Culture of Eloquence: Oratory and Reform in Antebellum America

By James Perrin Warren | Go to book overview

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Culture of Eloquence

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On 30 June 1881, Wendell Phillips addressed the centennial anniversary meeting of Harvard University's Phi Beta Kappa chapter. The audience included such dignitaries as President Charles W. Eliot of Harvard, President Daniel Coit Gilman of Johns Hopkins University, and Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, and literary figures such as James Freeman Clarke, George William Curtis, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Delegations from seventeen of the twenty existing Phi Beta Kappa chapters marched in the procession to Harvard's Sanders Theatre. In addition to marking a public anniversary, the ceremonial occasion marked Phillips's return, after fifty years, to the speaker's platform at Harvard, for he had last addressed a Harvard audience at his own commencement exercises in 1831. 1.

During those fifty years, Phillips had become one of the most famously eloquent speakers in America. And he was still, in 1881, one of the most controversial. The innocuous title of his address, "The Scholar in a Republic," conceals Phillips's wide-ranging call for social change, a call that in effect summarizes important themes from his fifty-year career as a public speaker and reformer. More important, however, is the fact of his public performance itself. For Phillips, the scholar in a republic must be an independent, moral, social agitator:

I urge on college-bred men, that, as a class, they fail in republican duty when they allow others to lead in the agitation of the great social questions which stir and educate the age.... The freer a nation becomes
____________________
1
James Brewer Stewart, Wendell Phillips: Liberty's Hero ( Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1986), 322-24

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