Rhetoric and the Republic: Politics, Civic Discourse, and Education in Early America

Rhetoric and the Republic: Politics, Civic Discourse, and Education in Early America

Rhetoric and the Republic: Politics, Civic Discourse, and Education in Early America

Rhetoric and the Republic: Politics, Civic Discourse, and Education in Early America


Casts a revealing light on modern cultural conflicts through the lens of rhetorical education.

Contemporary efforts to revitalize the civic mission of higher education in America have revived an age-old republican tradition of teaching students to be responsible citizens, particularly through the study of rhetoric, composition, and oratory. This book examines the political, cultural, economic, and religious agendas that drove the various-and often conflicting-curricula and contrasting visions of what good citizenship entails. Mark Garrett Longaker argues that higher education more than 200 years ago allowed actors with differing political and economic interests to wrestle over the fate of American citizenship. Then, as today, there was widespread agreement that civic training was essential in higher education, but there were also sharp differences in the various visions of what proper republic citizenship entailed and how to prepare for it.

Longaker studies in detail the specific trends in rhetorical education offered at various early institutions-such as Yale, Columbia, Pennsylvania, and William and Mary-with analyses of student lecture notes, classroom activities, disputation exercises, reading lists, lecture outlines, and literary society records. These documents reveal an extraordinary range of economic and philosophical interests and allegiances-agrarian, commercial, spiritual, communal, and belletristic-specific to each institution. The findings challenge and complicate a widely held belief that early-American civic education occurred in a halcyon era of united democratic republicanism. Recognition that there are multiple ways to practice democratic citizenship and to enact democratic discourse, historically as well as today, best serves the goal of civic education, Longaker argues.

Rhetoric and the Republic illuminates an important historical moment in the history of American education and dramatically highlights rhetorical education as a key site in the construction of democracy.


The poet and the historian differ not in writing in verse or in prose [ … ].
The true difference is that one relates what has happened, the other
what may happen. Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a
higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal,
history the particular.


It may seem strange to begin and end a book about eighteenth-century American rhetoric, politics, and pedagogy with an extended reflection on contemporary education. After all, history is, as Aristotle tells us, about the past. This introduction proposes, however, that history deals with what was and with what can be. It is factual and poetical. This introductory chapter and the conclusion reflect on and explain the poetical function performed by the encapsulated historical narrative: Why is this story important right now?

Right now, at universities generally, there is an effort to connect higher education with contemporary civic concerns. Academics are encouraged to research public issues, to design classes that engage national, state, and local communities, to teach students responsible democratic citizenship. Despite the occasional charge of “partisan advocacy” (Fish), most today would agree with the 528 university presidents who endorsed a 1999 declaration encouraging “higher education to re-examine its public purposes and its commitments to the democratic ideal” (“Presidents' Declaration”). the university, for the better part of the twentieth century, has been metaphorically captured in the cold, distant image of the ivory tower, but in . . .

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