the argument that horse ownership was the same as slave ownership, with John Breckinridge saying that: ‘…Where is the difference whether I am robbed of my horse by a highwayman, or of my slave by a set of people called a Convention?’ Slaves were bought and sold much the same way as horses at the time – key determinants being age, fitness, ability etc., – and one should see both these as related in how they became deeply entrenched in Kentucky culture.

In highlighting the last thread of her argument, Dr. Paul used a quote by Thomas Jefferson to show how ideas of ‘purity’ were used in similar ways to think about horses and humans:

The circumstance of superior beauty is thought worthy of attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs, and other domestic animals; why not in that of man?
Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, (1787)

So in what was an insightful and fascinating lecture, Dr. Paul unravelled the histories of both slavery and horse racing in Kentucky to show how they are interconnected in important and often unacknowledged ways. Shedding light on the origins of Kentucky’s ‘unbridled spirit’ slogan helps us appreciate better a crucial historical time period and Dr. Paul’s focus on horses brings an interesting and welcomed dynamic to the history of the early American republic.
By Joe Ryan-Hume
PGR at the University of Glasgow


The Centre’s seminar series continues with Dr. Gareth Davies (St. Annes, Oxford University) ‘Taming Disaster: Fatalism and Mastery in American Disaster Management, 1800-2013.’ This will be held on Wednesday 29th January in Room 208, 2 University Gardens, at 5:15pm. All very welcome!

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