Culture of Eloquence: Oratory and Reform in Antebellum America

By James Perrin Warren | Go to book overview

6
William Gilmore Simms and the Necessity Of Speech

On 4 July 1844, William Gilmore Simms delivered the obligatory Independence Day oration to the town of Aiken, South Carolina. Simms was under no obligation himself, although he was an unofficial candidate for the state House of Representatives, to which he was elected the following October. More important than his political ambition is Simms's position as the leading man of letters in the antebellum South. In his speech, The Sources of American Independence, Simms becomes a figure of cultural authority, defining the spiritual history and future prospects of his audience, and he begins to create this role by focusing on the relationship between speaker and audience: "The advocate has great reason to rejoice, my friends, who, in addition to the merits of a noble cause, can lay claim to a perfectly sympathizing audience -- who feels that he has only to unfold his own sentiments to embody theirs, and who, in the utterance of his own emotions possesses himself of all the avenues to their confidence." Simms calls the central figure in his opening portrait "the advocate," and in speaking he creates a second image, this time of an ordinary speaker who finds it "so easy a matter to play the orator on the great day of our nation." These two figures further multiply into "many eloquent voices that fill the land." From ordinary -- perhaps even contrived -- occasions, however, Simms imagines a "perfectly sympathizing audience," one that joins a series of opposites in a nationwide "necessity of speech." As he ends his exordium, Simms catalogs the parts that make up the ideal necessity of speech, and the "exulting" whole expresses "that universal sentiment of country" in endlessly multiplied Fourth of July speeches.1

____________________
1
The Sources of American Independence ( Aiken, S.C.: Published by Council, 1844), 5; all references

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