Theodore Parker: Orator of Superior Ideas

By David B. Chesebrough; Mark A. Noll | Go to book overview
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Theodore Parker lived in an age of greater-than-life Americans. A contemporary of Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and Abraham Lincoln, as well as a personal friend of John Quincy Adams and many of the leading religious leaders of the northeastern states, Parker knew up close many of the individuals who have always featured large in the American antebellum era. It is, however, one of the defects of antebellum history as it is so often written for students and other interested readers that Theodore Parker does not occupy a larger place.

Parker was a person of seemingly unmeasurable energy. Like at least some other consumptives, he packed more into his relatively short life than most ordinary people do in their three score and ten or more. It might be said of Parker as has been remarked about some voluble spirits of our own age, that he never had an unrecorded thought. But in Parker's case, this was not such a bad thing, for his thoughts were uniformly fresh, usually informative, and often ethically challenging. Even people who did not agree with his Unitarian religion, his ardent efforts on behalf of social reform, or his stance on the political issues that led to the Civil War could agree that what Parker said carried weight. Parker was not a polemical attack dog in the manner of some modern celebrities known for their verbal pyrotechnics. To be sure, he was an extremely self-confident person. Indeed, those who continued to hold on to some of the religious or social opinions that Parker discarded considered him stunningly, even recklessly selfconfident. Some who read about him today will come to the same conclusion. Yet even those who cannot agree with what Parker affirmed must admit that how he said what he said was truly remarkable.

Yet precisely the manner of Parker's speaking has been strangely neglected in previous accounts of his life. The genuine contribution of David Chesebrough's fine study of Parker as orator is to demonstrate with learned but accessible prose how important Parker's mode of address actually was. It might


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