Public Speaking in an Outspoken Age:
Oratory in 19th Century America

E Pluribus Unum






Public speaking was an important part of life in 19th century America. Whether you wanted to win an election, win support for a reform movement, or become a successful minister, you needed to learn how to deliver crowd-pleasing speeches. Candidates for office debated one another. Evangelical ministers hoping to win people to their denominations could often use rousing sermons to attract large crowds to their revival meetings. In the same period, the local lyceums and other organizations provided an important source of education and entertainment for people of all classes by bringing national celebrities into cities and small towns across America. As Gilman Ostrander writes in his book, Republic of Letters: The American Intellectual Community, 1775-1865:

Oratory was a lawyerly skill that boasted a tradition as venerable as the law itself, extending from Demosthenes to Daniel Webster. From medieval universities to nineteenth-century liberal arts colleges, orations remained an essential part of higher education, and forensic eloquence remained the mark of a cultivated man. Patrick Henry rose to the head of the Virginia bar chiefly on the basis of his forensic ability, being admittedly unqualified for practice so far as his technical knowledge of the law was concerned. The Olympian prestige and appeal of oratory in the ages of Patrick Henry and Daniel Webster is hard to appreciate in our present age of mass media, but in med-nineteenth century America, Emerson observed that "The highest bribes of society are all at the feet of the successful orator. . . . All other fame must hush before his. He is the true potentate." (p. 104).

The ability to play an effective role in discussions of local importance (such as whether to build a town library) or to speak persuasively in debates over national issues (such as the dispute over slavery) could even contribute to the standing of a private citizen in his or her community. Along with print, oratory was an essential part of public life. It was how the business of public life got done.

George Caleb Bingham, "Stump Speaking, or, the County Canvass," 1853-54
As you will notice, the crowd is made up of a mixture of men, women, and children representing a variety of clases.

Although it might seem surprising, many of the theories that shaped nineteenth century American oratory were taken from two eighteenth century rhetoric texts written by Scotsmen: The Philosophy of Rhetoric (1776), by George Campbell, and Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, Up until the late eighteenth century, most thinking about rhetoric was based on the ideas of Aristotle, who offered the formal rules of logic as a means by which one could deduce truth. As products of the Scottish Enlightenment, Campbell and Blair rejected those rules, believing instead that human beings discover truth through experience and can only communicate it by recreating that experience in the minds of their listeners. According to this "common sense" approach, the rhetorician was expected to develop his or her own understanding by reflecting on experience, and then explain those ideas to the audience by appealing to the faculties of mind, which included both understanding and imagination. This helps to explain why nineteenth century American orators so often told stories of their experiences or created "word pictures" in order to communicate their ideas to the members of the audience. (In fact, if you listen to the speeches made by twentieth century American political candidates, you will realize that these techniques are still in use today.) According to this system of thinking, the true purpose of rhetoric was not merely to entertain but to persuade listeners to take action towards a noble end. A good speaker was therefore also expected to motivate the listeners to act by appealing to the passions, and encourage them to adopt a particular course of action by appealing to their wills.

If someone asked you to deliver a speech with a "businesslike air" in a highly emotional fashion, you would probably be perplexed. Yet, that is precisely what you would have to do if you were delivering a lecture or participating in a debate before an audience in 19th century America. If you wanted to win over your listeners, you would probably also offer several kinds of evidence, in order to appeal to your audience's intelligence and to their imaginations. Picture the kinds of larger-than-life lawyers who populate the courtrooms in movies or televised trials. They try to seem reasonable and down to earth while also doing everything they can to stir up the emotions of the jury. They use their closing arguments to describe the details of the scientific and factual evidence, while also imaginatively recreating the "night of the crime." They want to be sure that the members of the jury identify emotionally with the victim--or the accused-- and that they have "reasonable evidence" to justify a decision in favor of the person with whom they have identified. If you can picture that kind of lawyer, you can begin to understand what a nineteenth century orator might have been like.

Today's audiences typically expect celebrities to speak in a way that seems "natural." The desire of people to feel that they are seeing a "real person" giving a glimpse of his or her "true self" leads political candidates to speak informally in casual settings wearing shirts with the top button unbuttoned. While all this is going on, of course, what the audience is usually seeing is a carefully planned performance.

Audiences in the 19th century, on the other hand, would have expected orators to seem larger than life. Orators were the celebrities of that day, and oration provided an important source of entertainment in a world without radio, television, or moview. Speeches, debates and sermons often attracted large crowds, and every occasion required one or more speeches. The fried chicken you ate at a Fourth of July celebration would hardly have tasted right unless it was accompanied by one or two patriotic addresses by local celebrities. The 1863 poster at the right, lists several orations as part of the program for the day's festivities. (By clicking on the image, you can choose to view a larger version and take a Virtual Visit to 4th of July Orations Exhibit at the New York State Library.)

Detailed accounts of speeches often appeared in newspapers, speeches were frequently published in pamphlet form, and books offering a "behind-the-scenes look" at famous orators were very popular. Note the reporter taking notes as he sits behind the speaker in this detail from "The Stump Orator."

George Caleb Bingham, "Stump Speaking, or, the County Canvass," 1853-54.

How did people learn to master the art of rhetoric? Young men often joined libraries or lyceums which sponsored debating societies in order to hone their skills. People used books such as Luther Cushing's 1854 Manual of Parliamentary Practice to learn how to run and participate in deliberative assemblies. However, many people would have received their first training in speaking in the schoolroom, where anthologies of speeches were used to teach children reading, speaking, and patriotic values all at the same time.

Despite their importance in their own time, nineteenth century speakers and their speeches are largely neglected today for a number of reasons. Some of the best orations of the day were not published--or even written down. In addition, since much of the power of a speech derives from its delivery, orations lose much of their power as the human voice fades away. One vanished voice of the mid-nineteenth century is Father Taylor, the once-celebrated minister of the Seamen's Bethel in Boston. Everyone from Charles Dickens to Jenny Lind crowded into the pews intended for sailors, eager to hear Taylor's praching. Walt Whitman, one of Taylors many fans, wrote in "Father Taylor (and Oratory)": " I never had anything in the way of vocal utterance to shake me through and through, and become fix’d, with its accompaniments, in my memory, like those prayers and sermons—like Father Taylor’s personal electricity . . ." Yet, just a few years after his death, Whitman lamented that Taylor's "name is now comparatively unknown, outside of Boston—and even there, (though Dickens, Mr. Jameson, Dr. Bartol and Bishop Haven have commemorated him,) is mostly but a reminiscence As St. George Tucker observed in 1813: ."Orators "sink into immediate oblivion. . . . The truth is that Socrates himself would passed unnoticed and forgotten in Virginia, if he were not a public character, and some of his speeches preserved in a newspaper; the latter might keep his memory alive for a year or two, but not much longer."

Nineteenth century speakers went to the platform--and the pulpit--to entertain, to educate, to experiment with ideas, to test drafts of literary works in progress, to gain votes, to persuade, to lead. And across the country, lecture halls, lyceums, and churches were filled by people who wished to be educated and entertained, and also to become active participants in the major decisions and events of their day. If we wish to understand those people and that time, it is important for us to try to recover the "the trute potentate(s)" of the period.


Below you will find excerpts from Campbell's and Blair's classic works, selected texts on rhetoric published in America in the nineteenth century, and compilations of speeches that were used for the study of elocution and rhetoric. Also included is an excerpt from a book for young men, The Bobbin Boy: or, How Nat Got An Education. The story illustrates the importance placed on learning to become a successful speaker--particularly for young men interested in "rising" in life. Finally, you will find links to descriptions of several widely celebrated orators and a selection of speeches from the period. You can use those texts to determine the extent to which the theories of Blair and Campbell were actually applied by the famous speakers of that day, and to learn more about how oratory reflected--and contributed to--American life in the nineteenth century.

The Philosophy of Rhetoric, George Campbell, (1776)

This "On-line Study Edition" of Campbell's "Rhetoric" edited by H. Lewis Ulman and Robert Graves allows you to read both the original text and annotations offered by twentieth century readers. If you would like to read a "slide show" outline of the key principles of Campbell's theory, see Rhetoric in Western Thought posted by Arne G'Schwind of Colorado State University's Department of Speech Communication.

The Arte of Rhetorique, Thomas Wilson, 1560

If you want to read what was probably the first rhetoric textbook published in English, you can find it at this University of Oregon site.

Bibliography on 19th Century Rhetoric

Anyone interested in doing further research into the theory and practice of rhetoric 19th century should find this annotated bibliography valuable. This page is part of a site called Rhetoric Notes which offers a serious look at the subject of rhetoric. It includes a Rhetoric Reading List, a bibliography on The Rhetorical Situation, comments on Rhetorical Concepts and Issues in Rhetoric.

"My Books. No. XII. The Columbian Orator," The New England Magazine, October 1834, pp. 309-316

It was not unusual in the 19th century for an individual to write a reminiscence of a particular book that affected his life. The author of this humorous essay describes how he became spoiled by flattery when The Columbian Orator inspired him to become a juvenile orator.

"American Eloquence," 1854

This essay from The United States Democratic Review describes and evaluates prominent characteristics of American orators including their "fervor," appeals to emotion, "strong common sense" and "frank, open, business-like air." The subject is a particularly important one, according to the author, because "The eyes of the whole civilized world are upon us." Here is a brief excerpt:

American eloquence is directed chiefly to the feelings of those to whom it is addressed and to the sense of national honor. The strongest and noblest sentiments in man to which the appeals of eloquence can be addressed are, first, the sense of right and wrong, and next, the love of country and of kindred. . . .. Powerful and effective eloquence has always been and always must be addressed, mainly, to the passions or feelings in man's heart. What could all the metaphysical subtleties of Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus effect, in impelling men to action, or in accomplishing any great and grand end, when compared with that warm, gusing eloquence, coming from the heart, and going to the heart? We care not how powerfully the intellect is addressed and stimulated, enlightened and convinced, by argument. But let us remember, the work is not effectually done, the grand end and aim of eloquence is not attained, till the consenting sympathies of the inner man of the heart are touched, roused, and brought into action. True eloquence--effective, useful eloquence--must appeal to the heart, through the understanding and the conscience. It must open the floodgates of sensibility within us, and thus bring into exercise our active powers for the promoting of good or the preventing of evil, or else, its real power and utility will be of a very small amount. And such, we think, in a very grand degree, is the character of American eloquence.


Moore, Frank, "American Eloquence: a Collection of Speeches and Addresses by the most Eminent Orators of America," The North American Review, Volume 86, Issue 179, April, 1858


Wills, Gary, excerpt from Lincoln at Gettysburg, the Words that Remade America, 1992, and "Lincoln's Greatest Speech?," The Atlantic Monthly [Digital Edition], Septemer, 1999 [For other essays on Lincoln, see these Articles about Abraham Lincoln in The Atlantic Monthly.]


Arguing the Point

This exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York uses Currier & Ives Prints to document the political strife of the ante-bellum period. The print, "Arguing the Point," shows three backwoodsmen deeply engaged in discussion and illustrates the fact that it was not only statesmen and reformers who participated in political debates.



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