Oratorical Culture in Nineteenth-Century America: Transformations in the Theory and Practice of Rhetoric

By Gregory Clark; S. Michael Halloran | Go to book overview

expertise that fragment public knowledge and prevent some significant conflicts in the community from ever being addressed collectively at all.

The pluralistic public culture of professionalism, with all its benefits and handicaps, enacts in its discourse the economic and institutional consequences of the ideology of liberal individualism in which the United States began its political life as a nation. During the nineteenth century, these consequences emerged in the form of a political culture that was primarily economic, one in which public power was brokered by people who claimed the authority of professional expertise. That this professional culture can be treated as a manifestation of American liberal individualism and the economy of individual enterprise it implies is suggested in this statement by Andrew Abbott:

We have professionalism . . . because our market-based occupational structure favors employment based on personally held resources, whether of knowledge or wealth. Such employment is more secure, more autonomous, and usually more remunerative, partly because it is organized in "careers," a strategy invented in the nineteenth century to permit a coherent individual life within a shifting marketplace. . . . Professionalization thus offered continuously independent life chances. ( 1988, 324)

The professionalization of American public culture provided access to those chances to a far broader range of American citizens than had the oratorical culture that preceded it, though by definition it excluded many others who lacked requisite expertise. What appears to have been lost in the transformation is some of the ability of those citizens to think and act collectively beyond the boundaries of their professional subcultures.


Conclusion

We have argued that the earliest nineteenth-century American rhetoric was neoclassical because American culture at this time was in an important sense an oratorical culture. What this means is that at the beginning of the century, the orator had a central cultural role: to articulate a public moral consensus and bring it to bear on particular issues through forms of discourse -- spoken or written -- that were more or less classical. During the course of the nineteenth century,

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