Clark & Halloran, Oratorical Culture in Nineteenth-Century America: Transformations in the Theory and Practice of Rhetoric

Clark & Halloran: “Introduction: Transformations of Public Discourse in Nineteenth-Century America”

Early in the nineteenth century, college-level education in America was marked by the oratorical culture that directed what students learned and why. As such, the liberal-arts curriculum included oral exercises, and extracurricular activities such as “literary and debate society and…literary magazines” (1). The emphasis on speaking in college reflected the larger cultural embrace of neoclassical values, particularly the important connection between moral development and community: the public could remain healthy as long as its male citizens received an education that instilled accepted morals and help train them to become active members within the public. Oratorical training–especially through epideictic discourse [ceremonial; “praise and blame”]–helped to transmit cultural values and “thereby sustain the common ground upon which arguments about particular issues could be conducted” [doxa?] (2).

As the century wore on, there was a shift from the importance of the public–the polis–to the private–to the individual. This “emerging individualistic spirit…challenged the traditional principle of collective moral authority by establishing as a new principle the moral authority of the individual,” which “was itself transformed by the political and economic complexities of a rapidly expanding nation into the authority of the expert and…it was this new public morality of expertise that defined the professional culture we see characterizing the United States by the end of the century” (3).

Neoclassical rhetoric taught in first part of nineteenth century: “a rhetoric of general citizenship closely tied to the public discourse practiced in pulpit, bar, and senate of larger society. … At the center…was an American version of the traditional rhetorical ideal, ‘the good man skilled in speaking’ [vir bonus?] whose civic duty it was to articulate an established wisdom and focus it on particular issues.” (7) [Reliance on contemplation and action being linked.] Yet, “[a]s Americans became more conscious of the invitations to individual autonomy inherent in their physical and social settings, they became increasingly self-absorbed. … By the end of the century, ‘rhetoric’ as a college-level subject had little overtly to do with the traditional rhetorical forums. This was a consequence of two closely related factors: the growth of individualism as a central cultural value and the increasing specialization of knowledge leading to a similarly specialized academic discourse” (8).

Shift from polis to economy, thanks to capitalism (10): “The public realm that had once been the place where those who had access to it collaborated in constructing a social order became a stage where they attempted to define, assert, and aggrandize themselves as autonomous beings” (10-11). They “came to see themselves as autonomous moral agents responsible first and last for their own survival.” Also, thanks to secularism and “the decreasing practice of traditional, formal religion…of a people who insisted upon assigning moral responsibility to conscience alone” (13).

“Margaret Fuller: A Rhetoric of Citizenship in Nineteenth-Century America”

Fuller sought to educate women and reform social structure through focus on the self. “The paradox is that she claimed the individualist notion of self-culture as a right for marginalized citizens, which ultimately led her to a call for social change” (111)–so she worked within patriarchal boundaries to critique social norms and their oppressive effects. That is, there was an appeal–through self-culture (“focus[] on the individual and encourage[ment on] people to search for what was divine in themselves through nature” [117])–to public morality to better include and allow representation of all its (white) citizens. [Fuller: help women see their positionality in being oppressed by men and oppressing others, i.e., slaves.]

Although Fuller believed in the power of the individual, as other transcendentalists did, she represents a rhetoric whose aim was to foster community and moral consensus. (112)

Fuller resisted two narratives of American womanhood, the Republican Mother and True Womanhood. The Republican Mother constructed women as keepers of morality who, through moral education, would help the polis, but, at the same time, women shouldn’t have been highly educated; yet this construct did allow women (despite not being “legally considered citizens” [113]) to approach public/civic roles. True Womanhood called for women to strive to be “pious, pure, submissive, and domestic” (114). Meanwhile, Fuller, drawing on these constructs, argued for “a philosophy of women’s education that would lead to their social and political involvement” (114), which allowed her to educate women by letting them see themselves within a wider, public sphere.

Many women used ideals of womanhood to position themselves as agents of the polis and identified themselves as having a responsibility to work not only for the good of the family unit but for the common good of the community as well. (116)

I interpret Fuller’s practice as a rhetoric of citizenship because she was engaged in issues of immediate concern to local communities. (116)

Fuller [through self-culture, through emphasis on self-determination and self rights] believed individual change, within women as a group, could carry social and political force. [Her] practice of self-culture, when applied to women, called for a revision of gender relations in society; in short, it required social reform [which women would have to enact–could not rely on men to do it]. (117)

Although she shared the transcendentalists’ desire to subjugate material life to spiritual life, her attempt to achieve this for women, for herself as a woman, ultimately brought her back to the material life she struggled to transcend. … Making a distinction between the widely accepted individualism of the day and Fuller’s use of self-culture, her theory of identity–what individuals bring to their discursive acts–is consciously context-bound. (120)

[Mutual interpretation:] Instead of drawing correlations between oppressions, she grew to realize that the possibility of self-culture wasn’t equally accessible to all citizens, that poor women or people of color faced barriers that she, as a white, economically privileged woman, didn’t. (132)

“The Popularization of Nineteenth-Century Rhetoric: Elocution and the Private Learner”

Shift from rhetoric and civic duty, moral consensus, to “practical uses of rhetoric” and professionalism (139): instead of rhetoric as persuasion, which was too limited in its applications for an increasingly diverse class of college students, rhetoric framed as a general skill applicable for “any text…or occasion” (140). This resulted in the growth of the elocution movement, “which was supported by the general public’s keen interest in oratorical skills and the popularity of the practice of rhetoric in the public forum and the parlor” (141). –> Widely literate populace knowledgable of role of body in delivery: “It is this natural correspondence among mind, voice, and body that allows the speaker to engage the minds and emotions of the audience more completely than the absence of the art of delivery would allow” [contra Plato and mind-body dualism] (144).


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