The Political Style of Conspiracy: Chase, Sumner and Lincoln

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The turbulent history of the United States has provided a fertile ground for conspiracies, both real and imagined. From the American Revolution to the present day, conspiracy discourse—linguistic and symbolic practices and artifacts revolving around themes, claims, or accusations of conspiracy—has been a staple of political rhetoric. Some conspiracy theories never catch on with the public, while others achieve widespread popularity. Whether successful or not, the means by which particular conspiracy theories spread is a rhetorical process, a process in which persuasive language, symbolism, and arguments act upon individual minds within concrete historical and political settings.
     Conspiracy rhetoric was a driving force in the evolution of antebellum political culture, contributing to the rise and fall of the great parties in the nineteenth century. One conspiracy theory in particular—the "slave power" conspiracy—was instrumental in facilitating the growth of the young Republican Party's membership and ideology. The Political Style of Conspiracy analyzes the concept and reality of the "slave power" in the rhetorical discourse of the mid-nineteenth-century, in particular the speeches and writing of politicians Salmon P. Chase, Charles Sumner, and Abraham Lincoln. By examining their mainstream texts, Pfau reveals that, in addition to the "paranoid style" of conspiracy rhetoric that inhabits the margins of political life, Lincoln, Chase, and Sumner also engaged in a distinctive form of conspiracy rhetoric that is often found at the center of mainstream American society and politics.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780870137600
  • Publisher: Michigan State University Press
  • Publication date: 11/28/2005
  • Series: Rhetoric & Public Affairs Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 248
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael William Pfau is Associate Professor of Communication at the University of Minnesota-Duluth.

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Table of Contents

Ch. 1 Problems of interpretation : approaching conspiracy in text and discourse 1
Ch. 2 The slave power according to Salmon P. Chase : entering the mainstream of partisan rhetoric, 1845-1854 47
Ch. 3 Charles Sumner's "crime against Kansas" : conspiracy rhetoric in the oratorical mold 87
Ch. 4 Lincoln, conspiracy rhetoric, and the "house divided" : assessing the judgment of history 121
Ch. 5 Lessons of the slave power conspiracy : conspiracy rhetoric at the center and fringe 153
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  • Posted January 22, 2009

    conspiratorial perspective toward opponents in pre-Civil War America

    Pfau uses Richard Hofstadter's seminal essay 'The Paranoid Style in American Politics' are a matrix for his own study except where Hofstadter sees the 'paranoid style' as mostly at the fringes of political activity and rhetoric, Pfau sees it as central to this in the years leading up to the Civil War. Starting most notably with Salmon P. Chase, a politician from Ohio, the Southern slaveholders were inferred to be a group working to take over the Federal government to insure the perpetuation of slavery throughout the country, not just the South and some western states as the U.S. expanded. This repeated rhetoric strengthened the Abolitionist movement, and also effectively spread antislavery sentiment and prompted political alertness and activism to work against this alleged design of the slaveholders. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts picked up on this perspective spawned by Chase. In coming to Abraham Lincoln, Pfau paints him not to be the compromise, moderate choice of the Republican Party he is usually seen as, but another in the line of like-minded politicians fostering a picture of the slaveholders as a monolithic group bent on taking over the government. Lincoln was more subtle and artful in extending this paranoid style viewing the opposition as a threat to democratic, majority-rule government. Lincoln's 'house divided' speech which is generally agreed among historians to have sealed his nomination is closely analyzed for its characterization of the slaveholders and cultivation of a 'paranoid style' to thwart their aims. An assistant professor of Communication Studies at the U. of Minnesota-Duluth, Pfau casts much of American politics and history in a new light.

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