E Pluribus Unum




1770s America
(Fall 2002)


1920s America
(Fall 2001)


Teacher Resources
(In Progress)



E Pluribus Unum is an archive of resources created by the "American History and Culture on the Web" project at Assumption College. John McClymer, who teaches history at Assumption, is project director; Lucia Knoles, who teaches literature and speech, is co-director. The National Endowment for the Humanities awarded the project an Educational Development grant (2000-2003). We seek to compile primary materials, explanatory and contextual notes, and teaching resources.

This, the first of three components, deals with the 1850s. Future additions will focus upon the 1920s and the 1770s. Each will use the question of American nationality as an organizing principle. In the 1770s the question took the form of whether there would be an independent America. In the 1850s it became a matter of whether there would be a single America. In the 1920s cultural, ethnic, religious, and political tensions, complicated by a generational divide, led to attempts to define and then impose "100% Americanism."

In putting this archive together we have sought to cast our net widely but not indiscriminately. For the 1850s we have chosen two themes. First is the centrality of oratory to nineteenth-century American public life. Second is the centrality of reform to American efforts to fulfill what they believed was their national destiny.

As to the first, Lincoln and his contemporaries regarded oratory as among the very highest of the arts. The "godlike" Daniel Webster earned that epithet for his public speaking, not for his success in the Department of State or as a legislator. Frederick Douglass's prowress on the platform was itself the strongest argument for racial equality. So too with Lucy Stone and woman's rights. [Below is an illustration of the disruption of an anti-slavery meeting in Faneuil Hall in Boston, 1860]

As Lucia Knoles demonstrates, Americans were a nation of orators. They memorized and recited speeches, complete with appropriate gestures, as schoolchildren. As young people and adults they flocked to lyceums, followed the great debates (Webster-Haynes, Lincoln-Douglas) in the newspapers which printed the speeches verbatim, made a point of visiting the churches of famous preachers when travelling, and devoured novels -- such as Uncle Tom's Cabin -- which incorporated speeches and sermons. Whitman turned declamation into a verse style he claimed, with considerable reason, to be uniquely American.

Knoles provides a range of tools for scholars and students alike, starting with an introduction to how nineteenth-century Americans thought about oratory. She shows the important influence of the Scotting Enlightenment of the eighteenth century in this regard. She analyzes textbooks and collections of speeches children studied, practiced at home, and recited in school assemblies. By far the most important of these was the Columbian Orator whose most impressive student was Frederick Douglass.

Historians have always paid attention to speeches, but not to the theory of oratory nineteenth-centry Americans espoused. The aim of the orator, they believed, was to appeal both to the intellect and to the emotions so as to move the listener to action. John Gough, for example, convinced thousands to take the pledge in the 1840s and 1850s by his powerful retellings of his own battles with Demon Rum. Charles Granison Finney, the leading preacher of the Second Great Awakening, claimed that the minister's sole task was to promote revivals. His sermons should be like the closing arguments of the trial lawyer (Finney's own profession before his conversion). He should convince the congregration of their own sinfulness by marshalling the evidence. He should then appeal to their emotions by holding out the prospect of forgiveness. Effective revival sermons led to conversions. Sinners walked to the "anxious bench" and testified then and there to their sins and their redemption. Ralph Waldo Emerson, who left the pulpit for the lecture hall, claimed that the object of good preaching was to "convert life into truth."

Scholars in American Studies and American Literature have usually ignored these speeches. Yet nineteenth-century Americans, male and female, white and black, considered oratory at least as important a literary form as the novel. Indeed, except for Harriet Beecher Stowe's highly rhetorical Uncle Tom's Cabin, no novel could possess the power of speech since none could directly inspire action. Where is the work of literary criticism which recognizes this? No anthology of American literature, books famous for their girth, includes classic speeches. Louis Perry's "The Rhetoric of Abuse" aside, where is the American Studies article which examines how speakers used rhetoric to influence events? Women's Studies scholars, for their part, ignore the sources of early woman's rights oratory even as they write about Lucy Stone and Ernestine Rose.

Historians, literary critics, and American Studies scholars can all benefit from the new perspective Knoles opens. Consider Frederick Douglass' Narrative of the Life of an American Slave, a work all use. It began, not as a memoir, but as a series of speeches. Douglass polished the Narrative over several years by recounting his experiences before increasingly receptive audiences. He had told his story countless times before committing it to print. This is common knowledge. But what have we done with it? Have we looked at how the canons of American public speaking influenced Douglass' telling of his story?

Consider Uncle Tom's Cabin, the longest and most powerful sermon in American history. Harriet Beecher Stowe spent her life among ministers -- father, brothers, husband. One hesitates to guess how many sermons she had heard by the time she took pen in hand. Yet who takes this influence seriously, either in analyzing the novel itself or its staggering impact upon contemporaries.

Consider, finally, Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, the most powerful example of oratory as art of the entire century. In tone and content, it is a sermon. The war is God's judgment upon white Americans, North and South, for the national sin of slavery. Its immense cost is divine retribution. Every drop of blood drawn by the lash had to be repaid on the battlefield. Since northerners and southerners were both sinners, he called upon all to rebuild the nation "with malice toward none, with charity toward all."

Knoles' work informs this entire site. This is obvious in the section on oratory, the archive of speeches, the pages on the Lyceum movement. It is equally true of the rest of our work. The closing argument of Daniel Sickles' lawyer in his 1859 murder trial, the nineteenth century's "trial of the century," is essential to understanding the jury's verdict to acquit. The Fourth of July oration of Charles Robinson to the Free Soil settlers of Kansas in 1855 is crucial to grasping why they decided to launch their own territorial government. In the same way, the speeches of the temperance reformers and woman's rights activists are fundamental to grasping their movements. Even McClymer's extended treatment of the rise of spiritualism in the decade focuses upon the most famous and influential medium of the day, the teenage Cora L. V. Hatch, the "trance speaker."

Our other focus is upon reform and its complex relationship with the question of nationality. McClymer's essay, "A Frame for Understanding the 1850s," offers a rationale for how we have approached this topic. It differs from that taken by most historians who treat reform as arising independently of sectional tensions and then see it as being overwhelmed by the politics of secession. Reform, however, was itself a sectional phenomenon. It arose and flourished in the North. More specifically, it expressed several overlapping, sometimes contradictory, visions of America's national destiny. As a direct result, some reform movements intentionally exaccerbated sectional rivalries.

McClymer begins with a reflection of Alexis deTocqueville that men do not form societies out of mutual interest or a rational assessment of costs and benefits. If they did act on that basis, he pointed out, wars would be virtually unknown, Society requires similar habits of mind, customs, prejudices, and a sense of common destiny. All of this was an implicit criticism of Locke's "Second Essay on Civil Government," a text which Americans considered canonical. Not only had the founding fathers followed Locke in making nationality consensual and limited, they had explicitly banned the national government from encouraging the sorts of bonds, beginning with religion, Tocqueville thought essential.

As the pace of westward expansion accelerated, as the increasing value of cotton and slaves in the South and the process of industrialization and urbanization in the North led the sections down increasingly divergent paths of development, as immigrants from Germany and Ireland rapidly became important components of the northern population, more and more groups sought to define an American nationality congruent with their vision of America's national destiny. to be an American, it was not enough, these reformers believed, to obey the laws and pay taxes. Some wanted to create a non-denominational Protestant religious establishment. Others wanted to bring about a "revived" nation. Others chose particular sins for extirpation, most notably slavery and drinking alcohol. Reform, in short, was a major arena in which battles over nationality took place.

Some reformers relied upon "moral suasion." The Washingtonians, a society of reformed "drunkards," sought to persuade others to join their ranks. The Home Missionary Society sent out ministers to convert sinners. Volunteers for the American Tract Society handed out pamphlets and leaflets. Others found "moral suasion" ineffective. By the early 1850s, for example, most temperance advocates had endorsed the Maine Law, the nation's first prohibition measure, and state after state across the North and West passed bills modelled upon it.

This is a definition of "reform" which some may find disconcerting. It includes woman's rights advocates and abolitionists but also supporters of the Maine Law. It follows Tyler Anbinder in considering that the appeal of the Know Nothings to the average voter was that it was a more effective and more reliable vehicle for reform. It places temperance at the center of reform, a position rarely granted it, even though most historians will concede that, as a matter of fact, the campaign against alcohol was the largest, most influential, and longest-lasting of all the nineteenth-century reforms. Giving temperance its due, particularly the prohibition campaign of the 1850s, pays large dividends. McClymer argues in his "Narrative Guide to the Origins of the Woman's Rights Movement" that temperance was just as crucial in shaping that crusade as was anti-slavery.

No two themes, no matter how suggestive, can exhaust the reality of the 1850s. So we have also tried to suggest the great richness and diversity of the period. We look at education, the laying of the Atlantic Cable, details of daily life, children's literature, fashion, song, and much else including "true crime." And we welcome suggestions for further additions.

What will you find here?

  • Two extended scholarly investigations, one by Lucia Knoles on oratory and the other by John McClymer on "understanding" the 1850s
  • Archives of speeches and books available here and elsewhere, including featured works on key topics
  • Student projects, undertaken by Assumption College undergraduates, on a variety of subjects
  • "True Crimes" -- a set of murder stories that provide unique points of entry into the times
  • "Representative Lives" -- biographical treatments of figures, such as the Rev. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, whose lives reflected some of the major currents of the age
  • "Narrative Guides" to online sources for major issues and developments, such as woman's rights, abolition, Irish immigration, and "Bleeding Kansas"
  • "Approaches to Understanding the Public Career of Cora L. V. Hatch," a collection of highly diverse materials which examines the contexts in which spiritualism emerged and in which the first American-born female celebrity invented a career
  • Teaching materials, such as lesson plans keyed to grade and ability levels, prepared by Dr. Arnold Pulda of the Worcester Public Schools and the New Media Classroom

Home Page

Introduction to
the 1850s

"Representative" 1850s
Americans and Issues

1850s American


1850s E-Text


Inquiries and

The E Pluribus Unum Project is funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and directed by Dr. John McClymer (Department of History), and Dr. Lucia Knoles (Department of English) of Assumption College. Visitors are encouraged to send inquiries or suggestions.