Oratory in the 19th Century Schoolroom

E Pluribus Unum


Because oratory was considered an important part of 19th century American life, even very young children were expected to read, memorize, and delivery speeches as part of their education.
Schoolchildren were expected to study speeches as a way of learning how to read, write, and speak These anthologies also were used to instill patriotic beliefs and American values in their readers.

On school exhibition days or on special occasions such as the fourth of July, children were often expected to recite or deliver inspirational speeches

In this picture "Ceremonial at a Young Ladies' Academy" from 1910, we can see a young woman exhibiting her skills at a school event by doing a reading (or perhaps even delivering a speech).

Most readers for schoolchildren provided instructions on such matters as elocution and articulation as well as a selection of speeches. Many of the orations anthologized often with patriotic or moral messages, as you can see from these examples:


Assessing the value of one reader, a reviewer wrote:

On the whole, the hackneyed phrase that "no library should be without them" will apply with more force and truth to these volumes than any we have seen for years. Placed in the hands of every youth--more especially of those designed for public life--they will stimulate a noble ambition, and teach the best means of attaining a solid influence and reputation;--whie the wisest of thepresent day may study them as models to be imitated, and drink fresh wisdom from those fountains where the well-springs of true oratory have been unsealed. --Review published in The North American Review, April 1858 of American Eloquence

The value of learning to speak effectively was also impressed on children through magazines and books. Both the contents listed on the cover The Schoolmate from 1852 and the images document the fact that learning to give speeches was a normal part of life for even fairly small children.

To see more covers like these, visit "A Small Gallery of Magazine Covers," at Pat Pflieger's site on "Nineteenth Century Children and What They Read."







A particularly good illustration of the importance assigned to mastering oratorical skills can be found in William Makepeace Thayer's novel, The Bobbin Boy. This children's book tells the story of a boy who uses his oratorical
skills to rise out of poverty. The same lesson is communicated by Frederick Douglass in My Bondage and My Freedom; Douglass achieved prominence as an antislavery speaker after educating himself using a copy of The Columbian Orator, a reader widely used in the early part of the century.

Below you will find a collection of "readers" that were used in nineteenth century American schoolrooms and links to sites with resources related to this topic.


The links below will lead you to books that are part of extremely useful 19th Century Schoolbooks: A Demonstration Project by the Digital Research Library, University Library System, University of Pittsburgh.

The National Reader: A Selection of Easy Lessons, John Pierpont,1835.

McGuffey's new sixth eclectic reader : exercises in rhetorical reading, with introductory rules and examples by Wm. H. McGuffey, 1857.

The Progressive Pictorial Primer, by an Eminent Practical Teacher,1857.

The Progressive Third Reader, for Public and Private Schools : Containing the Elementary Principles of Elocution, by Salem Town and Nelson M. Holbrook, c1857. Date of the edition available at the site is clearly later than the date assigned as the text includes Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address.)

Osgood's Progressive Fifth reader : Embracing a System of Instruction in the Principles of Elocution, and Selections for Reading and Speaking from the Best English and American authors, Lucius Osgood, 1858.


The texts listed below are part of the wonderful Making of America Collection at Cornell and MOA at the University of Michigan.

Advertisements for Elocution Books, Rhetorics, and Readers--Backmatter of 1851 edition of Tocqueville's American Institutions and Their Influence (p. 38)

Review published in The United States Democratic Review, January 1858, of American Eloquence. A Collection of Speeches and Addresses by the most eminent Orators of America; with Biographical Sketches and Illustrative Notes

Review published in The North American Review, April 1858 of American Eloquence

For additional information on children's books and reading, see:

19th Century Schoolbooks: A Demonstration Project by the Digital Research Library, University of Pittsburgh.

History of Children's Literature, by Kay E. Vandergrift

World of the Child, An Exhibition at the Hugh M. Morris Library University of Delaware Library

Nineteenth Century Children & What They Read,

Children & Media: History of Children's Books an Other Media


 Oratory in 19th Century America Rhetoric books and Schoolbooks The Influence of The Columbian Orator  An Archive of Speeches
Responses to Orators and Orations The Debate over Rhetoric and Reform Classroom Projects  Project Home Page