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
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
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
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."
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
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
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
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"
- 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
- 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