The Influence of
The Columbian Orator

 E Pluribus Unum

 
 

Although it first appeared in 1797, The Columbian Orator was widely used in American schoolrooms in the first quarter of the nineteenth century to teach reading and speaking. Many of the speeches included in the anthology celebrated "republican" virtues and promoted patriotism, and this was typical of many readers of that period. TheThe Columbian Orator was edited by Caleb Bingham, who also wrote The American Preceptor. Frequently reprinted throughout the nineteenth century, new editions of The Columbian Orator continue to be sold today.

 

The Columbian Orator

The Complete Text of an 1832 publication of Caleb Bingham's The Columbian Orator at the 19th Century Schoolbook Collection of the University of Pittsburgh's Digital Library, a remarkably rich resource.

An "Extract From an Oration on Eloquence Pronounced at Harvard University, on Commencement Day, 1794," published in the 1858 edition of The Columbian Orator

 

Selected Scanned Images:

the frontispiece;
the preface;
the first page of the table of contents.

 

Douglass, Frederick, My Bondage and My Freedom ,1857. An excerpt:

When I was about thirteen years old, and had succeeded in learning to read, every increase of knowledge, especially respecting the FREE STATEs, added something to the almost intolerable burden of the thought-" I AM A SLAVE FOR LIFE." To my bondage I saw no end. It was a terrible reality, and I shall never be able to tell how sadly that thought chafed my young spirit. Fortunately, or unfortunately, about this time in my life, I had made enough money to buy what was then a very popular school book, viz: the "Columbian Orator." I bought this addition to my library, of Mr. Knight, on Thames street, Fell's Point, Baltimore, and paid him fifty cents for it. I was first led to buy this book, by hearing some little boys say that they were going to learn some little pieces out of it for the Exhibition. This volume was, indeed, a rich treasure, and every opportunity afforded me, for a time, was spent in diligently perusing it. Among much other interesting matter, that which I had perused and reperused with unfiago ging satisfaction, was a short dialogue between a master and his slave. The slave is represented as having been recaptured, in a second attempt torun away; and the master opens the dialogue with an upbraiding speech, charging the slave with ingratitude, and de manding to know what he has to say in his own de fense. Thus upbraided, and thus called upon to re ply, the slave rejoins, that he knows how little any thing that he can say will avail, seeing that he is completely in the hands of his owner; and with noble resolution, calmly says, "I submit to my fate." Touched by the slave's answer, the master insists upon his further speaking, and recapitulates the many acts of kindness which he has performed toward the slave, and tells him he is permitted to speak for himself. Thus invited to the debate, the quondam slave made a spirited defense of himself, and thereafter the whole argument, for and against slavery, was brought out. The master was vanquished at every turn in the argn ment; and seeing himself to be thus vanquished, he generously and meekly emancipates the slave, with his best wishes for his prosperity. It is scarcely neccessary to say, that a dialogue, with such an origin, and such an ending-read when the fact of my being a slave was a constant burden of grief-powerfully affected me; and I could not help feeling that the day might come, when the well-directed answers made by the slave to the master, in this instance, would find their counterpart in myself.

This, however, was not all the fanaticism which I found in this Columbian Orator. I met there one of Sheridan's mighty speeches, on the subject of Catholic Emancipation, Lord Chatham's speech on the American war, and speeches by the great William Pitt and by Fox. These were all choice documents to me, and I read them, over and over again, with an interest that was ever increasing, because it was ever gaining in intelligence; for the more I read them, the better I understood them.? The reading of these speeches added much to my limited stock of language, and enabled me to give tongue to many interesting thoughts, which had frequently flashed through my soul, and died away for want of utterance. The mighty power and heart-searching directness of truth, penetrating even the heart of a slaveholder, compelling him to yield up his earthly interests to the claimns of eternal justice, were finely illustrated in the dialogue, just referred to; and from the speeches of Sheridan, I got a bold and powerful denunciation of oppression, and a most brilliant vindication of the rights of man. Here was, indeed, a noble acquisition. If I ever wavered under the consideration, that the A1 mighty, in some way, ordained slavery, and willed my enslavement for his own glory, I wavered no longer. I had now penetrated the secret of all slavery and oppression, and had ascertained their true foundation to be in the pride, the power and the avarice of man. The dialogue and the speeches were all redolent of the principles of liberty, and poured floods of light on the nature and character of slavery. With a book of this kind in my hand, my own human nature, and the facts of my experience, to help me, I was equal to a contest with the religious advocates of slavery, whether among the whites or among the colored people, for blindness, in this matter, is not confined to the former. I have met many religious colored people, at the south, who are under the delusion that God requires them to submit to slavery, and to wear their chains with meekness and humility. I could entertain no such nonsense as this; and I almost lost my patience when I found any colored man weak enough to believe such stuff. Nevertheless, the increase of knowledge was attended with bitter, as well as sweet results. The more I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest slavery, and my enslavers. "Slaveholders," thought I," are only a band of sue cessful robbers, who left their homes and went into Africa for the purpose of stealing and reducing nmy people to slavery." I loathed them as the meanest and the most wicked of men. As I read, behold! the very discontent so graphically predicted by Master Hugh, had already come upon me. I was no longer the light-hearted, gleesome boy, full of mirth and play, as when I landed first at Baltimore. Knowledge had come; light had penetrated the moral dungeon where I dwelt; and, behold! there lay the bloody whip, for my back, and here was the iron chain; and my good, kind iaster, he was the author of my situation. The revelation haunted me, stung me, and made me gloomy and miserable. As I writhed under the sting and torment of this knowledge, I almost envied my fellow slaves their stupid contentment. This knowledge opened my eyes to the horrible pit, and revealed the teeth of the frightful dragon that was ready to pounce upon me, but it opened no way for my escape. I have often wished myself a beast, or a birdanything, rather than a slave. I was wretched and gloomy, beyond my ability to describe. I was too thoughtful to be happy. Itwas this everlasting thinking which distressed and tormented me; and yet there was no getting rid of the subject of my thoughts. All nature was redolent of it. Once awakened by the silver trump of knowledge, my spirit was roused to eternal wakefulness. Liberty! the inestimable birthright of every man, had, for me, converted every object into an asserter of this great right. It was heard in every sound, and beheld in every object. It was ever present, to torment me with a sense of my wretched condition. The more beautiful and charming were the smiles of nature, the more horrible and desolate was my condition. I saw nothing without seeing it, and I heard nothing without hearing it. I do not exagg,erate, when I say, that it looked from every star, smiled in every calmn, breathed in every wind, and moved in every storm. (pp. 156--159)

 


Southern Slavery and Its Assailants by a Lady of Georgia, pp 46-62

The influence of her book [Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin] at the South is evil, and evil only. As far as she is fair in her revelation of injustice, she tells these enlightened slaveholders nothing. They know and would remedy these things already. They do not say much, because they see it is the clamor otalkers, which has prevented justice being done ere this. They do sigh for the poor negro, ground between the upper and nether millstone of abolition excitement, and pro-slavery excitement, while the noise prevents their voices from being heard, if they spoke for him. Mrs. Stowe represents us as trying to stop the discussion of slavery. The question has been discussed, and we have made up our minds about it; and because our decision does not suit abolitionists, they clamor that we wish to restrain the discussion. The history of the Southern States, since the revolution, embodies the history of that discussion, and its results; and in it we can directly trace this influence of abolition of which we have spoken. For the colonial enactments of the Slave Code, which are marked by great severity, the British government must be held responsible; for the governor and council, or upper house of the legislature which enacted them, were appointed directly by the king; while the lower house was influenced by him, by his power of appointing tests of eligibility to office in it. The acts punishing a white man who murdered a negro by disfranchisement and fine only, and so designed chiefly for the benefit of masters, passed in South Carolina in 17407 and in North Carolina, in 1774, (Mrs. Stowe's Key). The fifteen-hour work rule in South Carolina, so ridiculed by Mrs. Stowe, was passed 1740, (Key). In Georgia, in HIotchkiss's Statute Book, we find acts punishing by death, for the second offence, a negro who struck a white person; acts preventing free negroes and slaves from renting houses, and prohibiting the meetings of negroes, all dated 1740.

When our English brethren are horrified at Mrs. Stowe's account of the Slave Code, they would do well to recollect their own government laid the foundation of it, in greater severity than any of the acts of our legislatures. When Mrs. Stowe calls upon Englishmen to mock at southern justice, because in Mississippi, in the nineteenth century) it has been "triumphantly made to appear that the slave is a human beings" we would remind them, that the fact that it can be at all argued that he is not, arises from the savage spirit of the colonial code, bequeathed to us by the British government, and that it can be triumphantly made to appear that he is, arises from our own more humane enactments modifying that code. And yet, she says she does not confound us with the system. She must think us extremely gullible-. About the time of our revolution, by Mrs. Stowe's own showing, great moderation of opinion prevailed at the South, and by permitting the expression of the most extreme opinions, we gave evidence of considering the subject an open one. Tile opinions of Washington, Jefferson, and Patrick Henry, as quoted by Mrs. Stowe, evidence this. Evidently, some of us thought, in the first flush of our freedom, that all men were fitted for republican government. France and Mexico have since taught us that even some highly civilized white races are not. It was during this period of moderation, that most of the slave states placed the murder of a white man and a negro on the same footing. The State of Georgia, on the adoption of the Constitution in 1798, expressed her view of this subject by putting it on the strong ground of constitutional enactment, that "the person who shall wilfully dismember, or deprive of life any ,slave, shall buffer the samne punishment as would be inflicted in case the like offence had been committed on a free white person, and on like proof," &c. That our ancestors did not thoroughly revise the old colonial code, and test the extreme point to which leniency is consistent with slavery, appears to result from their considering emancipation.an open question. That we did permit the discussion, appears, on Mrs. Stowe's showing, from the fact that the Methodist denomination, in 1784) and the Presbyterian in 1818, adopted views in their formuiaries which were the quintessence of abolition; and it not only did not cause separation, but seems to have caused no remonstrance from the southern branches of those religious bodies. The ordinance of 1787, whose adoption essentially in the Wilmot Proviso nearly dissolved the Union, passed without disturbancea At one time, (vide Key,) the States of Kentucky, Virginia, and Maryland, came very near abolishing slavery. Doubtless the perpetual irritation engendered by abolitionists, in enticing fugitive slaves from these border states, helped somewhat to incline them to the decision of the danger of emancipation.

Mrs. Stowe gives an anecdote of the Columbian Orator and Fred. Douglas. The fact that a school book was once tolerated,. containing a dialogue between master and slave, on emancipation, which is made to terminate in the slave's convincing his master, and obtaining freedom from. him, proves that we have tolerated discussion. The book was in truth almost the only book of speeches for schooI-boys, used at the South for a long period, and the writer well remembers, when a child, finding among old books in a closet, a copy of this very Columbian Orator, which bore dog-eared traces of a whole generation of uncles, who had successively conned it. The books now usedT by the descendants of those who studied the Columbian Orator, show plainly that a great change has come over public opinion. They contain speeches against abolition. The writer eas frequently heard persons in Georgia, not over fifty years of age, say they remembered when at school-boy examinations, speeches against slavery were not uncommon, and it was a frequent subject of discussion in school-boy debating societies. The same persons recollect frequently to have heard people wish there never had been a slave in the country; and also relate, that some popular clergymen of the day never concealed the scruples which prevented their owning slaves. A friend who lives in one of the largest slaveholding counties in Georgia, procured for the writer the following lines, which many years ago were long given as a standing Fourth of July toast, by a slaveholder, owning more than a hundred slaves:

Health to the sick, honor to the brave,
  Success to the lover, freedom to the slave.


Sufficient proof, we think, has been given that we have permitted the discussion. Let us now consider the influence our northern brethren have had on the discussion. In Garland'sLife of John Randolph, of Roanoke, vol. 2, page 133, Randolph, who all his life was in favor of emancipation, and did finally emancipate his own slaves, says, "These Yankees have almost reconciled me to slavery. They have produced a revulsion y,. even on my mind; what then must be the effect on those who had no scruples on the subject? I am persuaded, that the cause of humanity to these unfortunates has been put back a century, certainly a generation, by the unprincipled conduct of ambiti ous men." That the spirit of abolitionism at the North has grown with the growth of our country, is notorious. The first spirit of intermeddling politically with our institutions began in the time of the Missouri Compromise, in 1819, 20, and 21. It mingled with the tariff question in 1830,'31, and'32, making every one fear a dissolution of the Union, until at the time of the admission of Texas and California into the United States, we see a great increase of its violence.

 

Greeley, Horace, Recollections of a busy life: including reminiscences of American politics and politians, from the opening of the Missouri contest to the downfall of slavery; to which are added miscellanies ... also, a discussion with Robert Dale Owen of the law of divorce, 1869. An excerpt:

"The first book I ever owned was "The Columbian Orator," given to me by my uncle Perry (husband of my father's oldest sister), as I lay very sick of the measles at my maternal grandfather's, when about four years of age. Those who happen to have been familiar, in its day, with that volume, will recollect it as a medley of dialogues, extracts from orations, from sermons, from speeches in Parliament, in Congress, and at the Bar, with two or three versified themes for declamation, such as "Columbia, Columbia, to glory arise!" and the lines (since attributed to Edward Everett,) but who must have written them very young, if he wrote them at all) beginning, "You'd scarce expect one of my age to speak in public on the stage," - lines which I was dragged forward to recite incessantly, till I fairly loathed them.' This " Orator" was my prized text-book for years, and I became thoroughly familiar with its contents; though I cannot say that I ever learned much of value from it, - certainly not oratory." (pages 85-86)

 

Comments from Henry Gates, Jr. and other prominent scholars on the Lasting Influence of The Columbian Orator---available on the web page promoting the NYU Press edition of The Columbian Orator.

The Columbian Orartor is also available from Kessinger Publishing, who display the first ten pages of the text on their web-site. Amazon.com sells an edition produced by Val J. Halamandaris, which also includes supplemental speeches from other periods in history.

 

 

 
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The E Pluribus Unum Project is funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. It is co-directed by Dr. John McClymer, Professor of History, Assumption College; Dr Lucia Knoles, Professor of English, Assumption College; and Dr. Arnold Pulda, Director of Gifted and Talented student programs for the public schools in Worcester, MA. Visitors are encouraged to send inquiries or suggestions.