views updated May 17 2018


The art of public speaking has deep roots, theoretical and practical, in human history, but it is no exaggeration to claim that antebellum America marks a particularly fruitful period in the history of oratory. Already in the late eighteenth century, the tumultuous events of British America leading to the Revolutionary War led likewise to what Jay Fliegelman calls an "elocutionary revolution." The new eloquence of the new American nation was grounded in the persuasive performances of public speakers, and the performances became so persuasive that the period between 1820 and 1870 constituted a "golden age of American oratory," as the writer Edward G. Parker described it in his 1857 study by that name. Given the political, social, and cultural stakes of the expanding nation, it is not surprising that eloquence engaged some of the most talented men and women of the period. In state and national legislatures, at political rallies and Fourth of July celebrations, in the pulpits and camp meetings from Boston to the Mississippi, at antislavery meetings and women's rights conventions, and in the lecture halls and lyceums of cities and towns across the country, speakers rose, each of them trying to make the occasion of his or her own performance a memorable act of moral persuasion.

Many eminent orators learned their trade in the colleges of their youth. From the middle of the eighteenth century, American colleges like Yale, Harvard, and William and Mary encouraged students to give public declamations every week, and by the beginning of the nineteenth century they were offering courses in rhetoric and elocution. Textbooks such as Hugh Blair's Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (1783), Caleb Bingham's The Columbian Orator (1797), and John Quincy Adams's Lectures on Rhetoric and Oratory (1810) combined theory and practice for the generation that came to maturity between 1820 and 1850. In addition, undergraduates often were members of literary and debating societies, which sponsored a wide range of weekly debates on cultural and political topics. Indeed, by 1800 the literary societies were so important at Yale College that entering students were automatically assigned to either the Linonia or the Brothers in Unity.

The education system of eighteenth-century British America emphasized classical languages and rhetoric, and it had as a primary goal the preparation of young men for the ministry. By the early nineteenth century, however, the college-bred man could expect to find more opportunities for public address than the pulpit would provide. Forensic, celebratory, and political speaking created a host of arenas in which the public address flourished. In all of these forums, the goal of oratory was more than simple instruction or entertainment, though it certainly kept those classical goals in mind. In addition, the American orator of the nineteenth century had to meet and persuade his or her audience of their common good, and in order to do so he or she could not stand above his listeners nor apart from them. Thus speakers in the period began to adopt a less-formal style, eschewing the grandiloquence of an Edward Everett and embracing the simple, direct eloquence of orators like John Adams, from the generation of the Founding Fathers, and Abraham Lincoln, from the generation of the Civil War. The effect of this stylistic shift was to emphasize the democratic influence of oratory in nineteenth-century American culture, which Jay Fliegelman describes as already vital to the late-eighteenth-century Republic: "True oratory represented and reiterated shared beliefs in an effort to maintain a shared cultural world, one that provided a circumscribed scene for human action and created consensus by calling forth the universal nature of man, whose moral dictates would then ensure that sociability would rule individual behavior" (p. 45).

Perhaps the most important literary innovation of the oratorical culture, the popular lecture, also came closest to this ideal version of "true oratory." The popular lecture developed out of the lyceum movement, which was begun in 1826 by Josiah Holbrook (1788–1854). The lyceum was a remarkable institution for popular education in communities of all kinds, and it spread throughout New England and into the upper Atlantic states, the Midwest, and the South. In the first decade, lyceums featured local lecturers, especially the clergy and self-proclaimed experts in applied sciences. By the mid-1840s, according to the historian Donald M. Scott, there were nearly four thousand communities with a lyceum or similar institution for sponsoring public lectures, especially in the winter months. Celebrities like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Frederick Douglass, Bayard Taylor, Sylvester Graham, and Wendell Phillips could be seen regularly in New England and as far west as St. Louis, Missouri, or Davenport, Iowa. The topics were encyclopedic, ranging broadly over health, contemporary social life, social reform, travel, history, literature, aesthetics, natural history, and philosophy. Like "true oratory," the public lecture was supposed "to incorporate the public, to embrace all members of the community, whatever their occupation, social standing, or political and religious affiliation. Useful to all and offensive to none, the lecture was an oratorical form deliberately and carefully separated from all partisan and sectarian discourse" (Scott, p. 793). Moreover, the lyceum circuit gave many intellectuals and writers a career and a decent living. By the 1850s the lecture system, run by a host of booking agents and bureaus, had created at least the myth of a "shared cultural world" in which successful lecturers like Emerson and Taylor kept divisive issues at bay and formed a common, public discourse in the neutral space of the lecture hall.

Like the Gettysburg Address, delivered at the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg on 19 November 1863, President Lincoln's speech at his second inaugural (4 March 1865) was marked by its forceful brevity. In four paragraphs, Lincoln noted the hopeful conclusion of the war, reminded his listeners of the history of American slavery leading up to the war, and then concluded with these famous words:

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.

Lincoln, "Second Inaugural Address," in Speeches and Writings: 1859–1865, p. 687.


If the public lecture was to become the most innovative new literary form of oratory in antebellum America, it had its roots in the preaching of American ministers. As Lawrence Buell has argued, the change from strict Congregationalism to the more liberal doctrines of Unitarianism was accompanied by a liberalizing of religious writing: "During the nineteenth century the idea of the sermon as a means of expounding and enforcing doctrine tended to give way to the idea of the sermon as an inspirational oration. Much more was made of imagination and creativity in preaching than had been the case before" (Literary Transcendentalism, p. 105). The earliest proponent of this shift, both in doctrine and in sermon style, was William Ellery Channing (1780–1842), who preached at the Federal Street Church in Boston from 1803 to 1842. Channing's sermon "On Unitarian Christianity" (delivered in Baltimore on 5 May 1819) articulated the central beliefs of Unitarians before a large audience of ministers and established Channing's reputation as the premier Unitarian in the country. In addition, Channing's liberal theology inspired the younger New England intellectuals and artists who would found the transcendentalist movement in the 1830s and 1840s. In sermons and speeches, his style was plain and direct, but he refused to pander to audiences.

Theodore Parker (1810–1860) was the heir apparent to Channing's Unitarianism, carrying the liberalization yet further. Inspired both by Channing and by Ralph Waldo Emerson's (1803–1882) 15 July 1838 address to the graduating seniors at Harvard Divinity School, Parker dedicated himself to writing sermons that would tell the truth as directly as Emerson and Channing had done. That truth led Parker to deliver the sermon "The Transient and Permanent in Christianity" on 19 May 1841, in which he argued that "oneness with God" was more important than any system of doctrines and rituals. From 1841 to his death, Parker was one of the most controversial and liberal preachers in New England. His theology and preaching style broke radically with the conventions of nineteenth-century American Protestantism, and his sermons often became indistinguishable from lectures. He was polemical and ratio-nalistic, but he could also give way to flights of poetic sensibility and figurative excess.

A third great pulpit orator of the period was Henry Ward Beecher (1813–1887), who further liberalized Christian doctrine and blurred the boundary between sacred and secular speech. Beecher spoke most prominently from the pulpit of Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, New York, attracting huge crowds because of his dynamic style. His sermons joined liberal religion and such social reform issues as antislavery, women's rights, and temperance. He lectured widely on women's rights throughout his career, and he was a celebrity speaker, invited by President Lincoln to deliver the celebratory oration "Raising the Flag over Fort Sumter" on 14 April 1865. In a deep historical irony, Beecher delivered the oration on the day President Lincoln was assassinated. Rather than bespeaking reconciliation, Beecher's rhetoric was as divisive as the shot from John Wilkes Booth's pistol.

In a host of lectures and essays, Emerson created the figure of the heroic orator, an extreme figure who perches on the very edge of the fight and calls upon humanity to follow him. The figure of eloquence is a fabulous, idealized character, but Emerson suggests that it serves an important function for both the orator and the culture. Standing at the border between speech and action, public and private, past and present, the figure of eloquence embodies the virtues he called forth at Harvard University, 31 August 1837.

He learns that he who has mastered any law in his private thoughts, is master to that extent of all men whose language he speaks, and of all into whose language his own can be translated. The poet in utter solitude remembering his spontaneous thoughts and recording them, is found to have recorded that which men in crowded cities find true for them also. The orator distrusts at first the fitness of his frank confessions,—his want of knowledge of the persons he addresses,—until he finds that he is the complement of his hear-ers;—that they drink his words because he fulfills for them their own nature; the deeper he dives into his privatest secretest presentiment,—to his wonder he finds, this is the most acceptable, most public, and universally true.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, "The American Scholar," in Nature, Addresses, and Lectures (New York: AMS Press, 1979), p. 63.


The ideal of the sermon, lecture, or speech as a way of embodying a shared cultural world, uniting speaker and audience, is immediately challenged by the historical context of the golden age of oratory. The antebellum period was, according to the poet Walt Whitman (1819–1892) in his Specimen Days, characterized by "convulsiveness," not by the high-minded abstraction of the Fourth of July speech or the commencement address. In his 1846 lecture "Eloquence," Emerson asserted that "the resistance to slavery in this country has been a fruitful nursery of orators. The natural connection by which it drew to itself a train of moral reforms, and the slight yet sufficient party organization it offered, reinforced the city with new blood from the woods and mountains" (Collected Works 7:95). Both Whitman and Emerson point to the true occasions of true oratory in division, conflict, and passionate disagreement. Although Emerson tells only half the story, he accurately points to African American slavery as the nursery of great orators, for great orators appeared on both sides of the slavery debate.

The most fruitful of nurseries, at least in numbers, was the political. The three most famous political orators of the century were U.S. senators during the period from 1830 to 1850: John Calhoun of South Carolina, Henry Clay of Kentucky, and Daniel Webster of Massachusetts. Calhoun (1782–1850) is best known as the orator of nullification, state's rights, and proslavery, and his speeches were marked by their close reasoning and deliberative style. Clay (1777–1852), the least educated of the great triumvirate, became celebrated as a forensic speaker, was elected Speaker of the House of Representatives in 1810, and became a figure of moderation, the "Great Pacificator," in the slavery debates of the Senate, especially in the bills that are known as the Compromise of 1850. His style was direct, emotional, and spontaneous, but he prepared thoroughly for his speeches. From all accounts his voice was impressively varied in tone, register, and rhythm. Without doubt the most prolific and celebrated of the three great political orators, Daniel Webster (1782–1852) excelled in forensic speaking, winning fame for arguing such important cases as McCulloch v. Maryland before the Supreme Court in 1819, which furthered the scope of federal power in relation to the states. Webster was equally famous for his ceremonial addresses, such as the Plymouth oration of 22 December 1820, the Bunker Hill Monument address delivered on 17 June 1825, and his "Eulogy on Adams and Jefferson" delivered on 2 August 1826. In the last of these three speeches, Webster famously re-created a speech by Adams concerning the Declaration of Independence, adopting the elder statesman's direct and forthright style: "Sink or swim, live or die, survive or perish, I give my hand and my heart to this vote. . . . Why put off longer the Declaration of Independence? That measure will strengthen us. It will give us character abroad. . . . But while I do live, let me have country, or at least the hope of a country, and that a free country. . . . Independence now, and Independence for Ever!" (quoted in Duffy and Ryan, pp. 420–421).

Webster's fame as a U.S. senator stems from slavery and states' rights debates on the Senate floor. Perhaps the most famous is the Webster-Hayne debate of 1830. Senator Robert Y. Hayne of South Carolina defended his state's right to ignore the federal tariff and, in response to Webster's answer, attacked the Massachusetts senator for inconsistency. Webster's reply stretched over two days and thirty thousand words, and it was circulated as a pamphlet after Webster revised it. The most famous line comes from the peroration: "Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!" Three years later Webster debated Calhoun concerning President Andrew Jackson's force bill, which threatened South Carolina with invasion by armed federal troops. Webster carried the day and the vote, extending the power of the federal government. Finally, in the debates over the Compromise of 1850, Webster delivered a series of speeches supporting Clay's moderate view and combating Calhoun's states' rights position. The speech of 7 March 1850 became infamous for its careful legalisms and parsing of history. Though Webster's rhetorical and legislative compromises, including his support of the Fugitive Slave Law, led to his vilification by such liberal admirers as Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, he remained a political force in Massachusetts and the country until his death in 1852.

The debate over African American slavery and the future of the Union became the most important social issue of the day and provided a host of orators, not confined to the political arena, with a subject for speech. Three of the most famous orators of the period are associated with the antislavery movement: William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, and Frederick Douglass.

Garrison (1805–1879) was the very embodiment of the antebellum abolitionist. He edited and published the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator from 1831 until the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in December 1865. While writing and publishing the inflammatory prose of abolitionism, however, Garrison also took to the lecture platform in Great Britain and in the United States. Moreover, he refused to ally himself and the movement with any political party, even refusing to vote. His rallying cry was "No Union with slaveholders," and he welcomed the secession of the Southern states in 1861. For Garrison, the page and the platform were interchangeable: he routinely printed his own and others' speeches in The Liberator, and the newspaper records nearly a thousand of his own speeches during the convulsive years leading up to the Civil War. Consistently combative and pious, Garrison proclaimed from the outset that he would be "harsh as truth, and uncompromising as justice," for he did not wish "to think, or speak, or write with moderation." In his antislavery lectures, Garrison would often introduce himself as "the peace-disturber Garrison—the fanatic Garrison—the madman Garrison," prompting delightful laughter in his audience at the sight of the innocuous, balding young man before them. In the autumn of 1865 Garrison conducted his own five-week lecture tour of the North and Midwest, traveling as far as Chicago and delivering "The Past, Present, and Future of Our Country" to receptive audiences. But the tour convinced him that he was no lecturer, and so his career as a public speaker ended with The Liberator.

Wendell Phillips (1811–1884), born to a storied Boston family, distinguished himself as a public speaker at Harvard College and Harvard Law School and became the most famous extemporaneous abolitionist speaker of the antebellum period. By 1838 he was no longer a practicing attorney, devoting himself to the antislavery movement and making a living on the lyceum circuit. At the height of his fame he earned as much as $250 for delivering the popular lecture "The Lost Arts," which he could vary at will and which he delivered over a thousand times in his career. Consulting his own commonplace book (a personal journal containing newspaper clippings, quotation, and scraps) before the performance, Phillips would speak for over an hour without notes, and the audience would be certain to hear an impassioned, eloquent voice. Like Garrison, Phillips was most renowned and effective as an agitator. His most famous antislavery speech, "The Murder of Lovejoy," narrated the career and death of the abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy, killed by a mob in Alton, Illinois. Phillips first delivered the Lovejoy speech at Faneuil Hall in Boston on 8 December 1837 to a crowd of five thousand listeners. The power of his eloquence galvanized the antislavery movement in Boston and established him as the voice of the movement. Until the disbanding of the American AntiSlavery Society in 1870, when the Fifteenth Amendment was adopted, Phillips continued to speak on behalf of free speech, freedom of the press, and universal male suffrage. During the Civil War he agitated for female suffrage as well, but after 1866 he moderated his public statements in hopes of achieving suffrage for blacks.

Even in his final public address, "The Scholar in the Republic," Phillips maintained the independent, radical stance of the social reformer. Speaking at the centennial gathering of Phi Beta Kappa at Harvard University on 30 June 1881, Phillips urged the scholars to become agitators, for "the agitator must stand outside of organizations, with no bread to earn, no candidate to elect, no party to save, no object but truth,—to tear a question open and riddle it with light" (Warren, p. 2). In Phillips's narrative of American history, the abolitionists' "crusade against slavery" became an overarching reform movement, gathering the issues of free speech, universal suffrage, labor reform, women's rights, and states' rights into a single moral struggle. And Phillips sarcastically contrasted the courage of the moral reformer to the moral cowardice and silence of such speakers as Edward Everett, former president of Harvard University, who delivered his popular lecture "The Character of Washington" throughout the years of greatest agitation: "Everett carried Washington through thirty States, remembering to forget the brave words the wise Virginian had left on record warning his countrymen of this evil" (Warren, p. 6).

The abolitionist movement provided a further opportunity for new oratory by bringing black abolitionist speakers before white audiences. Charles Lenox Remond, William Wells Brown, Sojourner Truth, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and Frederick Douglass are only the most famous of the host of black orators in the antebellum period. Without doubt the most eloquent of them all was Frederick Douglass (1818–1895). Born a slave on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Douglass escaped in 1838 and became a Garrisonian abolitionist in 1841. From 1841 to 1845 he was a paid lecturer for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, and after his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself was published in 1845, he conducted a successful two-year lecture tour of Great Britain and Ireland. In 1847 his British friends purchased his freedom for 150 pounds, and Douglass returned to the United States. By 1849 Douglass's sense of independence brought him to break with Garrisonian abolitionists and begin a long and successful career as a newspaper editor and journalist. At the same time, he became more and more famous and skillful as a social reformer and orator. Like Phillips, he spoke for women's rights, freedom of speech, civil rights for blacks, and universal suffrage as well as such issues as temperance, peace, and abolition of capital punishment. His most famous speeches include "What, to the Slave, Is the Fourth of July?" (delivered at the Independence Day celebrations in Rochester, New York, in 1852), "The Claims of the Negro Ethnologically Considered" (delivered at Western Reserve College in 1854), and "The Dred Scott Decision" (1857).


Early in the period, women were largely excluded from public platforms, just as they were largely excluded from the possibilities of a college education or a public career. The Scottish-born reformer Frances Wright (1795–1852) is generally considered the first woman to deliver a public address in the United States, speaking on women's rights in New Harmony, Indiana, in 1828. Other early speakers were Sarah Grimké (1792–1873) and Angelina Grimké (1805–1879), who wrote and spoke for the American Anti-Slavery Society and on behalf of women's rights. Two other intellectual women associated with public speech and the transcendentalist movement were Elizabeth Peabody (1804–1894) and Margaret Fuller (1810–1850), who held "conversation" classes in Boston from 1839 to 1844, providing women with a forum for speaking and listening to one another in order to cultivate self-culture among the thinking women of metropolitan New England. The effects of Fuller's conversational style can be seen in both the style and the content of her important feminist work Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845).

By mid-century the restrictions on women's speech were loosening, especially within the reform movements themselves. Three of the most important women orators in the period began within the abolitionist movement and moved toward issues of women's rights, especially female suffrage. Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902), Lucy Stone (1818–1893), and Susan B. Anthony (1820–1906) devoted their lives to lecturing, writing, and lobbying for women's right to vote. Anthony in particular was acquainted with the premier abolitionists of the day, and she was closely associated with Stanton for much of her life. Both women worked for antislavery organizations, and in their collaboration both were effective public speakers on behalf of women. The same connection between women's rights and antislavery runs through Stone's career. After becoming the first woman from Massachusetts to earn a bachelors degree (Oberlin College, 1847), Stone worked as a lecturer for the American Anti-Slavery Society. In 1869 Stone and Henry Ward Beecher split from Stanton and Anthony, with the result being two different national suffrage associations. The three women differed in their politics and strategies, but they appeared together as witnesses before the Senate Committee on Woman Suffrage on 20 February 1892, speaking eloquently to the law-makers on behalf of truly universal suffrage.


The most important literary figure on the lyceum circuit was without doubt Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the lecture itself had a deep effect upon Emerson's literary style. Beginning as a Unitarian preacher and maintaining his position as a supply preacher throughout his life, Emerson was one of the most successful American speakers on the circuit. Beginning in the winter of 1835–1836, Emerson offered "courses" of lectures, writing a new series of six to ten addresses for each new season. He could vary the number and order of the lectures for any given lyceum, but unlike Phillips he did not employ the extemporaneous method of speaking. Perhaps as a result of speaking from a written text, the lectures became the source for Emerson's essays, though the process was by no means simple or linear. Instead the essays emerged from much revision, involving reorganization, addition of material from Emerson's voluminous journals, and rewriting of individual sentences to create the dense, surprising, and axiomatic style of Emersonian prose. Emerson's career paralleled the development of the lyceum into the popular lecture circuit of the 1850s, 1860s, and 1870s, and the circuit benefited as much from him as he did from it. In the 1850s, in particular, Emerson used the lecture platform to make telling speeches on the antislavery movement and to combat the compromising positions of Daniel Webster, who had been a personal hero of the younger writer. Despite these political and social interventions, however, Emerson maintained a distant, independent stance, one that exemplified the role of the public intellectual in the antebellum period.

Other prominent literary figures attempted to mount the platform and speak to their fellow citizens, but none was as successful as Emerson. The poets Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and James Russell Lowell gave academic lectures at Harvard University, and Lowell lectured on the lyceum circuit, as did Oliver Wendell Holmes and John Greenleaf Whittier. The relationship between the platform and the page, however, was strained for all these figures. The case is different for Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), who was, like Emerson, on the board of the Concord Lyceum and delivered lectures in his hometown and surroundings. The prose of Walden (1854), dense and repeatedly revised over a seven-year period, clearly bears the marks of its origins in lectures delivered in 1848–1849. Though he grew to despise the popular lecture as a compromise, Thoreau still rose to speak when events called to him. On 4 July 1854, for instance, on the heels of the arrest of the fugitive slave Anthony Burns in Boston, he delivered "Slavery in Massachusetts," a fiery performance. Five years later he spoke in Concord and Boston in defense of John Brown, whose raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, signaled the coming convulsiveness of the Civil War. Meanwhile Thoreau continued to address audiences in lectures such as "Walking," "Wild Apples," "Cape Cod," and "The Maine Woods," and in the twentieth century these became some of his most influential writings.

The popular lecture exercised less influence on the literary culture of the South, though there were winter lecture series in the major cities of the region throughout the period. The most accomplished man of letters in the antebellum South, William Gilmore Simms (1806–1870), delivered public lectures and patriotic addresses through the 1840s and 1850s. But Simms's career as a lecturer was more telling in its failures than its successes. In the winter of 1856 Simms traveled to New York City to begin a lecture tour of the northern states, planning to speak on behalf of the much-maligned southern institutions. The lectures addressed the sectional conflict, mounting to a fever pitch after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 and Preston Brooks's caning of Senator Charles Sumner on the floor of the U.S. Senate. Over the space of two days, Sumner had given an inflammatory speech, "The Crime against Kansas," attacking Senator Butler of South Carolina and comparing the state to an imbecilic whore. Brooks, a congressman from South Carolina and a kinsman of Senator Butler, took it upon himself to answer Sumner's words with deeds. Simms sought to inject himself into the public debate, but the northern audiences were unwilling to listen to him. After delivering his lectures in Buffalo, Rochester, and New York City (150 persons attended the last performance), he canceled the tour and returned to South Carolina. In the early months of 1857 he toured the South, delivering a series of three lectures called "Our Social Moral," in which he excoriated the abolitionists, the northern politicians like Sumner, and the servile northern press, and accurately predicting a violent end to the conflict.

After the Civil War the lyceum circuit continued to hold an important position in American culture, and there was a proliferation of speakers' bureaus and agents. The popular lecture spread across the country, and oratory continued to flow from pulpits, platforms, and legislative halls. Still, the quality of the popular lecture changed in postbellum America. In the years leading to the Civil War, the lecture had created a kind of mythic moment of neutral investigation—high-minded, somewhat abstract perhaps, but earnest and eloquent. After the war, the popular and successful lecturers were entertainers and storytellers like Bret Harte and Mark Twain. The political arena produced no speakers on the order of Calhoun, Clay, or Webster. Henry Ward Beecher was the most influential preacher of the postbellum period, but even his reputation was marred by scandal. By 1870 the "golden age of oratory" was nearing its end. By the time Phillips gave his speech at Harvard in 1881, the figure of the orator as "the Scholar in the Republic" had nearly disappeared.

See alsoAbolitionist Writing; "The American Scholar"; Education; Feminism; Lyceums; Proslavery Writing; Reform; Rhetoric; Suffrage; Unitarians; Walden


Primary Works

Douglass, Frederick. The Frederick Douglass Papers. SeriesOne: Speeches, Debates, and Interviews. Edited by John W. Blassingame. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979–1992.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Collected Works of Ralph WaldoEmerson. Edited by Robert E. Spiller and Alfred R. Ferguson. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971–.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Complete Sermons of RalphWaldo Emerson. Edited by Albert J. von Frank. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1989–1992.

Lincoln, Abraham. Speeches and Writings: 1859–1865. New York: Library of America, 1989.

Parker, Edward G. The Golden Age of American Oratory. Boston: Whittemore, Wiles, and Hall, 1857.

Phillips, Wendell. Speeches, Lectures, and Letters. Boston: Lee and Shephard, 1894.

Webster, Daniel. The Papers of Daniel Webster. Edited by Charles M. Wiltse. Series 4: Speeches and Formal Papers. 2 vols. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1974–1979.

Secondary Works

Bode, Carl. The American Lyceum: Town Meeting of the Mind. New York: Oxford University Press, 1956.

Brigance, William Norwood, ed. History and Criticism ofAmerican Public Address. 2 vols. New York: Russell and Russell, 1960.

Buell, Lawrence. Emerson. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003.

Buell, Lawrence. Literary Transcendentalism. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1973.

Buell, Lawrence. New England Literary Culture: FromRevolution through Renaissance. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Duffy, Bernard K., and Halford R. Ryan, eds. American Orators before 1900. New York: Greenwood Press, 1987.

Fliegelman, Jay. Declaring Independence: Jefferson, NaturalLanguage, and the Culture of Performance. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1993.

Foner, Philip S., and Robert James Branham, eds. Lift EveryVoice: African American Oratory, 1787–1900. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1998.

Scott, Donald M. "The Popular Lecture and the Creation of a Public in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America." Journal of American History 66 (March 1980): 791–809.

Warren, James Perrin. Culture of Eloquence: Oratory andReform in Antebellum America. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999.

James Perrin Warren


views updated Jun 08 2018


Oratory in the United States died out, some have said, in the second half of the nineteenth century. Millions of people, eager to rise during Reconstruction and in reform movements between the Civil War and World War I, however, were learning to read and write. They were founding, buying, and poring over affordable and widely available journals, newspapers, and books. They were honing elements of elocution and speechmaking in common schools and public universities. How could oratory be dead if so many new speakers performed it and audiences yearned for it? The literature at the turn of the twentieth century represents this American struggle over the public podium.

Emblematic of that struggle was a young Yankton Sioux woman who beat out all white students, both men and women, in the 1899 student oratory contest at Earlham College. Zitkala-Ša (also known as Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, 1876-1938) was surprised at receiving friendly overtures from her usually distant white classmates after the speech. A few weeks later, she won an intercollegiate meet, this time under a banner that mocked her Quaker school for allowing a "squaw" to represent it. Zitkala-Ša's autobiographical narrative, "School Days of an Indian Girl," was published by the Atlantic Monthly in 1900, a few months after these oratorical contests. These events suggest several aspects of what was at stake for oratory in U.S. literary culture of the time. At the end of the nineteenth century, exemplary performance of public oratory continued to signal academic success. In Zitkala-Ša's case, the prize honored mastery of speech conventions by a person until then considered an outsider to mainstream culture. Success at the Earlham and intercollegiate podium, moreover, was every bit as significant to Zitkala-Ša as the later print appearance of her autobiographical essay in a prestigious periodical. One marked her earliest public mastery of a powerful medium of dominant culture; the other signaled her literary success with an even broader public. Fine students of higher learning won prizes for oratory. Fine writers were published in the Atlantic Monthly.

That a young American Indian woman managed both, however, suggests that issues of oratory had shifted away from questions asked before and during the Civil War: Plain or elaborate language? Logic of sensationalist epistemology and the mental faculties, or flat assertions of fact? Instead, in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, the questions concerned who got to speak to the American public: Men only, or women too? Just whites, or also blacks, Indians, and other people of color? Oratory in literature and as an art in its own right foregrounded questions of ethos, the speaker, the rhetor.


Earlier questions about oratory were most famously articulated in two vastly different orations delivered 19 November 1863 by Abraham Lincoln and Edward Everett, dedicating the Soldiers' National Cemetery at Gettysburg. The difference was not just that one speech was two minutes and the other two hours. Following Lincoln's brief remarks, what has become the preferred rhetorical—and literary—style includes a self-deprecating humility, echoes of a rural American lifestyle, and at the same time an appeal to lofty, universal values. In "The American Scholar" (1837), Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) had famously avowed, "I embrace the common, I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low" (p. 113). But not too low.

Like Lincoln, Walt Whitman (1819–1892) used biblical cadences and plain diction in his poems. The 1891 final, deathbed version of Leaves of Grass includes even more parataxis than earlier texts; for example, part 33 of "Song of Myself" embraces all with these lines:

Pleas'd with the native and pleas'd with the foreign, pleas'd with the new and the old,
Pleas'd with the homely woman as well as the handsome,
Pleas'd with the quakeress as she puts off her bonnet and talks melodiously,
Pleas'd with the tune of the choir of the white-wash'd church,
Pleas'd with the earnest words of the sweating Methodist preacher, impress'd seriously at the camp meeting, . . .

(Pp. 54–55)

Piling up pleasures in parallel sentence structure, Whitman fully enjoys "the familiar, the low," as Emerson directed. While Whitman is "pleas'd with the quakeress" who speaks up for herself and others in public, and he is impressed with the Methodist minister, it may be this preacher's sweat more than his oratory that moves the great "mother-man" of the American people, for the poet claims in section 30 of the same 1891 edition,

Logic and sermons never convince,
The damp of the night drives deeper into my soul.

(P. 50)

The preacher's passionate life of the body conveyed with "earnest words" invokes his hearers' own experiences, their damp and dark nights of the soul. Whitman's accordion-like psalmic catalogs of human experience announced a new egalitarian American eloquence, both oratorical and literary, that has affected speakers and writers into the twentieth century.


Not that the rhetoric of sentiment was done for—far from it. When Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825–1911) publicly exhorted a mixed-race, mixed-gender crowd honoring the 1875 centennial of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, she aimed to shape a new social sentiment of justice by use of appeals directed simultaneously at her audience's passions, intellect, imagination, and will. A far from perfect Reconstruction, she asserted, was in fact reproducing the horrors of slavery:

I do not believe there is another civilized nation under Heaven where there are half so many people who have been brutally and shamefully murdered, with or without impunity, as in this republic within the last ten years. And who cares? Where is the public opinion that has scorched with red-hot indignation the cowardly murderers of Vicksburg and Louisiana? . . . What we need today in the onward march of humanity is a public sentiment in favor of common justice, and simple mercy, . . . a sense of humanity, which shall crystallize into the life a nation the sentiment that justice, simple justice, is the right, not simply of the strong and powerful, but of the weakest and feeblest of all God's children; a deeper and broader humanity, which will teach men to look upon their feeble breth[r]en not as vermin to be crushed out, or beasts of burden to be bridled and bitted, but as the children of the living God. (Harper, p. 220)

Born a free black in Baltimore, Harper had traveled the abolitionist circuit since 1854 when the Maine Anti-Slavery Society commissioned her to present speeches she often crowned with her own poems. It was still rare for a woman to speak in public, but Harper's oratory resounded in countless public meetings all over the North arousing sentiments of "red-hot indignation" in order to end chattel slavery. After the war, as an itinerant teacher of newly freed slaves in the South, she saw firsthand ongoing racial oppression that enslaved her people all over again, terrorizing them into submission with mob violence and lynching. Discourse punctuated with sentence fragments, question marks, and parallel adjectives describing both the oppressors and the oppressed among "God's children," as well as alliteration in the metaphor "beasts of burden to be bridled and bitted"—these rhetorical strategies of sentimentalism still effectively touched audience passions in much public oratory during and after Reconstruction. Harper was herself upset, her agitated text indicates, and she undoubtedly meant to upset any complacent souls in her audience, moving them to change their ways and American culture. Along with other reformers who had designs on public sentiment, she kept using sentimental strategies on the podium and in print right into the twentieth century. These strategies mark her most famous work, Iola Leroy; or, Shadows Uplifted (1892), a staple of nineteenth century American novel studies, which among other issues includes class tensions in the racial uplift movement.

Oratory and rhetorical tactics have had to do with issues of economics and class since before 400 b.c.e. when Sophists trained Greek litigants trying to recover Athenian property from victors of ancient wars. Although rhetorical theory that informed prevailing nineteenth-century U.S. discourse turned away from classical topics and deductive thinking to induction and experience, questions about material context—something like the cases in antiquity—were also asked. Eighteenth-century Enlightenment thinkers had asserted the rights and worth of individuals over monarchy and privilege, and studies of rhetoric (both for oratory and writing) were afterward available to students from a rising middle class. It is no accident that Enlightenment theories of knowledge grew not from the logic of hierarchical authority but from sensory impressions recorded in each person's mind. This epistemology was premised on everyone's perceptions—up and down the social strata—being the same, a "common sense" or universal faculty psychology. A sensationalist rhetoric was then devised to appeal to an audience's mental faculties in order to shape public moral sentiment.

The rhetoric of sentiment was elaborated into a comprehensive system most famously by the Scottish professors George Campbell (1719–1796) and Hugh Blair (1718–1800) in the late eighteenth century. Their texts—including chapbook abridgements, revisions, and knock-offs of them—appeared in colleges, on bookshelves, and in the hip pockets of newly literate U.S. citizens throughout the nineteenth century. As Campbell and Blair taught up-and-coming offspring of British merchants to parley with nobility, seminary students to preach with taste, and lawyers to win in courts and legislatures, the rhetoric of sentiment spread even more widely among all strata of U.S. citizenry. Sentimentalism was a web of shared lore about how to appeal to the public mind and so to pressure the powers that be. Discovery of just such a chap-book, The Columbian Orator (1797), inspired Frederick Douglass (c. 1818–1895) to flee slavery, and the persistent strength of oratory may be measured by his ease with the medium at century's end; in Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881; revised 1892), Douglass claims "that writing for the public eye never came quite as easily to me as speaking to the public ear" (p. 397). Another well-known orator, Julia Ward Howe (1819–1910), penned the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" lyrics in 1861, but only in the last decades of the nineteenth century, after her husband's death, did she become a stump speaker for women's rights and pacifism. In her 1899 Reminiscences, 1819–1899, Howe confesses a continued fondness for Blair's 1783 Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, "with its many quotations from the poets" (p. 57) to rate persuasive strategies that could move the heart and mind.

Relative status and economic issues arose also in the mixed reviews accorded the standard Enlightenment rhetorics by writers who are now thought of as literary giants, such as Herman Melville (1819–1891). In Billy Budd, Foretopman (1924), Melville does admit that public address by Captain Vere is sometimes delivered "in clear terms and concise," yet the writer expresses his doubts about Vere's rhetoric when the captain's cloud of courtroom verbiage seals the fate of his young sailor Billy Budd, accused of murder. Vere's declamation on the incident deploys "a certain pedantry socially alleged," which obscures the liability of either sailor charged with the crime (p. 2341). In effect, the captain's foggy oratory dooms the boy to execution.

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825–1911) became the best known and most prolific black woman speaker, poet, novelist, and essayist of her day. In "The Greater Problem to Be Solved," she addresses the 1875 centennial conference of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery. Chattel slavery ended with the Civil War, but she urges abolitionists to take up the next great cause: not only to find compassion for all but to assert the rights of all.

What we need to-day in the onward march of humanity is a public sentiment in favor of common justice and simple mercy. We have a civilization which has produced grand and magnificent results, diffused knowledge, overthrown slavery, made constant conquests over nature, and built up a wonderful material prosperity. But two things are wanting in American civilization—a keener and deeper, broader and tenderer sense of justice [and] a sense of humanity, which shall crystallize into the life of a nation the sentiment that justice, simple justice, is the right not simply of the strong and powerful, but of the weakest and feeblest of all God's children.

Harper, "The Greater Problem to Be Solved," p. 220.

Another anti-pedant, Emily Dickinson (1830–1886) notoriously did not stand with first-year Mt. Holyoke classmates when a preacher urged them to show their souls had been saved. In her poems, unpublished except for a handful until after her death in 1886, Dickinson finds oratory still feeding her doubts. Politicians (such as perhaps her father, a U.S. Congressman from Massachusetts) receive even harsher criticism than preachers: "How dreary – to be – Somebody! / How public – like a Frog –." Dickinson's critique of political stump speeches makes the politician a low amphibian. His message consists of one thing, his name. The orator's audience ("an admiring Bog"), with its affinity for muck, is granted no sentience at all. This reclusive poet was no fan of sensational political oratory.

Sensational political orations—political stump speeches—came in for similar criticism by another nineteenth-century writer. Samuel Clemens (better known as Mark Twain) panned the genre unmercifully in his text of comic oratory "Cannibalism in the Cars"(1875). In it Clemens exposes aggressions latent in tricky speechifying. His oral tale within a tale cloaks behind mock legislative deliberations that snowbound, hungry railway passengers are choosing which of their fellow travelers will be the main course. These train-wrecked strangers, all men, are adrift in an amoral "world of eddying flakes shutting out the firmament above" (p. 41). Harrumphing at "proceedings . . . in every way, irregular and unbecoming," Reverend James Sawyer of Tennessee objects not to eating or being eaten, but to lack of a chairman and subordinates to run the meeting; he insists all previous actions (nominating him) are invalid until officers have been elected. Mr. Belknap of Iowa argues, "This is no time to stand upon forms and ceremonious observances," declaring himself and "every gentleman present" to be "satisfied with the nominations" and ready to elect Sawyer for breakfast (p. 42). The representative from Tennessee must either put up a fight, a sign he is no gentleman, or shut up and be eaten. He does employ a diversionary tactic that takes him off the menu, but it does not prevent him and seven survivors from consuming sixteen others. Darwin's description of dog-eat-dog competition necessary for earthly survival of the fittest (in On the Origin of Species, 1859) becomes in Clemens's imagination a nightmare of human cannibalism, horrific with orderly government machinations that chew up humanity with gear teeth. From legislature or pulpit, the speechifying said to crown civilization Clemens's reveals instead as a means to bestial ends.

The height of Clemens's admiration for successful mocking oratory turned up in his own "flyting," a centuries-old traditional speech competition of bragging and foolery, often performed by men as after-dinner entertainment. Clemens famously delivered such pieces at Oxford when he was awarded an honorary doctorate there in 1907. The depth of his abhorrence for manipulative "blattering" also appears in his "War Prayer" (1904). A kind of fable, this short narrative focuses on political war oratory in "packed mass meetings" called to whip up "devotion to flag and country" (p. 3). Every night the crowds "listened, panting, to patriot oratory which stirred the deepest depths of their hearts, and which they interrupted at briefest intervals with cyclones of applause, the tears running down their cheeks the while" (p. 3). Clemens's contemporary, William Jennings Bryan, aroused crowds with just such populist oratory in 1896, winning the first of three Democratic Party presidential nominations with his "Cross of Gold" speech, in which he championed silver to back common currency versus the gold standard favored by big banks and big business. The panting, the open hearts, cyclones of applause, and tears in Clemens's crowd are the bodily affect looked for by sensationalist rhetoric as evidence that a speaker has moved an audience to accept his or her message.

A few local dissenters in Clemens's story, warned not to "cast a doubt" on the war's "righteousness," have absented themselves from the patriotic gatherings (p. 5). But a robed Merlin-like stranger steps to the pulpit, motioning the minister to step side after a long militaristic prayer for the troops. It seems the second speaker brings an answer from God to the pastor's prayer for victory, that is, if the people still endorse the prayer after the messenger unfolds its implications. The stranger observes that their prayer really asks the Almighty to make "bloody shreds" (p. 33) of the other side's men. God should scatter the foe's bodies over "smiling fields" (p. 35), burn their homes with "a hurricane of fire" (p. 39), and turn out their widows and children who will then bitterly also pray to God "for the refuge of the grave and [be] denied it—for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord" (p. 51). One side wins, but winning begets terrible tragedy for the vanquished, Clemens's messenger reminds the congregation. Reflecting on the carnage of war in his long lifetime, the author asks patriots what kind of perverse pulpit oratory and prayer tells believers that the Source of Love takes only "our" side? One might conclude that Clemens, like many of his day, excoriated all oratory. His mysterious stranger's message, however, may simply underscore a challenge raised at the turn of the twentieth century specifically against overwrought rhetoric and an unreflective public.


At the end of the nineteenth century, the cause of peace called to the podium a host of other unexpected earnest messengers, women among them. Outspoken advocates of reform in education, prisons, temperance, women's suffrage, and especially the abolition of slavery, a handful of women of color such as Frances Harper and some very few white Quaker women had been speaking in public since the late 1820s. The women's club movement in the 1870s gave semipublic audiences to many middle- and upper-class white women, and they soon stepped into the public eye. With larger numbers of women and other newly confident speakers at the podium, the style of a speech became less important than its underlying ethos or who delivered it. At the end of the century, Julia Ward Howe recalled her 1872 Peace Crusade, a series of speeches she delivered from British pulpits and podiums. She wrote of that campaign, "My dominant thought was that women, as the mothers of men, alone knew the cost of human life, and that this fact gave them a sacred and indisputable right to become the guardians of the world's peace" ("Change in the Position of Women," p. 148). A widely held belief that mothers held the moral high ground influenced Howe's "dominant thought." This premise evoked for her the vision of "a mighty and august Congress of Mothers, which should constitute a new point of departure for the regeneration of society by the elimination of the selfish and brutal elements which lead to war and bloodshed" ("Change in the Position of Women," pp. 148–149). Howe's Latinate diction and long, balanced periodic sentences show off a privileged education gained in large part from her older brothers' tutors. Yet, the venerable pacifist matron urging peace and women's rights upon turn-of-the- twentieth-century Boston clashes with the writer of erotic poems in Passion-Flowers (1854) and of lyrics for "Battle Hymn of the Republic" (1862).

Rhetorical theory, with implications for women's education and their participation in public oratory, was advanced at the turn of the twentieth century by Gertrude Buck (1871–1922), a self-described "hopeless radical" who held one of the first doctorates awarded a woman and who taught and wrote for many years at Vassar (Ritchie and Ronald, p. 211). An ethics of cooperation, collaboration, and social responsibility grounded her view of rhetoric. Mary August Jordan (1855–1941), likewise, encouraged supporters of women's rights and her women students at Smith College to be socially responsible "restless disturbers" of the status quo in rhetorical practice (Ritchie and Ronald, p. 218). Reforms in rhetorical theory advocated by these middle-class white women had broad application. But their ranks were thin, and their audiences among the most privileged in the country. As early as 1866, speaking to the Eleventh National Women's Rights Convention, Frances Harper pulled the rug out from under any myth of white motherhood as a foundation for participation in public practices such as oratory and voting: "I do not believe that white women are dewdrops just exhaled from the skies. I think that like men they may be divided into three classes, the good, the bad, and the indifferent" (Harper, p. 218). Because she stood with her people for black men's right to vote, recognized by the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, Harper broke with the convention's call for women's (meaning white women's) suffrage first. Among its racial uplift themes, Harper's novel Iola Leroy is believed to celebrate the astonishing courage of another African American woman, Ida B. Wells (1862–1931), a columnist with the pen name Iola who was editor and part owner at age twenty-seven of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight newspaper and a tireless public speaker on behalf of anti-lynching laws.

A high point of resistance to women's oratory, and in retrospect perhaps a sign of women's increasing numbers as public speakers, was Henry James's (1843–1916) 1886 novel, The Bostonians. While protagonist Basil Ransom is at first pejoratively described as a "lean, pale, sallow, shabby" figure from conquered Mississippi when he arrives at his wealthy female cousin's doorstep expecting a job (p. 4), Ransom's "provincial" view of female activism and of oratory drives the novel's plot (p. 11). Olive Chancellor is keeper of the family wealth, benefactor of women's rights, and Ransom's chief rival for the affections of Verena Tarrant, a rising prodigy on the women's rights scene. Driven by her causes, Olive is "morbid," the visiting cousin tells himself. James repeats the adjective five times in five lines to underscore his point about this female activist and perhaps to suggest his own fascinated aversion to same-sex living arrangements springing up among Boston women. From his perspective, Miss Olive "hated men, as a class" (p. 22). When Verena at last speaks to a parlor gathering of women activists, she charms the crowd and Ransom, too. Verena casts her spell with "those charming notes of her voice," Ransom believes, and not with "the argument, the doctrine" (p. 61). Not incidentally, James would later deliver a long graduation speech on women's vocal tone to the Smith College class of 1905. Ransom asserts of Verena's topic, "She didn't mean it, she didn't know what she meant, she had been stuffed with this trash by her father" (p. 62). She is manipulated, Ransom thinks, as a "preposterous puppet" mouthing others' thoughts (p. 336). So he sets out to prove the young star orator's lack of conviction and "hollowness of character" (p. 62) by persuading her to the exact opposite position, his own: females are made for men's private pleasure and not to address the public good. He insinuates himself into Verena's affections and carries her off to marry him moments before she would have spoken for the first time in a public hall. The book's sensational ending reads like a fantasy that, though thwarted by later feminist movements, articulates a powerful challenge to women's participation in U.S. oratory and public life.


Two famous exchanges of the late nineteenth century underscore the shift from rhetorical style and theory to an emphasis on who gets to speak. Both exchanges occurred at first in speeches, and both mark the breadth of the expanded public podium. Booker T. Washington (1856–1915) and W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963) spoke both from the podium and in print about what approach African American people should take to mainstream American cultural power. Chief Joseph (In-mut-too-yah-lat-lkekht in his tribal language, 1840–1904) appealed to dignitaries in Washington, D.C., for his people's return from exile in Kansas and Oklahoma to traditional lands in the Pacific Northwest.

Booker T. Washington famously advocated at the Cotton States and International Exposition in 1895 that by self-help and solidarity his people could gain pride and yet accommodate southern white supremacy and separation of the races. From the speech as it appears in his autobiography Up from Slavery (1901), blacks should seek only training for industrial and agricultural work and so, according to Washington, "put brains and skill into the common occupations of life." In 1881 he had founded Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, a school for vocational education and teacher training. He likened his people to a ship lost at sea that arrives at the mouth of the Amazon River and yet can find no fresh water; "cast down your bucket where you are," he said (p. 514). Washington also likened that ship to whites, who should continue to support institutions like Tuskegee and hire its graduates, rather than immigrants, so that "in the future, as in the past, . . . you and your families will be surrounded by the most patient, faithful, law-abiding, and unresentful people that the world has seen." And blacks, as potential employees, should cultivate "friendly relations with the Southern white man" (p. 515). Not racial equality, but a measure of economic opportunity, Washington argued, would eventually allow blacks to earn respect from white leaders.

In the last years of the century, W. E. B. Du Bois could not endorse Washington's quietism at African Americans' continued exclusion from political power, civil rights, and higher education. For "it practically accepts the alleged inferiority" (p. 639) of blacks, he wrote in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), a collection of Du Bois's speeches and published writings. Raised by the extended family of a single mother in Massachusetts, trained in public school and then at Fisk University and Harvard as an undergraduate, Du Bois studied in Berlin and earned a doctorate in history from Harvard in 1895. Giving credit to the complex context and real accomplishments of Washington's agenda, Du Bois nevertheless maintained that neither flattery nor jobs could adequately help black people, but "straightforward honesty" and "firm adherence to their higher ideals and aspirations will ever keep those ideals within the realm of possibility" (p. 640). Du Bois articulated a "double-consciousness" in blacks' self-perception as one effect of "the color-line" that he prophesied would dominate the American twentieth century. And he urged a return to Frederick Douglass's ideal of "ultimate assimilation through self-assertion" of black identity as a means to equality in all spheres of cultural life (p. 637). At issue for these two leaders was not "Who can speak?" from a public platform, but "Who are we as African Americans?" in American politics.

Harper's Weekly and the North American Review made popular the oratorical mastery of Chief Joseph and the plight of his Nez Percé people displaced from tribal lands by the Oregon gold rush and later settlers. After a seven-hundred-mile dash for the Canadian border marked by one Indian victory after another over astonishing odds, Joseph's fellow chiefs were dead. Believing he had negotiated safe passage to a reservation for his tribal remnant, Joseph gave up the fight, and the surrender speech he delivered was published in the 17 November 1877 issue of Harper's Weekly:

I want to have time to look for my children and see now many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs, my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more against the white man. (P. 906)

In violation of the treaty, the U.S. government divided his tribal unit, with Joseph and his followers herded into boxcars bound for Kansas and then Oklahoma. Two years later, an honest officer present at the surrender arranged passage for Joseph to the nation's capitol where at Lincoln Hall the chief recounted his people's history to President Rutherford B. Hayes and congressional leaders. This speech (published in the North American Review in April 1879) was perhaps more famous in its day than even his surrender because it details an Indian's perspective of settlers coming to eastern Oregon. "Some of you think an Indian is like a wild animal. This is a great mistake. I will tell you all about our people, and then you can judge whether an Indian is a man or not," Joseph began. Echoing principles of Christian morality, but in the name of the Great Spirit who "is looking at me, and will hear me" (p. 260). Joseph described the encroachment of outsiders into the Wallowa Valley:

I learned then that we were but few, while the white men were many, and that we could not hold our own with them. We were like deer. They were like grizzly bears. We had a small country. Their country was large. We were contented to let things remain as the Great Spirit Chief made them. They were not; and would change the rivers and mountains if they did not suit them. (P. 267)

In the kind of twist that the new century's literary modernism would enjoy, Enlightenment ideals played a dual role surrounding Joseph's speech, revealing the limitations of those ideals. Enlightenment notions were urging individual settlers to go west and rise in the world, while these ideals were also endorsing free speech and the mass marketing of Joseph's public address criticizing white settlement. Joseph maintained,

If the white man wants to live in peace with the Indian he can live in peace. There need be no trouble. Treat all men alike. Give them all the same law. Give them all an even chance to live and grow. All men were made by the same Great Spirit Chief. They are all brothers. The earth is the mother of all people, and all people should have equal rights upon it. (P. 282)

In response to this appeal, public sentiment finally shifted, pressing for return of the Nez Percé in 1885 to a reservation near their homeland. Still, before his death, Joseph was permitted only one visit to his father's grave in the Wallowa Valley.

If oratory died toward the end of the nineteenth century, it is good riddance to a formulaic, deductive version of public rhetoric that displayed classical tropes and figures familiar only to those who could learn Latin and Greek. Engaging first an elaborate new inductive rhetoric of sentiment and then rustic appeal and a plain tone, a more diverse American public would read, write, and claim space upon the podium of the coming twentieth century.

see alsoLectures; Presidential Elections; Reform; Women's Suffrage


Primary Works

Bonnin, Gertrude Simmons (Zitkala-Ša). "School Days of an Indian Girl." Atlantic Monthly 85 (1900): 185–194.

Chief Joseph (In-mut-too-yah-lat-lkekht). "I Will Fight No More." Harper's Weekly 21 (17 November 1877): 906.

Chief Joseph (In-mut-too-yah-lat-lkekht). "An Indian's View of Indian Affairs." North American Review (April 1879): 412–434. In Indian Oratory: Famous Speeches by Noted Indian Chieftains, edited by W.C. Vanderwerth, pp. 259–284. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971.

Clemens, Samuel (Mark Twain). "Cannibalism in the Cars." 1875. New Literary History 29, no. 1 (1998): 39–45.

Clemens, Samuel (Mark Twain). "War Prayer." In Europe and Elsewhere. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1923. Reprinted as The War Prayer. Edited by John Groth. New York: Harper and Row, 1984. Page citations are from the latter edition.

Douglass, Frederick. Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. 1881; revised 1892. In Norton Anthology of African American Literature, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Nellie McKay, pp. 391–401. New York: Norton, 1997.

Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. 1903. In Norton Anthology of African American Literature, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Nellie McKay, pp. 613–740. New York: Norton, 1997.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "The American Scholar." In The Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited by Brooks Atkinson. New York: Modern Library, 1950. Quoted in Kenneth Cmiel, Democratic Eloquence, p. 113.

Harper, Frances Ellen Watkins. "The Greater Problem to Be Solved." In A Brighter Coming Day: A Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Reader, edited by Frances Smith Foster, pp. 219–222. New York: Feminist Press, 1990.

Harper, Frances Ellen Watkins. "We Are All Bound Up Together." In A Brighter Coming Day: A Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Reader, edited by Frances Smith Foster, pp. 217–219. New York: Feminist Press, 1990.

Howe, Julia Ward. "The Change in the Position of Women." In The Woman Suffrage Movement, edited by Florence Howe Hall, pp. 136–151. Boston: Dana Estes and Company, 1913. Essay on Howe's earlier Peace Crusade speeches.

Howe, Julia Ward. Reminiscences: 1819–1899. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1899.

James, Henry. The Bostonians. New York and London: Macmillan and Co., 1886.

Melville, Herman. "Billy Budd, Foretopman." 1924. Reprinted as "Billy Budd, Sailor" in Norton Anthology of American Literature, vol. 1, 3rd ed., edited by Nina Baym, Ronald Gottesman, Laurence B. Holland, David Kalstone, Francis Murphy, Hershel Parker, William H. Pritchard, Patricia B. Wallace, pp. 2300–2355. New York: Norton, 1989.

Washington, Booker T. "Up from Slavery." In Norton Anthology of African American Literature, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Nellie McKay, pp. 490–521. New York: Norton, 1997.

Whitman, Walt. "Song of Myself." 1891. In his Leaves of Grass, pp. 25–76. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Company, 1926.

Secondary Works

Berlin, James. Writing Instruction in Nineteenth-Century American Colleges. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984.

Clark, Gregory, and S. Michael Halloran, eds. Oratorical Culture in Nineteenth-Century America: Transformations in the Theory and Practice of Rhetoric. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1993.

Cmiel, Kenneth. Democratic Eloquence: The Fight over Popular Speech in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: William Morrow, 1990.

Herzberg, Bruce, and Patricia Bizzell, eds. The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present. 2nd ed. New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2000.

Johnson, Nan. Gender and Rhetorical Space in American Life, 1886–1910. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2002.

Logan, Shirley Wilson. "We Are Coming": The Persuasive Discourse of Nineteenth-Century Black Women. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1999.

Mattingly, Carol. Well-Tempered Women: Nineteenth-Century Temperance Rhetoric. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2000.

Ritchie, Joy, and Kate Ronald, eds. Available Means: An Anthology of Women's Rhetoric(s). Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh University Press, 2001.

Royster, Jacqueline Jones. Traces of a Stream: Literacy and Social Change among African American Women. Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh University Press, 2000.

Wendy Dasler Johnson


views updated Jun 11 2018


ORATORY. Although Indian orators like Pontiac and Red Jacket had stirred their people to action, eloquence among colonists lay dormant until the Revolution aroused Samuel Adams, James Otis, and Patrick Henry. In Henry's great speeches on the "Parson's Cause" (1763), on the Stamp Act (1765), and in the "Liberty or Death" speech (1775), he left his mark upon U.S. history. John Randolph's invective reigned in Congress until Henry Clay, John Calhoun, and Daniel Webster emerged in times of crisis. Clay was remarkable for frequent and fluent remarks; Calhoun for subject mastery and logical presentation; Webster for magnificent voice, memory, and presence. In the middle period, eminent speakers included John Quincy Adams, Thomas Hart Benton, Thomas Corwin, Seargent Smith Prentiss, Robert Toombs, and William Yancey. Stephen A. Douglas's sonorous voice and superb confidence matched Abraham Lincoln's admirable directness in their debates (1858), the apogee of this style of political campaigning. Lincoln's inaugural addresses are the best of their kind.

Except for Charles Sumner, Albert J. Beveridge, and the elder Robert La Follette, the greatest orators since the Civil War have not been in Congress. Wendell Phillips achieved popular success in unpopular causes. George W. Curtis fought for civic reform; Robert G. Ingersoll defended agnosticism; and Henry W. Grady championed the "New South" (1886). The greatest pulpit orators have been Henry Ward Beecher, Phillips Brooks, and Harry Emerson Fosdick. Foremost among legal advocates have been William Pinkney, Rufus Choate, and Clarence Darrow. The Populist orators anticipated William Jennings Bryan, Theodore Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson as molders of public opinion, effective phrasemakers, and persuasive moralists. Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose clarity of expression suffused his first inaugural address (1933) and "fireside chats," remained unrivaled among U.S. public figures during his lifetime. Since World War II, the emphasis on oratory has declined, although a few notable orators, such as civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., have appeared. King's speech "I Have a Dream" (1963) caused many Americans to give their support to him and to his movement.


Gustafson, Sandra M. Eloquence Is Power. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

Mann, Barbara Alice, ed. Native American Speakers of the Eastern Woodlands. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2001.

Warren, James Perrin. Culture of Eloquence. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999.

Harvey L.Carter/c. w.

See alsoCivil Rights Movement ; Cross of Gold Speech ; "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!" ; Indian Oratory ; Lincoln-Douglas Debates ; March on Washington ; Parson's Cause ; South, the: The New South ; Stamp Act ; Webster-Hayne Debate .


views updated Jun 27 2018



Polished Literary Medium. The rise of prose as the dominant mode of expression in the late fifth and fourth centuries b.c.e. coincides with the increasing importance of oratory as a polished literary medium in its own right. It is not by chance that probably the earliest surviving Attic prose occurs in the Tetralogies of Antiphon, practice speeches about imaginary court cases, nor that prominent among early prose are similar practice speeches (such as those of Gorgias). The publication of genuine speeches, no doubt motivated partly by the desire of speechwriters to advertise their work, seems to begin around 420 b.c.e., with Antiphon named as the first to publish real speeches.

Sophists. Whether or not this Antiphon was the same as the Sophist (itinerant professor of higher education) of that name, the important role that these intellectuals played in the move away from poetry should be acknowledged. With the exception of Critias, the Sophists did not write poetry. They wrote much prose, but we know of only a single poem, and that a short one, that any undisputed Sophist wrote. The Sophists were above all interested in teaching the art of public speaking, and it is an art necessarily prosaic in its form.

Atticism. Much of the shape of the survival of ancient Greek literature was determined by the movement known as Atticism, which originated in the mid first century b.c.e., apparently in Rome. This movement placed the prose literature of the fifth and fourth centuries b.c.e. far above that of the Hellenistic Age (323-31 b.c.e.), and so influential was its agenda that little Hellenistic prose has survived. Yet modern readers are well supplied with Classical oratory, from the so-called canon (a modern term in this meaning) of ten orators (Antiphon, Andocides, Lysias, Isocrates, Isaeus, Lycurgus, Aeschines, Demosthenes, Hyperides, and Dinarchus). The first person to have put together this list is unknown, but it seems likely that it is a product of the Atticists. The surviving speeches reveal a great deal of historical and legal matter, but that has been of little concern for most of their survival: they were apparently preserved, and faithfully studied for millennia, simply because they afforded the best training in the study of the Greek language of what was considered the best period.


George A. Kennedy, The Art of Persuasion in Greece (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963).


views updated May 23 2018

or·a·to·ry1 / ˈôrəˌtôrē; ˈär-/ • n. (pl. -ries) 1. a small chapel, esp. for private worship.2. (Oratory) (in the Roman Catholic Church) a religious society of secular priests founded in Rome in 1564 to provide plain preaching and popular services and established in various countries.DERIVATIVES: Or·a·to·ri·an / ˌôəˈtôrēən; ˈär-/ n. & adj. (sense 2).or·a·to·ry2 • n. the art or practice of formal speaking in public. ∎  exaggerated, eloquent, or highly colored language: learned discussions degenerated into pompous oratory.DERIVATIVES: or·a·tor·i·cal / ˌôrəˈtôrikəl/ adj.


views updated May 21 2018

Oratory in the Roman Catholic Church, a religious society of secular priests founded in Rome in 1564 to provide plain preaching and popular services and established in various countries.

The Oratory of St Philip Neri was constituted at Rome in 1564 and recognized by the Pope in 1575. It was so named from the small chapel or oratory built over one of the aisles of the Church of St. Jerome, in which St Philip Neri (1515–95) and his followers, ‘Fathers of the Oratory’, carried on their work for six years before 1564. In 1577 the congregation moved to the new church (Chiesa Nuova) of the Valicella, in which were conducted the musical services thence called, in Italian, oratorio.

Oratory meaning ‘a small chapel, especially for private worship’, is recorded from Middle English, and comes ultimately from Latin orare ‘pray, speak’.


views updated May 29 2018

Oratory, Oratorians (Lat., oratorium, ‘place of prayer’). Roman Catholic place of worship other than a parish church, and the name of those belonging to a community based on an Oratory. From the oratory of S. Girolamo in Rome came the Oratory of St Philip Neri, a community of priests whose constitution was ratified by Pope Paul V in 1612. Oratories spread rapidly: they are congregations of secular priests living in community without vows, the more wealthy, therefore, being expected to support themselves.


views updated May 11 2018

oratory1 place of prayer, esp. a small chapel XIV; title of certain religious congregations in R. C. Ch. (orig. of the O. of St. Philip Neri established in 1564) XVII. — AN. oratorie = (O)F. oratoire, It. oratorio — ecclL. ōrātōrium, sb. use of n. of ōrātōrius, f. ōrāt-; see ORATOR, -ORY1.


views updated Jun 27 2018

1. Domestic chapel or a room in a private house for prayer.

2. Small chapel of any sort, more particularly one for private solitary devotion.

3. Church and buildings belonging to the Congregation (not Order) of St Philip Neri (1515–95), constituted c.1550 and approved by Pope Gregory XIII (1572–85) in 1575, and called the Oratorians.


views updated May 23 2018

oratory2 art of the orator, eloquent speaking. XVI. — L. ōrātōria, sb. use of fem. of ōrātōrius, f. ōrātor; see ORATOR, -ORY2.
Hence, or directly f. L. ōrātorius, oratorical XVII.