Oratory and Rhetoric in the Nineteenth-Century South: A Rhetoric of Defense

By W. Stuart Towns | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 1
Introduction

ORATORY AND THE SOUTH

Historians have long acknowledged the important role of public speaking in the history of the United States. Daniel Boorstin, writing about the period from the Revolution to the Civil War, points out that the "orator--the man speaking to or for or with his community--acquired a mythic role." He goes on to say that oratory became "the main form of American public ritual."1 William G. Carleton reminds us that, "throughout most of American history, the folk hero has been the jury lawyer, the hortatory minister, and the political orator. Until the turn of the century the most important American folk art was oratory." Public speakers who were nationally acclaimed were as famous in their day as modern Hollywood stars are in our era.2

Nowhere in nineteenth-century America was the effective orator more respected than in the South. Waldo W. Braden, writing about the southern oral tradition, says the "masters of the oral medium became folk heroes."3 The South was an oral society, and "the opportunity to exchange ritual words or hear them eloquently pronounced was deeply cherished."4William G. Brown wrote that "it was the spoken word, not the printed page, that guided thought, aroused enthusiasm, made history." He went further, claiming that "it is doubtful if there ever has been a society in which the orator counted for more than he did in the Cotton Kingdom."5Clement Eaton refers to the "passionate addiction of Southern people to florid and emotional oratory."6Wilbur J. Cash pointed out that rhetoric flourished in the South "far beyond even its American average; it early became a passion . . . a primary standard of judgment, the sine qua non of leadership."7

Many observers and historians of southern life have helped to create and perpetuate a descriptive and stereotypical myth of the "Southern orator." He is often portrayed as a huckster, a charlatan, a demagogue, or a con man

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