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Fanatical Schemes: Proslavery Rhetoric and the Tragedy of Consensus

Fanatical Schemes: Proslavery Rhetoric and the Tragedy of Consensus

by Patricia Roberts-Miller

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What was the relationship between rhetoric and slavery, and how did rhetoric fail as an alternative to violence, becoming instead its precursor?   Fanatical Schemes is a study of proslavery rhetoric in the 1830s. A common understanding of the antebellum slavery debate is that the increased stridency of abolitionists in the 1830s, particularly the


What was the relationship between rhetoric and slavery, and how did rhetoric fail as an alternative to violence, becoming instead its precursor?   Fanatical Schemes is a study of proslavery rhetoric in the 1830s. A common understanding of the antebellum slavery debate is that the increased stridency of abolitionists in the 1830s, particularly the abolitionist pamphlet campaign of 1835, provoked proslavery politicians into greater intransigence and inflammatory rhetoric. Patricia Roberts-Miller argues that, on the contrary, inflammatory rhetoric was inherent to proslavery ideology and predated any shift in abolitionist practices.   She examines novels, speeches, and defenses of slavery written after the pamphlet controversy to underscore the tenets of proslavery ideology and the qualities that made proslavery rhetoric effective. She also examines anti-abolitionist rhetoric in newspapers from the spring of 1835 and the history of slave codes (especially anti-literacy laws) to show that anti-abolitionism and extremist rhetoric long preceded more strident abolitionist activity in the 1830s.   The consensus that was achieved by proslavery advocates, argues Roberts-Miller, was not just about slavery, nor even simply about race. It was also about manhood, honor, authority, education, and political action. In the end, proslavery activists worked to keep the realm of public discourse from being a place in which dominant points of view could be criticized--an achievement that was, paradoxically, both a rhetorical success and a tragedy.

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"Roberts-Miller (rhetoric and writing, Univ. of Texas, Austin) presents incisive critical analyses, firmly based in theory, of the communication of southern proslavery rhetors during the 30 years prior to the Civil War. She provides extensive examples of a variety of forms of communication to support her conclusion that the South became trapped in its own extremist rhetoric. Systematic suppression of any discussion of slavery both in the South and, thanks to gag rules, in Congress magnified the difficulty; as a result, decisions were made without deliberation. The author points out that an underlying feeling of moral ambiguity about slavery may have led to the alarmist, hyperbolic, and irrational pronouncements about (nonexistent) threats to the 'Southern way of life.' And she even suggests that the mind-set produced by these excesses led to secession and the Civil War. Rational thought would have led to the conclusion that Lincoln was a weak, lame-duck president, with little support in Congress, who could be ignored for four years. The book includes extensive in-text annotation and substantive endnotes. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty; general readers."

"Fanatical Schemes makes a vital contribution to rhetoric studies. This book will certainly change how rhetoric scholars and Americanists look at abolition as a cultural and rhetorical movement. The command that Roberts-Miller has over this material is authoritative and absolutely convincing."
--Nan Johnson, Professor of English, The Ohio State University

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Fanatical Schemes

Proslavery Rhetoric and the Tragedy of Consensus
By Patricia Roberts-Miller


Copyright © 2009 The University of Alabama Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8173-1642-6

Chapter One

"Slavery shall not be discussed"

The Political Power of the Irrational Rhetor

If we are to take it seriously, hyperbole must elicit some sort of belief or assent: that is to say that it demands of us the simultaneous perception of its literal falsehood and its imaginative relevance. -Janet Adelman

Slavery was an economic and political institution. It was also, however, a rhetorical construct. People argued for and against it, and, in the course of doing so, implicitly or explicitly defined it. For instance, while various speakers in the gag rule debate disagreed about the identity, motives, and rights of abolitionists, every speaker agreed that "the South" was proslavery. This fantastical synecdoche was created rhetorically, by the constant and cunning equation of "southern" identity with the experience and politics of a minority of people living south of the Mason-Dixon, by the erasure from public argument the fact that slavery had only recently been abolished in states like Pennsylvania and New York, and by the removal from public discourse of the views of slaves and southern abolitionists. Slavery was a real, physical fact, but also an imagined institution. Proslavery rhetors like William Gilmore Simms relied on abstractions about slavery: "the slave," "the woman," "the man," and "the slaveowner." These abstractions had more rhetorical power in the discourse than specifics, so the fact that some slave owners abused and exploited their slaves did not, for these rhetors, change the essentially loving and patriarchal nature of slavery. In pro slavery ideology, the data exemplifies, but neither tests nor supports, the propositions; if a specific piece of data contradicts the abstraction, it is discarded in favor of another, or in favor of the abstraction.

Rhetoric affected the policy of slavery in yet another way. If the country were to have found a political solution to slavery, it would have had to have been done rhetorically: rhetors would have had to argue for abolition, or against slavery, persuasively. That persuasion might have been what abolitionists termed "moral suasion"-many abolitionists appear to have hoped that pamphlets and newspapers directed at slave owners would persuade them to free their slaves individually. Much rhetoric (meaning simply suasory discourse) was directed at political institutions; by the 1830s, many abolitionists were working to cease the expansion of slavery (which all agreed would ring the death knell for southern slavery), some were trying to persuade state legislatures to consider abolition, and some were trying to persuade Congress to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia. Thus, one might, as have many scholars, look at how abolitionists tried to persuade their readers and listeners. One might, as have fewer scholars, look at how pro slavery rhetors argued for slavery. Of more interest to me is a question about public discourse itself: how did contemporary rules about political discussion (what are generally called rhetorical theories) constrain the political outcome?

Rhetoric, the Greek word for "oratory," has long claimed to be the art of public discourse. Teachers of rhetoric claimed that it benefited not only the individual who could use rhetorical skill to achieve political power (the argument made by Callicles in Plato's dialogue Gorgias), but also to deliberate on issues of common concern. Aristotle and Cicero each present rhetoric as a skill of thinking from both sides; this ability to see the issue from a different side not only enables one to refute opposition arguments, but is actually a useful way for individuals and communities to come to decisions. By presenting arguments effectively, well-trained rhetors put forward the best possible case for the various options available to a community. By listening critically, audiences well trained in rhetoric discern the best option. For people like Aristotle and Cicero, rhetoric is not merely a way to dress up one's argument to make it more attractive, but an art of community deliberation on matters about which certainty is not possible.

Rhetoric is not always deliberation; the word "rhetoric" has a nasty connotation largely because people have experienced public discourse as manipulative, dishonest, and self-serving, what Wayne Booth calls "rhetrickery." But, as people ranging from Aristotle to Arendt have argued, the study of public discourse, or rhetoric, can also be used to disable rhetrickery. Rhetoric can be manipulative, and rhetoric can enable people to perceive the manipulation; rhetoric can be used to slide bad policies past an unquestioning public, and it can be the art of coming to better policies; rhetoric can be used for scapegoating marginalized groups, and rhetoric can be the way that those groups make themselves heard. Obviously, public discourse can be all sorts of different things; the question for people interested in representative government is what approach to public discourse promotes inclusive deliberation.

Perhaps the most popular model for public discourse now is the "marketplace of ideas," so that public discourse about products for sale is no different from that concerning policies to be considered. Both are considered products that someone presents as attractively as possible to as many markets as possible. Voters are seen as nothing more than consumers of ideologies (and products are often marketed as ideologies-ranging from clothes that look expensive to "fair trade" coffee). I've written elsewhere about the problems with this model (see Deliberate Conflict 98-120), but the main point here is that this model does not require, and sometimes does not even permit, deliberation. Consumers/voters choose from among the products made available to them by people who are precommitted (generally for economic reasons) to one product/political agenda. Like picking products off a store shelf, voters pick prepackaged politicians or ideologies.

Deliberation, or argumentation, is not the same as public argument. If one accepts the definition of "argument" as an assertion with a related reason, then much public discourse is not argument at all. Argumentation and deliberation are further distinguished by being dialectical-under those conditions, an argument is engaged with the discourse prior to it, and influences the outcome. Public discourse may involve arguments (assertions with reasons) that have nothing to do with the outcome because it is predetermined (as in the factionalized media of the 1830s or the 1835 Democratic convention), or shifting of positions may be forbidden (either explicitly, as in the kind of internal censorship in which the antebellum media engaged, or through cultural control, as in the equation of changing positions with unmanly vacillating) or the discourse can simply be the expression of opinion with no acknowledgment of other positions (as in the gag rule debate, in which many rhetors asserted unanimity in the face of disagreement). In contrast, while people participating in deliberation come to it with preferences, ideologies, and assumptions, these are not predetermined and protected commitments; they can be examined, modified, or abandoned. In the ideal speech situation (ideal not simply in the sense of being perfect, but also in the sense of being possible only as an idea and not a reality), individuals are willing to examine, explain, modify, and even abandon any belief disputed by another individual in the discussion. The more that interlocutors are willing to behave that way, the more that it is what some rhetoricians call "good faith" argumentation, Jürgen Habermas calls "communicative action," argumentation theorists like Frans Van Eemeren and Rob Grootendorst call "critical discussion," and political theorists call deliberation.

Deliberation is different from bargaining (which is not the same as "bad faith" argumentation). In a bargaining situation, everyone is presumed to have immovable precommitments, and no one is really trying to change anyone's beliefs; people are simply trying to get the best outcome for themselves and/or their constituents. One achieves the most advantageous outcome through making more credible threats and offering more attractive incentives. Because the outcomes depend on threats and incentives, those who enter the discourse with more power can get the most favorable outcome; it is about neither fairness nor reasons.

What is generally called "epideictic" rhetoric among historians of rhetoric is not really any of the above, although closest to the marketplace model. The term that Aristotle used for the "praise or blame" speeches common in Athenian culture (such as a funeral oration), this kind of public discourse functions rhetorically in very complicated ways. A funeral oration like Pericles's famous one during the plague that hit Athens in the early years of the Peloponnesian Wars does not look like what Aristotle calls a "deliberative" oration: it was not given in the Assembly, and Pericles was not advocating or attacking a proposal on which the listeners were about to vote (in fact, a large part of the speech is directed to women, who had no vote). But, he was clearly trying to persuade listeners to remain committed to a war that had already lasted longer than people had predicted and cost far more in lives and property than had been expected. Confirming Athenians' sense of themselves as intellectual and brave, Pericles was trying to connect that sense of self to the course of action he was advocating: do not lose hope. Epideictic does not look like deliberative rhetoric because it appears to be entirely based on confirming what people already believe; it appears to tell them nothing new. But, as in the case of Pericles's speech, it does have an impact with policy consequences.

In addition, it does persuade listeners about the speaker. Kenneth Greenberg (using the term "oration" for what rhetoricians call epideictic) says that both orations and speeches can be used to persuade or malign, but they are different in impact: "What was different about an oration was that one of its primary functions was to inspire rhetoric, even awe for the speaker in the minds of the listeners. An oration, in contrast to a speech, was the public display of a superior personality [...] The subject matter was sometimes even secondary to this display" (Masters and Statesmen 12). A rousing Fourth of July oration may not change our understanding of the United States, democracy, or the Declaration of Independence, but it may not be intended to do so. It may be intended to persuade us that the speaker is patriotic.

Among political theorists, some version of what is often called "deliberative democracy" seems to be the most popular; among historians of rhetoric (the academic discipline that traditionally taught the skills determined necessary for participation in public discourse), some version of classical (or, more accurately, neoclassical) rhetoric is favored. Neo classical rhetoric, with its emphasis on debating both sides of a question on issues of civic concern, is liberalizing, not in the sense that it makes people vote for the "liberal" side on political issues, but in the sense that it challenges authoritarianism, questions tradition, and makes a merit of diversity (for more on this argument, see Sloane, especially 47). Advocates of agonistic rhetoric presume that deliberation among people with different perspectives enables both individuals and communities to understand a topic more thoroughly and to envision a wider variety of options. At least as far back as Aristotle, one of the arguments for rhetoric is that it enables a community or individual to come to better decisions.

Rhetoric is supposed to lead to better decisions in four ways. First, as a mental faculty, it (like studying dialectic) enables individuals to understand a situation better. Crassus, one of the ideal rhetors in Cicero's dialogue De Oratore, says that he argues both sides of a case before coming to a decision himself. Second, a public speaker who has considered the other side is better prepared to argue against the opposition, so there is a pragmatic benefit to a prospective rhetor. Third, even if people have no intention of becoming a public speaker, as citizens they will have to judge the rhetoric of others. If rhetoric teaches people to assess arguments critically, then the public is less likely to be persuaded by bad arguments. Finally, as Socrates argued in his defense speech, the unpopular opinions are often right; his voicing what no one wanted to hear was, he insisted, a service which should be rewarded by the state. This sense of public argument as agon-as a contest among points of view-presumes that difference of opinion is a fact to be celebrated, rather than bemoaned. Consequently, silencing points of view, even (perhaps especially) unpopular ones, hurts the community because it necessarily limits the deliberation.

According to scholars of pedagogy, neoclassical and agonistic rhetoric dominated antebellum pedagogy (Clark and Halloran, Johnson, Kitzhaber, T. Miller), especially in the slave states (Christophersen, Westbrook). Newspapers were filled with long arguments that people read; congressional debates were lively and substantive; arguing politics was considered appropriate; student debating societies were popular; speeches were reprinted and discussed. Yet, when it came to debating slavery, there was a sense that the topic should be sacrosanct-the major thrust of pro slavery rhetors was to get a strong (and, ironically enough, federal) support of slavery without a thorough discussion of its merits. As James Trecothick Austin argues (in his 1835 attack on William Channing's Slavery): "The slave region has pronounced its decision. Within its borders Slavery shall not be discussed. The people do not mean by any affectation of liberality to endanger their social system. They believe it is right, but they mean to maintain it wrong or right. Upon this subject they ask no instruction and they permit none. They have taken their stand. They refute all argument by silencing it, and to all force they are prepared for resistance" (31). This passage is largely accurate, except for its equation of pro slavery and "the slave region." Pro slavery rhetors and the major slave-state politicians were agreed that slavery could not be criticized, and critics of slavery within the South faced boycott, shunning, and personal violence. The problem is that pro slavery rhetors and politicians wanted federal policy changed (as in opening up new areas to slavery, censoring the mail, gagging abolitionists, strengthening the kidnapping of African Americans in free states), which necessitated congressional, and therefore public, policy making. They wanted to change public policy regarding slavery without public debate. They wanted decision making without deliberation.

And they did meet with considerable success, at least insofar as federal policy was predominantly pro slavery, from the renegotiation of the Northwest Ordinance to the admission of California (see Richards, Slave Power; Ransom; Fehrenbacher). The dominance of pro slavery policies was epitomized in the term "doughfaces" (for more on this term, and its meaning through the antebellum era, see Hans Sperber and James Tidwell). First coined in 1819 by John Randolph of Virginia, the term referred to northern politicians whose very face was as pliable as dough-they could be made to do whatever pro slavery politicians desired.

Proslavery rhetors were less successful at silencing criticism of slavery outside of the slave South, but still troublingly effective. This success was generally achieved through calling for, threatening, enacting, or justifying individual and mob violence against any person accused of being an abolitionist, an insurrectionist, an amalgamationist, or disloyal. Like most inflammatory words ("communist," "terrorist," "liberal"), these terms were defined through negation (it means nothing more specific than "a position other than the rhetor's"), so that the charge could be disastrously and effectively applied with little actual argument. The most tragic of such smears was the accusation of insurrectionist, as it led to so many lynchings, but the equation of insurrectionist and abolitionist was nearly as tragic.


Excerpted from Fanatical Schemes by Patricia Roberts-Miller Copyright © 2009 by The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Patricia Roberts-Miller is the author of Voices in the Wilderness: Public Discourse and the Paradox of Puritan Rhetoric and Deliberate Conflict: Argument, Political Theory, and Composition Classes.

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