Culture of Eloquence: Oratory and Reform in Antebellum America

By James Perrin Warren | Go to book overview

5
A Fruitful Nursery of Orators: Frederick Douglass and the Conditions for Eloquence

1

In the 1846 lecture "Eloquence," Emerson defines the true power of the orator as "strength of character" and notes that "no record at all adequate" to the fame of powerful orators remains:

Besides, what is best is lost, -- the fiery life of the moment. But the conditions for eloquence always exist. It is always dying out of famous places and appearing in corners. Wherever the polarities meet, wherever the fresh moral sentiment, the instinct of freedom and duty, come in direct opposition to fossil conservatism and the thirst of gain, the spark will pass. The resistance to slavery in this country has been a fruitful nursery of orators. The natural connection by which it drew to itself a train of moral reforms, and the slight yet sufficient party organization it offered, reinforced the city with new blood from the woods and mountains.1

Emerson characteristically ties the power of eloquence to cultural reform, the meeting of the "polarities" of "fresh moral sentiment" and "fossil conservatism." In the last two sentences of the passage, Emerson offers a concrete, current example of national eloquence and asserts that the antislavery movement instills the "city with new blood from the woods and mountains." He thus explains

____________________
1
The records show that Emerson delivered his lecture "Eloquence" in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on 16 December 1846 ( JMN 10:25n.), and the phrase "has been" suggests a prewar delivery. No comparable passage appears in the three manuscript folders of"Eloquence." I quote from the 1870 essay ( W 7:95).

-115-

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