Eloquence Is Power: Oratory and Performance in Early America

Eloquence Is Power: Oratory and Performance in Early America

Eloquence Is Power: Oratory and Performance in Early America

Eloquence Is Power: Oratory and Performance in Early America


Oratory emerged as the first major form of verbal art in early America because, as John Quincy Adams observed in 1805, "eloquence was POWER." In this book, Sandra Gustafson examines the multiple traditions of sacred, diplomatic, and political speech that flourished in British America and the early republic from colonization through 1800. She demonstrates that, in the American crucible of cultures, contact and conflict among Europeans, native Americans, and Africans gave particular significance and complexity to the uses of the spoken word.

Gustafson develops what she calls the performance semiotic of speech and text as a tool for comprehending the rich traditions of early American oratory. Embodied in the delivery of speeches, she argues, were complex projections of power and authenticity that were rooted in or challenged text-based claims of authority. Examining oratorical performances as varied as treaty negotiations between native and British Americans, the eloquence of evangelical women during the Great Awakening, and the founding fathers' debates over the Constitution, Gustafson explores how orators employed the shifting symbolism of speech and text to imbue their voices with power.


In the flourishing periods of Athens and Rome,
eloquence was power.
— John Quincy Adams

The Golden Age of American Oratory had already begun when John Quincy Adams described rhetorical skill as a form of power in his 1805 inaugural address as the first Boylston Chair of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard University. Adams observed the preeminent importance that training in oratory had for the classical civilizations of Greece and Rome and described its revived importance in the new republic, where eloquence might once again bestow power:

Under governments purely republican, where every citizen has a deep interest in the affairs of the nation, and, in some form of public assembly or other, has the means and opportunity of delivering his opinions, and of communicating his sentiments by speech; where government itself has no arms but those of persuasion; where prejudice has not acquired an uncontroled ascendency, and faction is yet confined within the barriers of peace; the voice of eloquence will not be heard in vain.

The training that Adams offered his students would set American education apart from European societies where “even when they studied rhetoric, as a theory, they neglected oratory, as an art.” Political eloquence had not been properly valued since the death of Cicero, Adams lamented. Even after “the midnight of the monkish ages” gave way to “the revival of letters in modern Europe,” forensic and deliberative eloquence had an influence limited by the dominance of a dead language and the burden of textual precedent. Awakening from her long sleep, the muse of eloquence “found her child, Persuasion, manacled and pinioned by the letter of the law” and “beheld an image of herself, stammering in barbarous Latin, and staggering under the lumber of a thousand volumes.” Only the pulpit provided “an unbounded and inexhaustible field for eloquence.” With the Revo-

1. John Quincy Adams, Lectures on Rhetoric and Oratory, Delivered to the Classes of Senior and Junior Sophisters in Harvard University, I (Cambridge, Mass., 1810), 19, 30–31. Adams was selected to fill the chair at Harvard that a Boston merchant had funded in 1771 but that had been left vacant during the turbulent interim (iii–iv). Edward G. Parker traces the origins of American art and power to Revolutionary oratory in The Golden Age of American Oratory (Boston, 1857), 1–2.

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