What is Rhetoric?
Dialogue and Debate in Writing of the Revolution

 E Pluribus Unum




Even Jefferson Had to Cross Things Out

In the period leading up to the Revolution, Americans seem to have enjoyed a sense that their letters, speeches, pamphlets, broadsides, newspapers, and so forth, were all a form of conversation. The most compelling article in a newspaper was often one in which the writer directly addressed to the printer of a newspaper who had published ideas contrary to his own, while directly or indirectly acknowledging that there was a larger audience listening to their person-to-person conversation.In the same way, sermons, pamphlets, broadsides and official governmental communiques were often directly addressed to the ideas stated in other sermons, pamphlets, broadsides or official letters, petitions, and proclamations. Listen to the language, and you will hear the way in which each writer represents himself as a direct respondent to someone who has written previously:



I take the Liberty to address you, as the Author of "The Regulations lately made concerning the Colonies, and the Taxes imposed upon them considered." It is not to the Man, whoever you are, that I address myself; but it is to the Author of a Pamphlet which, according to the Light I view it in, endeavors to fix Shackles upon the American Colonies: Shackles which, however nicely polished, can by no Means sir easy upon Men who have just Sentiments of their own Rights and Liberties.

You have indeed brought this Trouble upon yourself,

Encouraged therefore by so candid an Invitation, I have undertaken to examine, with an honest Plainness and Freedom, whether the Ministry, by imposing Taxes upon the Colonies by Authority of Parliament, have pursued a wise and salutary Plan of Government, or whether they have exerted pernicious and destructive Acts of Power.

Richard Bland
An inquiry into the Rights
of the British Colonies

In one of his many newspaper articles, Benjamin Franklin explains the importance of this kind of person-to-person conversation taking place within a larger community of readers/listeners.

In yet another letter to the printer of the Chronicle, Franklin offers a warning about the dangers of the "conversation" that was then taking place around him in London (during his extended visit there as an agent) and inflaming negative attitudes towards the Americans. He complains: "Every step is now taking to enrage us against _America_. Pamphlets and news-papers flie about, and coffee-houses ring with lying reports of its being in rebellion. Force is call'd for. Fleets and troops should be sent. Those already there should be called in from the distant posts, and quartered on the capital towns." And why are the English worried? Because Americans are reportedly "continually writing pamphlets, filling news-papers, and consecrating Trees to Liberty," which Franklin sees as "endeavors for their relief." (__A New Englandman to the Printer of the London Chronicle: A Defense of the Americans_The London Chronicle_, August 18, 1768)

While this kind of direct engagement of one writer with another is one demonstration of the way printed discourse functioned as a kind of public conversation in the Revolutionary era, evidence of this way of thinking can also be found in the way writers (and speakers) directly addressed that larger audience. In his Letters from a Farmer, John Dickinson seemed to represent himself as an individual speaking to a group of people closely gathered around to listen and react, as in this opening of Letter III:

My dear Countrymen,

I rejoice to find that my two former letters to you, have been generally received with so much favour by such of you, whose sentiments I have had an opportunity of knowing. Could you look into my heart, you would instantly perceive a zealous attachment to your interests, and a lively resentment of every insult and injury offered to you, to be the motives that have engaged me to address you.

Note: For background on Dickinson's writing, see Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania at Early American Bookmarks. You can also see the first letter as it was originally printed in The Boston Chronicle at the at the same site.

The same rhetorical tactic was employed by loyalists, as in the case of Brutus in Essay II :

1 November 1787

To the Citizens of the State of New-York.

I flatter myself that my last address established this position, that to reduce the Thirteen States into one government, would prove the destruction of your liberties. But lest this truth should be doubted by some, I will now proceed to consider its merits. . . .



Resources at Other Sites:

A Brief Essay on Loyalist/Patriot Pamphlet Wars: American Political Writing, 1760–1789: Loyalists from The Cambridge History of English and American Literature at Bartleby.com.

Definitions of Rhetoric

Some Definitions of Rhetoric -- See how Aristotle, Kenneth Burke, and other rhetoricians explain the meaning and purpose of rhetoric.

Defining Rhetoric -- A collection of definitions from a variety of dictionaries and theorists from a course site at the University of Missouri.


General Resources: Texts, Definitions of Terms, Commentaries, Links, Bibliographies, etc.

Silva Rhetoricae: The Forest of Rhetoric, by Margaret Zulick -- A guide to classical and renaissance rhetoric. Be sure to take a look at other sections of Zulick's site, including American Rhetorical Movements to 1900 (the section on Three Modes of American Public Discourse is particularly interesting for students of the Revolution), American Rhetorical Movements Since 1900, and Truth, Speech, and Desire: Rhetoric in the Ancient World, Classical Rhetoric. See The Zulick Home Page for an index to resources.

Selected Bibliography for the Study of Rhetoric, from English 779.01: Introduction to Graduate Study in Rhetoric at Ohio State by H. Lewis Ulman. Bibliographies on particular topics in rhetoric and other resources are also available at this course site.

A Bibliography of Rhetoric lists key texts and analyses of selected quotations and terms from those texts by J. Randolph Radney.

Resources in Rhetorical Studies by James Comas, Department of English, University of Missouri-Columbia.


Analyses of Rhetoric in Specific Texts

The Stylistic Artistry of the Declaration of Independence, by Stephen E. Lucas
Offers an analysis of the Declaration as a work of rhetoric.

Benjamin Franklin A brief overview of Franklin's major themes, style, use of literary conventions, and audience on a page for teachers by the Heath publishing company.

James Burgh, Political Disquisitions 1:3--4, 186--89, 190, 190--93, 201--2 (Power comes from people.)

John Hancock, "Boston Massacre Oration," 5 March 1774
"Massacre Oration marks a distinct change from the constitutional argument prevalent in colonial rhetoric in the decade before the war and exhibits the radicals' more violent denunciation of the British and American supporters." American Voices: Significant Speeches in American History (New York: Longman, 1989), p. 41.


Classical Rhetoric: Primary Resources and Commentaries

Aristotle's Rhetoric: A hypertext by Lee Honeycutt

Aristotle's Rhetoric at the Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy:

Cicero on the Genres of Rhetoric translated by John F. Tinkler (or see the same material at: http://www.towson.edu/~tinkler/reader/cicero.html


Renaissance Rhetoric:

Renaissance Rhetoric: Eloquence, The Tongue and Literature, a course site by Catherine R. Erskin.

Enlightenment Rhetoric: Primary Resources and Commentaries

Hugh Blair: a site on the author of forty-seven Belles Lettres Lectures that had an influence on eighteenth century American understandings of rhetoric.

Notes On... Rhetoric: A Philosophical Inquiry

"Chauncey Goodrich, first professor of rhetoric at Yale(1817-1838), conceived of communication as both oral and written. He was under the influence of the later eighteenth and early nineteenth century British rhetoricians, who were heavily concerned with literature. The belles lettres movement exemplified by Hugh Blair gave increased attention to rhetorical and literary criticism. Goodrich, like Aristotle, Bacon, and especially Blair, whose text was used at Yale, assumes that all persuasive communication has oral qualities whether or not the document is delivered"(6).

Blair declared that reason and argument were the foundations of eloquence. Said he, "In order to persuade a man of sense, you must first convince him, which is only done by satisfying his understanding of the reasonableness of what you propose to him"(52).

"Notes and Quotes about Hugh Blair" from Charles Rollin's Traite and the Rhetorical Theories of Smith, Campbell, and Blair

Blair's concern for the audience is further reflected in his recommendations on delivery, which share much with Rollin's thinking on the subject. Blair breaks with the practice of his contemporaries by urging speakers to work for extemporaneous delivery as they gain experience. In Blair's view, there is much to be gained, particularly in deliberative speaking, by constant adaptation to audience response. In speaking to popular assemblies, Blair urges, the speaker should write out beforehand 'some sentences with which he intends to set out, in order to put himself fairly in the train; and, for the rest, to set down short notes of the topics, or principal thoughts upon which he is to insist, in their order, leaving the words to be suggested by the warmth of the occasion.' In regard to pulpit speaking, Blair rather severely criticizes the practice of reading sermons which 'may, indeed, have introduced accuracy; but [which] has done prejudice to Eloquence; for a Discourse read, is far inferior to an Oration spoken. It leads to a different sort of composition, and well as of delivery' and can never have an equal effect on any audience.

Blair's view of speaking was thoroughly liberal and modern. Efficaciousness in pulpit, legal, and forensic oratory resulted when the speaker remained cognizant of the taste and interests of his audience and when he communicated in a clear style and with animated delivery. Floridity, ostentation, and turgidity were to be avoided, and simplicity, elegance, and vivacity embraced. Blair's rhetorical theory was excellently suited to an era when old forms of unilateral authority - the church and the monarchy, for example - were losing their exclusive hold on the people, when education and knowledge were becoming popularized, and when individauls had access to forms of inquiry and decision-making which had been unavailable to them in the preceding century."

The most distinctive emotional force of those years was sentiment and sympathy. When citizens today claim that mastery of the continent was attained by the enterprising spirit of unselfish, fit pioneers, or when they avow the right of all to free speech and assembly, or whenever the U.S. government asserts that maintaining world peace can best be accomplished by a benevolent use of American power, the spokespersons for these ideals have relied on an inherited vocabulary of sentiment and sympathy. In his 1801 Inaugural Address, in words that Americans today still relate to, Jefferson termed his country "the world's best hope." Seeing the "rising nation" as a land that was "wide and fruitful," he urged its citizens to "unite with one heart and one mind," to restore after a decade of heated politics the sentimental values of "harmony and affection." For, without these, he insisted, "liberty and even life itself are but dreary things."

From the time of the Revolution, if not before, Americans have tended to project a self-image of charitable concern and active self-restraint. Less persuasively, perhaps, their commitment to ordered liberty has dictated that righteous self-expression stop short of forfeiting reason through the degenerative effects of self-indulgence, greed, license, or political fanaticism--the unhealthy passions. During the Revolutionary crisis, loyalists decried rebel Americans' excesses in just such a vocabulary. The passion they witnessed in the activities of patriots during the 1770s appeared to them dangerous and unruly; they described the failure to check behavior in terms of "deformation," of a loss of reason and judgment. People recognized and feared their own base instincts; they knew they were vulnerable creatures subject to temptation. Freedom could not exist without morality--both sides in the American Revolution believed that--and both felt certain that the other lacked fortitude and enough moral strength to avoid being victimized by untrustworthy leaders. ***

The Enlightenment made an impression on the American founders not only in introducing a reverence for science, an appeal to intelligent judgment, and a tone of criticism but in asserting that harmony and sympathy existed in nature. "The prosperity of reason in the eighteenth century," Peter Gay has written, "was less the triumph of rationalism than of reasonableness." The world of the literate was being emptied of religious mystery and filled with a philosophic understanding of humanity. In America, from the Stamp Act, which ignited Revolutionary protest, through the Jeffersonian-Hamiltonian party battles of the 1790s, anxious concern for the preservation of liberty and for the continued claim to happiness intensified Americans' fears of aggressive forces and aggressive behavior. The language of sentiment and sympathy, used by a people who routinely called themselves peace-loving, constituted a defense against inner and outer turmoil.


Additional Resources:

"Why American Writers and Orators Often Use an Inflated Style," Alexis de Tocqueville, chapter XVIII of Democracy in America (at the University of Virginia site). Although this text is from the 1830's, it may be interesting to reflect on whether the rhetorical styles of the early nineteenth century reflected the rhetoric of the revolution in any ways.

Related Resources on This Site:

What is Rhetoric? Dialogue and Debate in the Writing of the Revolution

A Rhetoric of Rights:

The Arguments Used in the "American Conversation" in the Era of the Revolution
A Step-by-Step Guide to Constructing Quick Analyses of Revolutionary-Era Texts

Investigating the History of Slavery in Early America:

A Guide to Critical Reading
Evaluate the Reasoning
Evaluate the Reliability of Evidence
Finding Your Own Answers

Texts that Illustrate Typical Arguments and Techniques:

Excerpts from John Adams' "A Dissertation on the Canon Feudal Law": An Illustration of Arguments Used by American Patriots in the Rhetoric of the Revolution

Excerpt from Connecticut Governor Jonathan Trumbull's Fast-Day Proclamation of 1775

A Debate on Natural Rights from Hutchinson's “A Dialogue between an American and a European Englishman”

Slave Petition to the Governor, Council, and House of Representatives of the Province of Massachusetts, 25 May 1774 at The Founders Constitution

Orations on the Boston Massacre

The Rights of the Colonists: The Report of the Committee of Correspondence to the Boston Town Meeting, by Samuel Adams, November 20, 1772



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