Enduring Legacy: Rhetoric and Ritual of the Lost Cause

Enduring Legacy: Rhetoric and Ritual of the Lost Cause

by W. Stuart Towns

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Rhetoric and ritual commemorating war has been a part of human culture for ages. In Enduring Legacy,W. Stuart Towns explores the crucial role of rhetoric and oratory in creating and propagating a “Lost Cause” public memory of the American South. 
Enduring Legacy explores

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Rhetoric and ritual commemorating war has been a part of human culture for ages. In Enduring Legacy,W. Stuart Towns explores the crucial role of rhetoric and oratory in creating and propagating a “Lost Cause” public memory of the American South. 
Enduring Legacy explores the vital place of ceremonial oratory in the oral tradition in the South.  It analyses how rituals such as Confederate Memorial Day, Confederate veteran reunions, and dedication of Confederate monuments have contributed to creating and sustaining a Lost Cause paradigm for Southern identity.  Towns studies in detail secessionist and Civil War speeches and how they laid the groundwork for future generations, including Southern responses to the civil rights movement, and beyond.  The Lost Cause orators that came after the Civil War, Towns argues, helped to shape a lasting mythology of the brave Confederate martyr, and the Southern positions for why the Confederacy lost and who was to blame.  Innumerable words were spent—in commemorative speeches, newspaper editorials, and statehouse oratory—condemning the evils of Reconstruction, redemption, reconciliation, and the new and future South. Towns concludes with an analysis of how Lost Cause myths still influence Southern and national perceptions of the region today, as evidenced in debates over the continued deployment of the Confederate flag and the popularity of Civil War re-enactments.

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“By careful attention to the ceremonial settings and the persistence of the speech-making themes over several generations, the author shows how the status of the orators, the pervasiveness of the rituals, and the repetition of themes for so long created a new white-dominated southern public identity out of the social chaos, uncertainty, and despair at the end of the Civil War in the South.”—Charles Reagan Wilson is the Director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. He is the author of Judgment and Grace in Dixie: Southern Faiths from Faulkner to Elvis and Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1868-1920. He is also the editor of numerous books, among them the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture.

“No southern historian has ever brought such a wealth of source material to bear on a subject. Primary sources dominate the manuscript, in every chapter. The manuscript has a solid core of rhetorical/artifactual sources that, woven carefully together, never waiver from the centrality of Town’s thesis - Lost Cause rhetoric tells the story of the South. No other region of the country can make such a claim.”—Carl Kell is a professor of Communication at Western Kentucky University and the author of Against the Wind: The Moderate Voice in Baptist Life, coauthor of In the Name of the Father: The Rhetoric of the New Southern Baptist Convention and editor of Exiled: Voices of the Southern Baptist Convention Holy War

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Enduring Legacy

Rhetoric and Ritual of the Lost Cause
By W. Stuart Towns

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 2012 The University of Alabama Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8173-1752-2

Chapter One

Rhetoric, Celebration, and Ritual Building a Collective Memory in the Postwar South

"That southern art": Oratory in the South

Perhaps in no other Western nation of modern times has the practice of public speaking played such a predominant role in the life of a nation as in the United States. Beginning with the earliest Puritan sermons and continuing into the twenty-first century, much of the history of America can be read through a study of political oratory and legislative speeches, religious sermons, public lectures, courtroom pleadings, ceremonial addresses, and biographies of the men and women who left their mark from the public platform. Ephemeral though they may be, and targeted to a specific audience at a specific time and event for a specific purpose, they provide a snapshot of that moment that captures the essence of that event and place. Many of them live on past that moment, whether it be a religious revival, a critical vote in the legislature or at the ballot box, a spectacular trial, or an annual Fourth of July celebration. Those who heard the speech later discussed it with their friends, family, and associates; or, as many times happened, the speech was printed and circulated widely. Today they appear in their entirety in major newspapers, or newsworthy extracts are repeated over and over on the news channels, blogs, and social media outlets. Scores have become classics of American literature and icons of American culture: Patrick Henry's "Give Me Liberty," George Washington's "Farewell Address," Abraham Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address," Franklin Roosevelt's "Four Freedoms" speech, John Kennedy's "Inaugural," Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream," and Ronald Reagan's eulogy on the Challenger disaster all come quickly to mind. There are thousands more that have shaped our history as a nation and a culture. Hugh Legaré, a leading nineteenth-century South Carolina orator and political leader, touched on the literary and enduring qualities of the art when he called oratory "poetry subdued to the business of civic life."

Many historians have commented on the role of public address in the life of the new nation. Daniel Boorstin writes about "the exuberant development of oratory in the United States" and believes that "the most distinctive, most influential, and most successful forms of the new American literature were expressions in print of spoken American.... [I]t was aware of its sound, of its audience, of its effect as a stirrer primarily of common sentiments between a speaker (rather than a writer) and a listener (rather than a reader). It was a declamatory literature." In another place he proposes: "It would not be difficult to compile a complete American history ... through the most dramatic and effective public speeches.... We can find few nations whose oratory can bring the student so close to their history." For Boorstin, the orator "acquired a mythic role," and oratory became "the main form of American public ritual." Barnett Baskerville, a leading historian of American public address, believes that "through out the greater part of our history as a nation the orator was chief among American folk heroes." Charles S. Sydnor points out that as early as the colonial period "a premium was put on oratory" in the Virginia House of Burgesses. Public speaking is the lifeblood of decision making and community formation in the American culture as it has been since the colonial era and will continue to be as long as the Constitution endures, the Declaration of Independence is known, Lincoln's speeches are understood, and people recall Kennedy's "Ask not what your country can do for you ..."

Probably nowhere in America (with the possible exception of New England) was oratory more vital, more "exuberant," and more honored than in the nineteenth-century South. A leading scholar of southern oratory, Waldo Braden, points out that "orality was at the center of antebellum southern life" beginning with the storytelling rituals around the fire and the African legends transported to America and passed down in the slave quarters and continued through the "many southern politicians [who] built their speaking around their storytelling."

In his study of William Yancey, the "orator of secession," William G. Brown comments on the role and place of oratory in the deep South prior to the Civil War. According to Brown, "it was the spoken word, not the printed page, that guided thought, aroused enthusiasm, made history." Calling the various occasions for public speaking that flourished in the region the "true universities of the Lower South," Brown points out that "the man who wished to lead or to teach must be able to speak ... he must charm them with voice and gesture." Brown concludes: "It is doubtful if there ever has been a society in which the orator counted for more than he did in the Cotton Kingdom." Although Brown was writing about the antebellum years, this passion for speechmaking was evident until well into the twentieth century.

Southern leadership was quick to recognize the role of public address in a democratic republic. William C. Preston, noted by one historian as South Carolina's Cicero, and perhaps the leading South Carolina example of a "southern orator," expressed the relationship of rhetoric and democracy when he said, "Liberty and eloquence are united in all ages. When the sovereign power is found in the public mind and the public heart, eloquence is the obvious approach to it. Power and honor and all that can attract ardent and aspiring natures attend it. The noblest instinct is to propagate the spirit, to 'make our minds, the minds of other men.'"

In the antebellum era and well into the twentieth century, oratory flourished in the southern United States as the expression and reflection of the values of the white male population of the region. Orators described and defended those values in a way that was appreciated by their audiences; as a result, they were respected and revered, and many historians and commentators have reflected on southern public address. Wilbur Cash describes "the Southern fondness for rhetoric" and claims that in the South, "rhetoric flourished here far beyond even its American average; it early became a passion.... The greatest man would be the man who could best wield it." Throughout the South, oratory was the focus of southern life for rural and small-town audiences who had few opportunities for entertainment and little connection to the larger world; it was called "that southern art" by a leading historian of the Civil War era. The impact of oratory ranged from frequent joint debates held in most political campaigns, which brought "together a great concourse of people," to Sunday sermonizing and summer camp meeting revivals, to courtroom lawyers arguing before their juries and large audiences of spectators, and to ceremonial occasions such as the Fourth of July. In the South, writes Francis P. Gaines, "oratory had peculiar dominance in the admiration, the aspiration ... of that section.... The influence of the spoken word represents a unique quality of that civilization.... [It] responded more immediately and more eagerly to the oration than to any other mode of communication."

A Mississippian reminiscing about the days before the Civil War wrote that "one of the most remarkable characteristics of the Southern people ... was their universal enjoyment of public speaking and their intense appreciation of good popular oratory." James H. Thornwell, president of South Carolina College, pointed out that "among none is the facility of public speaking so indispensable to success in every walk of life." This point of view was confirmed by a historian of Thornwell's college, who averred: "No accomplishment was more highly respected in the Old South than oratory." Francis P. Gaines wrote about the "elaborate feasts of oratory, almost orgies of oratory" in the antebellum years.

Southern colleges and schools all offered classes in oratory, and societies such as the Clariosophic and the Euphradian at South Carolina College provided additional training and opportunity to hone one's skills; for years, every student at the college belonged to one or the other of these organizations. In his history of the University of South Carolina, Edwin L. Green wrote that "speaking was the great road to success ... so that the students became members of the societies as a matter of course." At the University of Georgia, "disputation" was a required course, and in the decade before the Civil War, literary societies were the main extracurricular activity in southern colleges. No graduation exercise was complete without several student-delivered original orations and declamations on the program. E. Merton Coulter summed it up in his survey of college life in the Old South: "There was no end to oratory in the antebellum South."

Cash captured the quest and the passion for eloquence instilled in the young students of the antebellum era when he asserted: "To be a captain in the struggle against the Yankee, to be a Calhoun or a Brooks in Congress, or, better still, to be a Yancey or a Rhett ramping through the land with a demand for the sword—this was to be at the very heart of one's time and place, was, for the plantation youth, full of hot blood, the only desirable career." Richard Weaver believed the literature of the Old South was the "literature of the forum," that is, the public speech. In South Carolina, "society placed the lawyer-orator-politician in high esteem," according to Daniel Hollis. Virginius Dabney took this point of view as well, as he believed that the "cherished ambition of almost any young Southerner was for a public rather than a literary career." Referring to skills in public speaking, Bertram Wyatt-Brown asserted that a southern man's "reputation arose in large part from skill in its exercise at gatherings large or small." In sum, oratory was the prime means of public education in the issues of the day, of religious instruction and inspiration, and of public commemoration; large amounts of entertainment were thrown in for good measure.

Not only was oratory a staple of college curricula and activities around the South, but it also was taught around the region's firesides. Katharine Du Pre Lumpkin of Charleston wrote about her early twentieth-century southern family ritual of the "Saturday Night Debating Club." With her Confederate veteran father presiding, "we argued topics of Southern problems and Southern history"; the "plaster walls of our parlor rang with tales of the South's sufferings, exhortations to uphold her honor, recitals of her humanitarian slave regime, denunciations of those who dared to doubt the black man's inferiority, and, ever and always, persuasive logic for her position of 'States Rights,' and how we must at all times stand solidly together if we would preserve all that the South 'stood for.' " When the debates and orations were complete, Katharine's father would "assume the role of teacher ... pointing up delivery, commenting on gestures ... taking pains to analyze each child's argument, to show its weak points, and wherein it could have been made stronger." Her autobiography not only illustrates the importance of the spoken word even in the post–Civil War South but also helps to explain the long-lasting nature of the Lost Cause; southerners heard the message and were drilled and coached in the message and its delivery well into the twentieth century.

The public speech, regardless of the time, the place, and the goal of the speaker, is a public statement about the shared values of speaker and audience. It provides a bridge between what the speaker sees as reality and what he or she wants the audience to see and feel and do, on the one hand, with the audience's perception of reality on the other side of the podium. It deals with current, timely problems, issues, and concerns and attempts to provide answers to questions the audience may have about these pressing concerns; it seeks, as Preston put it, to "make our minds, the minds of other men." The speaker intends to influence his or her audience's behaviors, beliefs, perceptions, or attitudes and to gain respect for his or her values and ideas in the minds and emotions of the audience. Speeches are events in the history of a community: real people speaking to other real people about real issues and ideas that concern the community. Especially in an oral society, as the nineteenth-century South clearly was, "the opportunity to exchange ritual words or hear them eloquently pronounced was deeply cherished."

In the postwar South, the defeated region's leadership had many tasks to perform, but chief among them was the need to help the mass of southern whites see and understand a meaning behind the defeat of war, to see a reason for the sacrifice and the struggle. For a region whose education, inspiration, and politics for generations past had come largely from the public orator, it was natural for the public speaker to mount the platform over and over again and remind his audiences how he (and it was virtually always a "he" in the male-dominated public culture of the late-nineteenth-and early twentieth-century South) saw the situation. Repeatedly, in hundreds of ceremonial gatherings on Decoration or Memorial Day, at Confederate veterans' reunions, and at monument dedications, a consistent story was told. This mythology of the Lost Cause was developed fairly quickly after Appomattox and was reinforced time and again for decades to come.

As the South and nation move into the twenty-first century, remnants of the myth still resound around the region in debates over the Confederate flag and the playing of "Dixie," the reenactments of Civil War battles and campgrounds, the celebration of Confederate Memorial Day, the building of new Confederate monuments and the repair of old, Internet websites devoted to elements of the Confederacy and the Lost Cause, and, yes, even in the meetings of, not Confederate veterans, but the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the Daughters of the Confederacy (and several additional generations long removed from the Civil War). These ceremonial speakers constructed for their audiences a useful past, showed how it could shape and guide future conduct, and created a memory of the war and the prewar South that was accepted as the "gospel truth" for several generations of southerners. To some degree it is an active construct in 2012. My belief in the importance and role of oratory in the United States and the South undergirds the assumption made in this book that ceremonial oratory created, shaped, and sustained the memories of the Lost Cause so powerfully that they are still alive today and will remain so well into the future.

Confirming Community: Ceremonial Speaking and Ritual

Ceremonial speaking, or epideictic oratory, has been recognized for over two thousand years as one of the major forms of public address, and it was perhaps the primary vehicle for creating and disseminating the Lost Cause to the South's oral culture. For Aristotle, who was among the first to define the genre, the epideictic speech was presented to audiences on special memorial and celebration days. It was designed for the praise or blame of a man or an institution and was one of the three types of oratory identified by the Greek scholar. In America, the Boston Massacre and Fourth of July orations, Memorial Day addresses, funeral sermons, graduation and baccalaureate addresses, building dedications, Thanksgiving and Election Day sermons, after-dinner speeches, convention keynote speeches, and presidential or gubernatorial inaugural address are examples of this major speaking genre—the ceremonial or epideictic—which became early-on a part of our oral tradition. In the postwar South, three essential epideictic events were focused on the late Confederacy: veterans' reunions, monument dedications, and Con federate Memorial Day festivities.

Epideictic oratory is often thought of as "mere rhetoric" or oratory of "display" and considered less important and more superficial, more entertainment than substance. Its counterparts, judicial and legislative speaking, are evaluated as more important and the ceremonial speech as more ephemeral. It is, however, a viable, dynamic form of communication which, in the case of the Lost Cause, for example, can create, define, reinforce, and pass on the values and traditions of a culture. Celeste Condit calls it "this most important genre," and after studying these speeches carefully and seeing the long-term impact on the region, I would have to agree.


Excerpted from Enduring Legacy by W. Stuart Towns Copyright © 2012 by The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author


W. Stuart Towns is a retired professor and department chair for the Communication Studies Department at Southeast Missouri State University.  He is the author of "We Want Our Freedom": Rhetoric of the Civil Rights Movement.

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