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date: 29 October 2020

Oratory and Platform Culture in Britain and North America, 1740–1900

Abstract and Keywords

Examining oratory as a dynamic, changing medium for communication during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in America and, to a lesser extent, Great Britain, this essay scrutinizes several of its most important sites of performance: religion, politics, social reform, performance, and education. In each of those arenas, oratory helped to fuel some of most exciting social and political changes of the era by reconceptualizing ideas about the relationship between leaders and the public, the notion of rhetorical persuasion, and the importance of public opinion. An exceptionally interdisciplinary set of scholarship on the subject has done much to invigorate the study of oratory in recent years, and yet this field lacks an intellectual center from which scholars might move beyond individual studies to conceptualize the larger significance of oratory across all sites of performance.

Keywords: Orator, oratory, performance, public, lyceum, political, reform, lecture, speeches, rhetoric elocution, platform culture

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, oratory played major—if sometimes contradictory—roles in Anglo-American life. For evangelicals, religious oratory helped to win new converts and enliven the experience of faith and redemption in religious revivals and movements that spanned both centuries. Political oratory, particularly during the revolutionary era and amid the waves of democratic movements that succeeded it, utilized new rhetorics that galvanized publics and led to the creation of political and social reform leaders celebrated for their eloquence. Oratory came to serve a central role in education via the elocution movement for all youth, continuing through schools for more advanced students and in colleges. Increasingly during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, adults had opportunities to buy tickets to educational speeches delivered by a wide range of individuals, who provided single lectures or full series focusing on theatrical, scientific, historical, and other subjects. Eventually the lyceum movement served as an umbrella instrument for organizing a wide range of public lectures, performances, and orations, particularly in the United States. Oratory could undergird or challenge the status quo; it could epitomize demagoguery or democratic upsurge; it could help to define national identity or exemplify international cosmopolitanism. Those contradictions within the medium as it was practiced during these centuries reflect some of the many social and political changes of those centuries.

To define oratory so capaciously—encompassing, for example, some theatrical performances and classroom elocution as well as rhetoric and more traditional speech performances—might appear unconventional on the surface, but it reflects the direction that scholars in a range of disciplines have taken during the last twenty years. It is no longer common to define oratory primarily in terms of a canon of “great speeches,” but rather to consider more broadly the ways that public speaking mattered to two centuries of significant historical change with regard to views about the public, public opinion, and the persuasion and engagement of audiences. Oratory during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries often illuminated a specific arrangement of social power—in which powerful leader-orators (almost always white, male, and of high status) seek to persuade audiences made up of those citizens whose opinions “matter” or whose discretionary incomes permitted them to purchase tickets to the show. In this respect, oratory both discussed and modeled a particular makeup of the public and a properly constituted, hierarchical public sphere. But such arrangements underwent crucial shifts, especially during the nineteenth century, as more women and people of color made places for themselves on the rostrum, thus assuming that position of oratorical power and making it possible to imagine alternative ways of organizing society. In the embodied performances of oratory by different kinds of speakers, audiences might find themselves challenged to consider new gender, class, and citizenship roles. In seeking out challenges to the status quo and new modes of public speech, scholars have increasingly looked beyond great speeches.

The abundance of literature on the subject reflects its exceptionally interdisciplinary nature. Whereas once the study of oratory found a scholarly home in departments of speech communication, today it sits interstitially between the modern traditions of history, literature, communications, anthropology, religious studies, theater, sociology, British and American studies, and gender and women’s studies, to name a few. The interdisciplinary exchange among these scholars has led to some notable, productive innovations in the study of platform culture. And yet its lack of a disciplinary or conceptual home has left many scholars to explore their research independently, remaining more dedicated to the standards of their own disciplinary training than to the extraordinary potential inherent in the study of oratory per se.

Moreover, these studies seldom take a broader view of oratory as a major mode of communication during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when oratory attained such cultural prevalence and thrived as a primary medium for the exchange of ideas. Our scholarship has tended to focus on the institutional pockets in which that oratory took place—in churches or on evangelical circuits, the American lyceum system, Fourth of July celebrations, parliamentary debate, or reform advocacy venues, among other arenas of study. In taking that focus, scholars have often contributed to insightful studies of the past, as changes in public speaking led to new ways of thinking about religion, new political institutions and participants, and new forms of engaging communities, interest groups, and nations. But they have not tended to offer a big-picture view of oratory as a vital medium of communication that encompasses multiples institutions or sites of performance. Nor have they begun to scrutinize how the spoken word resonated across genres, between and among niches for oral performance, in the two centuries before the advent of the recorded voice. As a result, the larger payoff of all these niche studies today sits just beyond the grasp of the current literature, yet suggests rich new avenues for exciting research. Scholarship on the oratorical past requires new work that goes beyond the focus on venues or oratorical registers to illuminate the cultural work of this medium during these two important centuries when it flourished.

This article focuses particularly on the British Atlantic with special attention to the North American scene, where oratory experienced such prominence, innovation, and popularity, particularly during the long nineteenth century. I seek throughout to discuss some of the major topics and questions addressed by the scholarship but do not seek to provide a comprehensive view of this expansive field (and indeed could not, given its breadth). Most of all, I seek to suggest possibilities for future research that takes advantage of the interdisciplinary ferment between scholars to reinvigorate our understanding of a wide range of subjects—the media, popular politics and entertainment, the notion of public assembly, and the cultivation of ideas—while also illuminating more about the nature of oratory itself as a medium of communication.

Classical Influences on Eighteenth-Century Public Speech and Elocution

The flourishing of newly persuasive, audience-oriented forms of oratory has a long history stretching back to the discovery during the Renaissance of Cicero’s De Oratore and a complete text of Quintilian’s writings about oratory, among others. Those writings exemplified the philosophers’ belief that knowledge was inert on its own and required rhetorical persuasion to propel it into effective use in the realm of human affairs. By the middle of the eighteenth century, educational institutions used classically inspired works such as A System of Oratory (1759) by the British rhetorician John Ward, a book that became the most popular text on rhetoric in American colleges until the end of the century. This volume, like many other similar texts for a wide variety of reading audiences, rested heavily on the ideas of Cicero and Quintilian that privileged the style of address as much as its substance. “Oratory is the art of speaking well upon any subject, in order to persuade,” Ward explained in one of his most succinct passages (I: 19). Texts such as Ward’s were representative of the era in that they treated the logic of an argument or the development of an idea as standing on equal ground with matters of presentation, such as rhetorical flourishes, humor, and metaphors, as well as the speaker’s gestures, postures, facial expressions, and vocal inflections. As such, this trend in oratorical education signaled a greater attention to the speaker’s audience.

Setting this emphasis on oratorical persuasion in its historical context is vital, for this was not merely a high-level intellectual movement. Indeed, it reflects a flurry of historical developments unique to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that connect to the popularization of education, politics, and religion, and the expansion of what scholars came to call the public sphere. Although often tied to the growth of print culture, these movements were equally dependent on changing priorities within the medium of oratory and, in fact, led to important innovations in oral persuasion. Although universal access to voting rights, political participation, and education remained almost impossible to imagine in the eighteenth century, much less implement, each of these areas of public life expanded to include middling sorts on an unprecedented level. With an upsurge in evangelical religion and participatory politics, oratory became a primary means of reaching larger publics, and not just those individuals with minimal levels of literacy.

Considered in this light, literature on oratory during these centuries challenges one of the important scholarly touchstones that influenced the study of the spoken word: the innovative work from earlier in the twentieth century that posits a historical displacement of orality by literacy and print culture in human societies. In Walter Ong’s The Presence of the Word (1967) and especially in Orality and Literacy (1982) he explores the myriad ways that human consciousness changed as a result of moving from a primarily oral culture to one reliant on literacy. Literacy and writing comprised technologies that required significant labor, if not education, to learn; but they also brought about certain kinds of cultural losses. He considers the “psychodynamics of orality,” encompassing such complex subjects as the importance of memory, technologies of memorization, and the dynamics of sound itself. Building upon anthropological notions of culture, Ong uses a modernization schema to characterize oral cultures as “traditional” in sharp contrast to the modernizing and individuating dynamics of literacy (Gustafson, 2014).

Inasmuch as scholarship like that of Ong sought to underscore the sophisticated nature of oral cultures, it also relied on early anthropological notions that literate cultures were more advanced, and that print represented a significant development in human communication technologies. This perspective often associated oral culture with the “folk” as opposed to learned or elite groups, especially when describing the persistence of orality into the modern era. As a result, since the 1980s some scholars have moved away from assessments that presume technological advancement over time. Increasingly the scholarship speaks of oralities and literacies and, in so doing, recasts the framework from a universal to a historicist perspective (Gustafson, 2000; McDowell, 2012).

Just as significant, scholars now resist the technological determinism of the earlier formulation—from orality to literacy—as a fantasy of a “single breaking point, a Great Divide” that simply never occurred in time, as Jack Goody has framed it (Goody, 1977: 3). Those earlier assumptions about cultural sophistication and modernization have led more recent scholars of the spoken word to challenge the notion that orality might have been waning in the increasingly literate eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Anglo-American societies. Some scholars, particularly those informed by the work of Jürgen Habermas, have retained the sense of a dualism between print and oratory; Michael Warner’s influential The Letters of the Republic: Publication and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century America (1990), for example, has also associated print closely with abstract critical reasoning, arguing that it played a central role in the formation of politically relevant publics in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. On the whole, however, scholars have turned away from the developmental model in favor of a formulation that sees orality and literacy developing in tandem and sometimes in tension with one another (Fox, 2000; Looby, 1998).

Take, for example, the use of new forms of preaching in the eighteenth century and the means by which innovative evangelicals used print to publicize their effectiveness in their providential mission. As Harry S. Stout has shown, the traveling preachers of the Great Awakening attained new heights as innovative and enthusiastic speakers, appealing to their listeners’ hearts in powerful ways that led to unprecedentedly large crowds. Just as significant, these men innovated in developing publicity machines that used newspapers not just to advertise their talks, but also to cultivate in the imaginations of newspaper readers ideas about the possibilities of religious experience.

A rich account from a New England diary illustrates Stout’s point. Far ahead of George Whitefield’s appearance in a region, an ordinary farmer like Nathan Cole of Connecticut might be able to read numerous stories of his preaching in New York, Philadelphia, and elsewhere, “like one of the old apostles, I felt the Spirit of God drawing me by conviction; I longed to see and hear him and wished he would come this way. I heard he was come to New York and the Jerseys and great multitudes flocking after him under great concern for their souls.” By the fall of 1740, when Cole learned that Whitefield would speak in a town some twelve miles from his farm, Cole “dropt my tool that I had in my hand and ran home and run through my house and bade my wife get ready quick to go and hear Mr. Whitefield preach at Middletown, and run to my pasture for my horse,” and rode “as fast as I thought the horse could bear.” By the time they arrived, some three or four thousand people had gathered. And after all that, when Whitefield appeared on the scaffold:

[H]e looked almost angelical, a young, slim slender youth before some thousands of people with a bold undaunted countenance, and my hearing how God was with him every where as he came along it solumnized my mind, and put me in a trembling fear before he began to preach; for he looked as if he was Cloathed with authority from the Great God, and a sweet solemnity sat upon his brow. And my hearing him preach gave me a heart wound; by Gods blessing my old foundation was broken up, and I saw that my righteousness would not save me.

(Walker, 1897, 89–92)

Cole’s account reveals the ways that advance notice of Whitefield’s almost magical effect on audiences—via newspapers or word of mouth—might prepare lay men and women for a particularly emotional experience. Stout ultimately analyzed Whitefield’s communication strategies in a broad way, finding his compelling oratorical methods to be inextricable from the publicity machine that helped to create those mass gatherings and ecstatic awakenings.

Paralleling these historical shifts in communication, orality became ever more central to education by means of the mid- to late-eighteenth-century elocution movement. Although schools had long employed oral recitation as part of their daily lessons, during this era those declamations became anchored to elocutionary techniques for performing those lessons. Originating in England and Scotland, this pedagogy sought to teach students that even the most rudimentary forms of learning to read required appropriate gesture, facial expression, and vocal modulation. Associating all forms of orality—from everyday conversation to formal oratory—with modes of corporal performance was intended to teach children and youth the appropriate means of expressing emotion in “natural” expression. Elocutionists argued that better training in graceful and persuasive delivery benefited all children, not just those who might ascend to the bench, bar, or pulpit; graceful and refined speech helped to reveal a youth’s true worth, whether in the marriage market or in one’s work, thus facilitating worldly success. Some of the most prominent elocutionists of the era believed that elocution was crucial to all elements of society: it would “improve religion, morality, and constitutional government; would undergird a refining of the language; and would pave the way for ultimate perfection in all the arts” (Eastman, 2009; Fliegelman, 1993; Mohrmann, 1960: ii).

At the college level, the oratorical emphasis within education grew more pervasive, especially as English began to displace Latin as the language of scholarship. Inspired by models of education in Scottish universities, pedagogies that stressed the importance of rhetoric and utilized recitation and oratorical display spread throughout the Anglo-Atlantic world. Formal instruction took the form of lectures, with students displaying their learning in declamation. Students also formed separate debating clubs to further develop their skills—clubs that became increasingly popular and dynamic during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Indeed, those debating societies inspired many individuals outside of the college setting to form similar clubs for their mutual benefit—a small number of which permitted women to engage as disputants as well (Andrew, 1996; Eastman, 2009; Thale, 1999). By the early nineteenth century, American colleges and seminaries found oratory so important that they began to install professors of rhetoric, or “pulpit oratory,” starting with the 1805 appointment of John Quincy Adams at Harvard as the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory, a trend that quickly spread to Brown, the South Carolina College, and many others.

Oratory also emerged in settings beyond the pulpit, the podium, and the classroom—most notably as a powerful element of theater. The oratorical guidebooks that taught youth how to read and speak aloud invariably included theatrical speeches and dialogues alongside canonic orations by the classical greats. Pedagogical training in oratory was in many respects indistinguishable from training as an actor during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; it required the same attention to bodily performance and feeling the passions. “What orators and stage players do, then, is to discover the passions of the mind with their bodies—larynx, limbs, torso, and head together—thereby transforming invisible impulse into spectacle and unspoken feeling into eloquence,” Joseph Roach writes in his field-defining The Player’s Passion (Roach, 1993: 32–33). Monologues by Shakespeare’s characters appeared just as significant as orations by political figures of bygone eras in helping youth learn to speak with power and feeling. Moreover, such speeches also had the benefit of being widely known among members of the public, who thereby had the capacity to judge good and bad performances of those monologues. And by the end of the eighteenth century, British and American theater featured a number of transatlantic celebrity actors whose performances influenced the wider world of public speech.

The Role of Oratory in Political and Social Change

Alongside changes in styles of preaching and teaching, public speakers in Britain’s North American colonies took advantage of new opportunities to transform the art during the political upheaval between Parliament and those colonists who objected to their government’s uses of new taxes after 1764. In a wide variety of settings, including impromptu street protests as well as colonial legislative debates about the possibility of rebellion, colonists used oratory to create a persuasive narrative: that the British had grown tyrannical in their treatment of their fellow citizens, and that the American colonies were justified in advocating independence. Disseminated through print, annual speeches commemorating the Boston “Massacre” of 1770 or the fiery oratory of Patrick Henry helped to establish in the minds of a dispersed public the injustices of Parliament’s actions toward its citizens. In fact, Americans came to feel that political oratory and political debate were of such importance to the public that after the war, architects added seating areas or galleries from which members of the public could listen to and judge the respective positions put forward during political battles (Fliegelman, 1993; Looby, 1998).

In each of these areas—preaching styles, modes of pedagogy, and popular politics—oratory became more significant as a medium of communication during the eighteenth century, even as literacy levels rose throughout the Anglo-Atlantic world. Looking broadly at the changing importance of oratory as well as innovations by individual speakers within the medium, we can see that it grew in influence over a wide swath of the public. Nor did that pattern slow during the long nineteenth century, as we shall see, thus displaying the shortcomings of the earlier “orality to literacy” interpretive framework.

During the early American republic, as public leaders sought to model their own nation’s founding on the example of the classical republics, they often decried the fact that no American leader had emerged as an ideal orator-leader in the vein of Demosthenes or Cicero, both of whom were revered in public prints. Whereas Britons often celebrated their nation’s rich history of great oratory by the turn of the nineteenth century, Americans felt keenly the weaknesses of their own public leaders as public speakers. George Washington made a retiring and awkward speaker, Thomas Jefferson could barely speak above a whisper, and the former lawyer John Adams was divisive and abrasive rather than persuasive. One schoolbook author put it as gracefully as he could by writing, “The public speakers of this country have been celebrated as excellent reasoners; while their orators have been few” (Cooke, 1811: 21). In fact, the American who gained the most fame as an eloquent orator before the 1810s was Native American. The moving words of the Mingo leader Logan, whose 1774 speech addressed white–Native American violence, were copied down and disseminated via newspapers, Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, and magazines. In his brief speech, Logan described a lifetime of friendship with his Anglo neighbors on the frontier until a bloodthirsty raid by a white military leader named Michael Cresap had “murdered all the relations of Logan, not sparing even my women and children. There runs not a drop of my blood in the veins of any living creatures.” White readers found this speech so affecting for its account of Logan’s violent revenge, rife with a pervasive sense of tragedy as he looked ahead in time to his own lonely death. “Who is there to mourn for Logan?—Not one,” the speech concluded (Jefferson, 1972: 62–63). It quickly gained canonical status in American schoolbooks designed to teach children to read and speak, such that by 1842 one magazine editor proclaimed that “no piece of composition ever did more, if so much, as the speech of Logan … to form the mind and develop the latent energies of the youthful American orator” (quoted in Gray, 2000: 273). Inasmuch as Americans believed that their new republic required fine orators as leaders, it took more than thirty years after the Revolution for such figures to appear on the political scene (Eastman, 2009).

One of the first figures to inspire new forms of public speech by combining oratory and improvisational performative innovation was a Scottish immigrant named James Ogilvie, who had taught school in Virginia for fifteen years and who, after ample experience with elocutionary methods, was determined to make a living as an itinerant orator. Starting in 1808, he spent the remainder of his life traveling and presenting series of lectures on what he called “moral and philosophical” subjects of wide interest to the public, such as dueling, female education, and suicide. He was not the only itinerant lecturer during this time of what Granville Ganter calls the age of the “edupreneur.” But while his rhetorical style of argument proved compelling—he developed a dialectical argument, offering arguments on both sides of a question, no matter how much the morality of a question like suicide might appear obvious—Ogilvie’s real innovation as a speaker came from integrating emotion and reason in a mesmerizing swirl. “When he assails prevailing vices, it is not by theoretically and abstractly considering their nature and consequences,” explained the Daily National Intelligencer. “It is by portraying in deepest colours the miseries to which they conduct. He does not form an ethical treatise; he exhibits a picture of life, he chooses rather to describe than to reason, and his descriptions are glowing, pathetic, and impressive. When there is grandeur or horror in the object, the idea is so vividly presented to the hearer’s imagination, as to produce an effect little inferior to that of the reality” (“The Rostrum,” 1814: 3). Ogilvie attained celebrity status within a year of his earliest appearances, and, by the middle of the 1810s, he had visited almost every region, from Georgia to Maine and from Tennessee to Québec; he held forth in the U.S. Capitol building before an audience that included President Madison and both houses of Congress and spent a term at the South Carolina College (later the University of South Carolina) teaching students the art of oratory. Along the way, he fostered a national conversation about the importance of oratory in a republic (Eastman, 2016).

At the same time Ogilvie became a household name he sparked emulation; after departing a city, local newspapers displayed advertisements for new debating societies, lyceums, orators who imitated his style (and even his costume, a toga), and schools for elocution and dramatic recitation. In 1816 his former student, Francis Walker Gilmer, published Sketches of American Orators, one of the first celebratory accounts of American political figures with detailed accounts of their oratorical styles; a year later, Ogilvie’s friend William Wirt published a biography of Patrick Henry with a reconstructed text of the 1775 “Give me liberty, or give me death” speech. Between Ogilvie’s wildly popular performances and enhanced attention to political and legislative oratory, new figures began to emerge as prominent leaders of the U.S. House and Senate: Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, John Randolph, and eventually Abraham Lincoln. Several of these individuals were celebrated in Edward G. Parker’s 1857 volume, The Golden Age of American Oratory.

When Ogilvie continued his lecture tour in England and Scotland in 1817, he found a public similarly eager for various forms of performative and educational oratory, as a contemporaneous movement was underway in Britain. In Glasgow, George Birkbeck offered free scientific lectures to mechanics as early as 1800, and, by 1821, he had founded the first of his Mechanics’ Institutes for the education of working men (Prum, 2012). In keeping with Thomas Macaulay’s notion that parliamentary government amounted to “government by speaking,” William Hazlitt’s two-volume Eloquence of the British Senate (1807) included speeches from members of the House of Commons stretching back to 1607 and introduced them with biographical notes and brief, opinionated commentaries. As such, the book placed strongest emphasis on the literary or political quality of the texts. About a speech by Sir Dudley Digges from the early seventeenth century, Hazlitt wrote: “I have already given one or two specimens of the pompous stile; but as the following extract sours to a still sublimer pitch, I could not resolve to omit it” (Hazlitt, 1819, I: 30). He also included reflections on the art and craft of oratory:

To be a great orator does not require the highest faculties of the human mind, but it requires the highest exertion of the common faculties of our nature. He has no occasion to dive into the depths of science, or to soar aloft on angels’ wings. He keeps upon the surface, he stands firm upon the ground, but his form is majestic, and his eye sees far and near: he moves among his fellows, but he moves among them as a giant among common men.

(Hazlitt, 1810, II: 5)

To keep one’s oratory “firm upon the ground” became more imperative during the parliamentary reform era, as increasing numbers of the working class gained representation and the right to vote. In Britain as in the United States, which saw the end of almost all restrictions on the white male vote by the 1860s, these changes made political oratory more vital to the overall political system. They also rendered public opinion more important, as the relative powers of the aristocracy and social elites declined. Reflecting those democratizing changes, journalists in both countries began to pay close attention to governmental debate and to reprint versions of those speeches in the public prints.

Print media helped to cultivate a strong sense that the public ought to scrutinize the speeches of their political leaders. By the 1820s, newspapers developed methods of obtaining full transcripts of major orations—at first by requesting the text from the speakers and, eventually, by training their staff in shorthand to sit in political chambers and record them. As newspapers columns ballooned with these accounts, politicians paid ever more attention to the crafting of their speeches, competing for the admiration of the public and the support for their causes that it generated. The fact that so many of those speeches remain extant derives from an unprecedented movement by newspaper editors to transcribe them for the public’s perusal; by the 1850s, those transcripts even included notes about audience response—laughter, applause, murmurs—permitting a new level of analysis of speeches by figures such as Abraham Lincoln and the Irish reformer Daniel O’Connor. Meanwhile, politicians regularly criticized one another’s speaking skills, mocking everything from an overreliance on handwritten notes, a screechy voice, or a speech that “smelled of the lamp” (the speech seemed overly practiced by the light of a late-night lamp).

Public attention to political oratory also raised the bar for the vocal delivery by speakers during the nineteenth century. As Josephine Hoegaerts has demonstrated, members of the House of Commons now paid extraordinary attention to the fine details of their delivery—the acoustic and somatic aspects of how parliamentary discourse sounded and resonated. Speakers carefully managed their bodies and voices, seeking to convey authoritative, masculine power and privilege, while also appealing to new constituencies of the public. In training their voices, they sought “natural,” “musical” tones that were capable of range but simultaneously signaled those men’s reason and gravitas. Doing so amounted to a “balancing act between careful cultivation and insistence on natural, unaffected behavior that was expected from men in politics. Speakers in parliament were thought to derive their vocal and political effectiveness from control, not only of their style and discourse but also of their movements and vocal organs, yet the performance of control had to remain hidden” (Hoegaerts, 2015: 136). A man’s pronunciation could also be fraught with political import: it indicated his class status and regional identity, of course, but those aspects of his persona could be read differently by new groups. No longer did the “pompous stile” described by Hazlitt necessarily appeal to all aspects of the public; more middle-class parliamentarians developed a newly appealing “middling style” akin to transformations in American rhetoric that sought to bridge different publics, as Kenneth Cmiel has shown.

Also highly attuned to public opinion were the social reformers, who, increasingly during the 1820s and 1830s, began to use print and oral media on an unprecedented level to persuade the public of the need for change. Whether advocating for temperance, ending prostitution, founding Sunday schools, arguing for world peace, or opposing slavery, reformers mobilized a barrage of media to draw public attention to their causes. They published reform tracts and periodicals in unprecedented variety and numbers; orators for those causes found vivid ways to heighten the emotional stakes of these social problems. Inspired by dramatic preachers of the Second Great Awakening whose styles and messages appealed to a large percentage of the American middle class, reform orators anchored their social improvement causes to a powerful sense of urgency for Christian uplift and religious expansion.

As the world of reform grew ever more crowded with seemingly urgent causes, reformers found innovative ways to fight for the attention of the public. Temperance leader John B. Gough, for example, advocated for his cause by telling his own story of salvation from the evils of drink as a confession, a narrative of an agonizing fall into drunkenness and the difficult road to sobriety and religious salvation. In many ways, Gough created the self-help story, combining the most compelling aspects of the self-made man style of autobiography with a performance of the reformed drunkard. He exemplified the message of personal action and self-improvement as a response to social ills, repeating his tale of suffering more than 11,000 times to audiences throughout the United States, England, and Europe. “Born at the crossroads of mass culture and moral discourse, elite literacy and popular theatricality, the drunkard’s story taught individuals and communities to govern themselves and one another in new ways, helping to transform an ancient virtue of moderation into a distinctively liberal practice of freedom,” writes Thomas Augst of the narrative that John Gough pioneered (Augst, 2007: 298). Meanwhile, abolitionist orators developed different means of challenging their audiences as their sense of moral urgency increased. They often adopted confrontational modes of address—even more confrontational than had previously been seen in enthusiastic, doomsaying camp revivals—accusing their auditors of sinfulness or of promoting slavery simply through inaction. These rhetorical strategies represented a newly aggressive philosophy by reformers, organized around the understanding that the public needed to be jogged out of their moral complacency. William Lloyd Garrison acknowledged the seemingly contradictory nature of a reform strategy that held up both perfect adherence to Christian morality and sometimes vicious rhetorical attacks on people deemed opponents of the cause. “Strong denunciatory language is consistent with gentleness of spirit, long-suffering, and perfect charity,” Garrison wrote in an essay entitled “Harsh Language—Retarding the Cause?” He went further in a blistering 1838 letter in the Liberator. “If you would make progress, you must create opposition; if you would promote peace on earth, array the father against the son, and the mother against the daughter; if you would save your reputation, lose it.” Overall, these two trends within social reform signal some of the oratorical dynamism that erupted during the era (Kraditor, 1969).

Religious and reform orators looked strikingly different from orators of a generation earlier by class, race, and gender. Whereas once an oratorical education—and the innate sense of authority required to deliver public speeches—was limited to elites, many other people began to find a calling to ascend to the podium during the long nineteenth century. John Gough was one of many working- and middle-class men whose talents in public speaking helped to raise him to public notoriety. The British abolitionist George Thompson, who made several speaking tours to the United States, came from a poor family and received little formal education but was able to educate himself and ultimately hire an elocution teacher to help him gain the confidence to address audiences. Others experienced a powerful religious calling to speak that they found disturbingly insistent. When Jarena Lee, a young free black woman, had undergone a full religious conversion during the 1810s, she heard a voice command her, “Go preach the Gospel!” She replied, “No one will believe me.” Similar forms of resistance to visionary summons appeared in the memoirs of other uneducated and nonelite preachers, white and black, who expressed deep reservations about their abilities to persuade others; these men and women felt so assured of their utter lack of social authority or ability to speak in public that they fought against the divine voices they heard. Lee even wondered whether it was Satan, rather than God, who instructed her (Lee, 1986: 35). When she, Sojourner Truth, or one of the other many women, African Americans, and uneducated white men spoke from the pulpit or the podium, they often encountered strong opposition even as they embodied radical ideas about who might legitimately address the public at large, ultimately helping to change the face of American culture and society (Merrill, 2015).

A wide range of speakers grew common especially within the world of commercialized oratory—lyceum lectures, Chautauqua oratory, theatrical and dramatic readings, and other forms of ticketed performance—and, over time, these speakers increasingly assumed a fascinating range of subject positions. If John Gough mastered the art of personal narrative in his drunkard’s confession speeches, new speakers adopted surprising personae. The African American dramatic reader Mary Webb, who was called the “Colored Siddons” during the 1850s, took on the parts of Simon Legree and Little Eva just as persuasively as she did the roles of Uncle Tom and Topsy in her readings from Uncle Tom’s Cabin. More important, her skillful transitions from one character to the next impressed reviewers with her polish and “her marked elocutionary powers, decided dramatic talent, and the wonderful compass and flexibility of her voice,” as the Milwaukee Sentinel noted. In other words, reviewers kept “Webb at arm’s length from the characters she performed, registering that her transformation into these characters, while perhaps marvelous, was never complete,” as Jennifer L. Brady notes (Brady, 2013: 11). Even if audiences called her the “Colored Siddons,” Webb’s dramatic skill as a performer allowed audiences see her as someone with a transfixing ability to transcend her embodied race, thus helping them perceive people of color differently (Merrill, 2015). Some female lyceum performers impersonated prominent male orators, delivering those men’s full speeches while also enacting their famous tics, gestures, and vocal flourishes. The male speaker Bayard Taylor performed accounts of his world travels in the full ethnic costume of the different cultures he visited (Gibian, 2013). In short, the lyceum became a dynamic site for a degree of play with regard to gender, race, and national identities.

Some of the most influential scholars to study the nineteenth-century cult of oratory emphasized its nation-building effects: the ways that prominent political or performative oratory helped to confirm and enact national publics, discuss national identity, create new national oratorical heroes, and provide ongoing sites for national self-definition over the course of time (Cayton, 1987; Eastman, 2009; Ray, 2005). Donald Scott set the stage for such analysis with groundbreaking essays in the early 1980s by arguing that the lyceum was “one of the central institutions within and by which the public had its existence” (Scott, 1980: 808–809). On a local level, the appearance of a famous speaker had the capacity to galvanize a public in a region, giving them the chance to experience something together and on a regular basis, regardless of their denominational differences. Indeed, lyceum lecturers were carefully instructed to select topics that avoided any form of partisan or religious discussion, such as the divisive subject of slavery. But those experiences also had national implications. Seeing a traveling orator perform made for a unique experience in the United States in the 1840s and 1850s: for the first time, the lyceum system permitted an audience in Iowa to witness the same performance as an audience in Burlington, Vermont, or Newport, Kentucky. “They not only had had a common experience; they were aware that it was common and, indeed, sought it partly because it was common,” Scott writes (808). Oratory as fostered and disseminated by the lyceum thus played an important role in helping to create a mass public in the long nineteenth century.

Some of the most exciting new scholarship has taken a transnational turn. Increasingly, scholars are seeking to understand better the transnational careers of popular speakers and the different resonances of their talks in a wide variety of settings as part of a widespread academic trend to view historical movements beyond the confines of national borders. How did Frederick Douglass’s antislavery oratory sound to audiences in Ireland and England, for example—and how might it have changed as a result of those encounters when he returned to the United States? (McDaniel, 2014). How might William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) have emerged from the specific setting in which it originated—a series of prestigious talks at the University of Edinburgh, for which he was brought in as a distinctively American philosopher? (Stob, 2013). In the 2013 collection The Cosmopolitan Lyceum: Lecture Culture and the Globe in Nineteenth-Century America, the authors build on, rather than reject, the previous emphasis on oratory as nation-building. “A night at the lyceum meant thinking about people, things, and ideas from beyond the United States,” Tom F. Wright notes in his introduction. As a result, the lyceum “was characterized by a dynamic interplay of nationalism and cosmopolitanism” through which “people had the potential to perform their own identities as citizens of the nation and denizens of the cosmos, and even to imagine worldliness as a fundamental characteristic of American national identity” (Wright, 2013: 6, 24).

Toward a Broader Analysis of Platform Culture

In each of these realms—politics, religion, education, and theater, as well as commercialized oratory, such as the lyceum and Chautauqua circuits—oratory became more important throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, such that it became a primary medium of communication even before the advent of recording or amplifying technologies. “Public speech lay … at the core of Victorian public life,” writes the historian Joseph Meisel in a representative assessment of the period (Meisel, 2001: 115). Scholars from a wide spectrum of humanistic and social science fields have explored important aspects of this historic trend, as we have seen.

But if scholars accept the truth of Meisel’s statement, it remains harder to find such understanding among those who study the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries more broadly. The pervasive orality of public life and communication pales when we consider the voluminous scholarly attention given to one of the other major forms of media during these centuries: print culture, authorship, reading, and publishing. This area has proven to be an important touchstone for scholars of the spoken word, particularly as many of their sources on oratory derive from extant printed sources. Beginning with such texts as Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin’s The Coming of the Book: The Impact of Printing, 1450–1800 (1958), an extensive body of work has emerged from scholars in history, American studies, and literature departments, as well as from rare book collectors, librarians, and bibliographers. This literature has served as a model for its exceptional cross-fertilization in methods and theories between disciplines, but even more so for the way it has compelled all scholars to see that printed materials had meaning and history beyond merely the text they contained.

The scholarly focus on print culture has proven to be a capacious arena in which to offer new theoretical and methodological insights that reflect the many disciplines that contribute, while also providing networks for scholarly exchange to foster new work and share methods and theories. Indeed, the literature on print culture might serve as a model for providing a central scholarly focus that ties together this shared scholarly pursuit. Research in this field has culminated with annual conferences of the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing (SHARP) and compilations such as the five-volume History of the Book in America (2000–2010), which includes more than a hundred and fifty essays by a wide range of scholars highlighting print’s role within large-scale historical change, from religious and scientific transformations to commercial, political, and industrial shifts—emphasizing less the inexorable triumphs of technological innovation than the historical figures who engaged with print as consumers, producers, laborers, booksellers, writers, and anthologists, among many others. By focusing on the creators and consumers of print culture, this work has sought to explore the many surprising meanings and uses of print.

To be sure, scholarship that has treated the history of oratory has increasingly borrowed from the literature on print culture, not least because so many scholars have found important interconnections between these two media. Indeed, it has increasingly become nearly impossible to write about public speaking without acknowledging how much it developed mutually with print culture during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—considering the ways that George Whitefield circulated news and enthusiasm about his upcoming revivals, how youth learned the art of oratory by reading about it in schoolbooks, or how political speeches appeared in full in print shortly after their delivery, as we have seen. Some of the topics that concern scholars of platform culture most fundamentally, such as audience reception and the evolution of oratorical celebrity, are subjects richly treated by scholars of print culture as well. The very sources from which we draw to write about oratory in the past requires utilizing creatively an archive of print and manuscript and sharing methods for scrutinizing those sources.

But unlike print culture, the study of platform culture in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries ultimately seeks to understand events that are utterly ephemeral. The best work in this field seeks to understand those ephemeral speech moments using new methods and theories that are unique—and which would benefit greatly from a stronger interdisciplinary network of intellectual exchange akin to the scholarship on print culture. No matter how many reviews, accounts, or transcripts of speeches we might retain, the scholarly analysis of those speech events remains beyond our full grasp. We also lack what performance theorist Diana Taylor calls the repertoire: evidence of the gestures, pauses, vocal nuances, or the orator’s postures that might have made a speech land its punches, and which convey even more important ideas about society, politics, identity, and memory. Even more so, we lack the ability to see and “hear” what oratorical repertoires might have meant to audiences so long before contemporary times. “The world of unrecorded sounds is irreclaimable, so the disjunctions that separate our ears from what people heard in the past are doubly profound,” Leigh Eric Schmidt has written (Schmidt, 2000: 15). For all of these reasons, developing a more active interdisciplinary field of research known as “platform culture”—with associated conferences, edited volumes, and book series—would greatly benefit this research.

One scholar who has undertaken unusually creative methods for understanding the ephemeral nature of early oral performance is Judith Pascoe, whose The Sarah Siddons Audio Files: Romanticism and the Lost Voice seeks to answer an unusual (and impossible) question: what did Siddons sound like? To do so, Pascoe reads the Siddons archive carefully; however, she also seeks out the repertoire: she listens carefully to the sound of romantic poetry being read aloud; she takes courses in “Voice for Actors,” tries to understand how voice might resonate differently depending on what kind of wood had been used to build the stage; and reconstructs the crowded, noisy audiences that would have competed with her voice during her performances. If she cannot ultimately pronounce how Siddons sounded during her career, her unusual questions and methods nevertheless move us closer to a lost sonic world. Together with Josephine Hoegaerts’s essay, which reads the archive so closely for evidence of the social and political meanings of the varying voices in the House of Commons, Pascoe helps us imagine some of the ways scholars of platform culture might collaborate to produce new questions and methods to explore the ephemeral.

The importance of these efforts is evident. Oratory during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was not a quaint or dying form of media; rather, it was increasingly dynamic, genre-bending, and popular. Yet to many scholars, it “was so ubiquitous that its omnipresence has helped to render it strangely invisible,” as Martin Hewitt has written (Hewitt, 2002: 1). Writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Charles Dickens used the platform as a way not only to supplement their incomes, but also to try out new ideas and refine them as they percolated over the course of a lecture tour. Politicians likewise sought to use the medium not merely to transmit a (textual) message but to enact authority while also appealing to citizens’ notions of the power of public assembly. In short, oratory was fundamental to English and American life in these centuries, even as its performance and the figures who spoke in public changed markedly.

Most important, a collective effort to create a self-conscious field of inquiry around platform culture might help scholars articulate more effectively how crucial oratory was during that time—to articulate big-picture views of this medium of communication to supplement the more genre-oriented work we currently enjoy. How did different genres of public speech (religious, political, entertaining, educational, reform-oriented) overlap, react against one another, and transform over time? How might audiences hear the resonances and intonations of religious oratory in a resolutely secular speech, simply because sermonizing was the lingua franca of the age? How did the experience of being part of an audience change as ideas about religion, citizenship, and the public morphed over the course of these centuries? Because it functioned as such a primary form of communication during that time, it seems all the more crucial that scholars continue to explore new ways of reading both the archive and the repertoire, and to help us understand its powerful role in shaping ways of being, hearing, and seeing in the two centuries before the advent of sound recording.


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