How 19th Century Americans
Responded to Orators and Oratory

E Pluribus Unum

 

Imagining 19th Century Speakers in the 21st Century

If someone asked you to deliver a speech with a "business-like 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. If you are having difficulty imagining how that combination of techniques might work together, just picture the kinds of legendary lawyers who you have seen in movies or televised trials. Think about the ways in which they try to seem reasonable and down to earth while also doing everything they can to stir up the emotions of the jury. Think about the ways in which they use their closing arguments to describe the details of the scientific and factual evidence, while also imaginatively recreate the "night of the crime." They want to be sure that the members of the jury identify emotionally with the victim--or the accused--that they can imagine themselves in the place of that person, and that they have "reasonable evidence" to justify their decision. If you can picture that kind of lawyer, you can begin to understand what a nineteenth century orator might have been like.

Living in a media age, audiences typically expect celebrities to speak in a way that seems "natural." In other words, we like to have the feeling that we are seeing a "real" person using a normal tone of voice and natural gestures to offer a "sincere" glimpse at his or her "true self." That is why we so often see political candidates appearing in golf shirts or shirts without ties; it is also why we often hear them speaking informally rather than always delivering formal speeches. Even when all this is going on, of course, what the audience is seeing is usually a carefully planned performance. Audiences in the 19th century, on the other hand, would probably have expected orators to seem a bit larger than life. After all, oratory provided an important source of entertainment in that period: speeches, debates and sermons often attracted large crowds and were reported in minute detail in the newspapers. It was also an extremely important part of public life. Since you couldn't take out a television ad to publicize your candidacy or your religion, instead you went from town to town engaging in debates or holding revival meetings. It was how the business of public life got done. Over the course of the century, speakers gradually adopted a more down-to-earth style. Although very different men, both Abraham Lincoln and Henry Ward Beecher, for example, used every-day expressions in their speeches and were often regarded as special representatives of "regular" people.

However, the theories and practices of 19th century oratory continue to influence speakers today. The next time you hear a a state of the union address see if the president offers both emotional appeals (sometimes based on the tragic and/or inspirational stories of the special guests seated in the gallery), and factual/statistical evidence of the problems and progress of the year just past. See, too, if the president uses these methods to make a call for a particular kind of action, and tries to stir the public to action by offering an idealistic vision of America's past and future. When you hear that--and you will--you will be hearing a faint echo of the 19th century.


19th Century Discussion of the Characteristics of Orators

"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."

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

A review of a different edition of the same work.


The Problem of Oratory in the Mid-Nineteenth Century

Although the ideal orator was expected to create an appeal to both sense (the mind) and sensibility (the heart) in a balanced fashion in order to convince the listeners to commit their wills to pursue an appropriate course of action, there was a great deal of concern in the 19th century about whether some speakers went to far in stirring up their audiences. If you would like to pursue this subject further at the page on Ultraists vs. Nothingarians: The 19th Century Debate Over Rhetoric and Reform.


 

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