A Nation of Speechifiers: Making an American Public after the Revolution

A Nation of Speechifiers: Making an American Public after the Revolution

by Carolyn Eastman

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In the decades after the American Revolution, inhabitants of the United States began to shape a new national identity. Telling the story of this messy yet formative process, Carolyn Eastman argues that ordinary men and women gave meaning to American nationhood and national belonging by first learning to imagine themselves as members of a shared public.

She reveals that the creation of this American public—which only gradually developed nationalistic qualities—took place as men and women engaged with oratory and print media not only as readers and listeners but also as writers and speakers. Eastman paints vibrant portraits of the arenas where this engagement played out, from the schools that instructed children in elocution to the debating societies, newspapers, and presses through which different groups jostled to define themselves—sometimes against each other. Demonstrating the previously unrecognized extent to which nonelites participated in the formation of our ideas about politics, manners, and gender and race relations, A Nation of Speechifiers provides an unparalleled genealogy of early American identity.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226180212
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 06/15/2010
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Carolyn Eastman is assistant professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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Making an American Public after the Revolution


Copyright © 2009 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-18019-9

Chapter One

Demosthenes in America


American schoolbooks routinely presented the Greek orator Demosthenes as a model for children to admire and emulate. In their stories, Demosthenes appears as a youth eager to display his civic virtue by speaking before the assembly but stymied by crippling speech impediments. As one early nineteenth-century schoolbook told the tale, he was "hissed by the whole audience" in his earliest attempts at public speaking, yet he triumphed over his humiliation through sheer will. He "went to the sea shore; and whilst the waves were in the most violent agitation, he pronounced harangues, to accustom himself by the confused noise of the waters, to the roar of the people, and the tumultuous cries of public assemblies." He placed pebbles in his mouth to overcome his "thick mumbling way of speaking," and to correct his chronic shortness of breath, he declaimed while marching uphill.1 These legends of his perseverance raised him to the status of an elocutionary saint in early national schoolbooks. By learning to invest his speech with power and eloquence, Demosthenes went on to champion some of his country's most important causes, earning fame for both Greece and the art of oratory.

Demosthenes was the perfect model for American schoolchildren—and not just because his life epitomized the benefits of hard work and self-improvement. He symbolized the ideal civic orator, the "good man" whose selfless passion for virtue infused his speech with conviction and moved others to public action. The new United States decidedly lacked such a leader. American schoolbooks were replete with eloquent speeches on liberty and truth, but most had been delivered by contemporary British leaders such as William Pitt and Edmund Burke. The Revolution had produced a few memorable speakers—most notably Patrick Henry, whose "give me liberty or give me death" speech remained legendary (and apocryphal)—but none had assumed prominent positions in the postwar federal government; some of them, including Henry, had even become vocal Anti-Federalists. In fact, the most prominent American political figures of the late eighteenth century were notoriously weak speakers. When George Washington read a prepared speech for his inauguration in 1789 from handwritten notes, many in attendance cringed at his clumsy attempts to gesture while shifting the pages from hand to hand. Schoolbook editors did not hesitate to address this gap in oratorical leadership. Trying to put the best face on the problem, Increase Cooke's American Orator (1811) explained that "the public speakers of this country have been celebrated as excellent reasoners; while their orators have been few." Cooke attributed these leaders' oratorical failings to "indolence with regard to the requisite labour, and inattention to the high value of eloquence." Acknowledgments like this, alongside the story of Demosthenes, allowed schoolbooks to up the ante when they asked children to improve their speech. The future of the republic depended on it—or so they implied.

Apparently the republic depended more on children's good speech habits than on what came to be called "civics," since information about the nation's history, its founding texts, or the people's shared characteristics was almost entirely absent from American schoolbooks and children's reports of school curricula before the 1810s. Instead, teachers and schoolbooks alike concentrated on refining children's characters, deportment, and speech as important elements of preparing them to participate in society. Learning "genteel address" via the methods circulated by the transatlantic elocution movement was crucial to all walks of life, educators insisted. "Knowledge adorned by manners, and polished by refinement, will infallibly procure" a good reputation and success in business, the Universal Asylum told its readers in 1791. As much as this philosophy differed from later notions of civics instruction, however, contemporaries would have argued that it did teach children that they had important roles as members of the public. As they improved themselves, they improved the nation as a whole. Educational practices forwarded an understanding of belonging to the public that prompted highly engaged participation by nonelite men and women.

This chapter establishes a conceptual foundation for the book as a whole by showing that elocutionary education taught lay Americans to share views of public engagement long before such participation was defined solely in patriotic terms. My close examination of the ideals and practices of this ubiquitous form of learning demonstrates that its early emphasis on cultivating sensibility transmitted a powerful sense of children's responsibilities as members of the public. Nor were those prescriptive messages limited to printed schoolbooks; they were evident at the "exhibition days" when schoolchildren displayed their knowledge by declaiming short speeches and scenes before large audiences of parents and community members, performances that gave enormous numbers of boys and girls throughout the Northeast similar experiences in public speaking. Not until the 1810s did schoolbooks begin to engage their readers explicitly as national subjects and to cultivate patriotism—and even then they emphasized the central significance of oratory. As schoolbooks heralded new congressional orators such as Daniel Webster, John Randolph, and Henry Clay as exemplifying political virtue, they claimed that the United States had now realized its potential to create civic leaders who might fulfill the role of Demosthenes in America. In sum, the focus on oratory in early republican education established conceptions of public engagement that were widely shared across regions and in urban and rural settings alike and played an important role in offering a range of definitions of the American public overall. The cross-fertilization of education, public speech, and nationalism created new ways of understanding the public and its leaders in the early American republic.


By the twentieth century, American public education had become such a powerful institution, and so integral to fostering patriotic identification and civic education among the young, that scholars often struggled to describe earlier educational practices and theories outside those terms. To be sure, it proved easy to find late eighteenth-century writings that advocated education as the best means of promoting national identification in youth, as if it were only a matter of time before Americans would arrive at a uniform, publicly financed system for educating the masses (it would take a century). Benjamin Rush, for example, wrote that Americans must "adapt our modes of teaching to the peculiar form of our government." He famously theorized that a systematic education could "convert men into republican machines. This must be done, if we expect them to perform their parts properly, in the great machine of the government of state." Rush's enthusiasm for an orderly system by which citizens learned "a regard for their country" was matched by that of Noah Webster, who also advocated educating Americans as Americans, by seeking to "implant ... the principles of virtue and of liberty; and inspire them with just and liberal ideas of government, and with an inviolable attachment to their own country." In 1795 the American Philosophical Society sponsored a contest for the best essay on a national system of education, promising a prize of one hundred dollars. When the society emerged with two winners to share the prize (one a prominent minister, the other a newspaper editor), it arranged for the publication of both essays. Writings by prominent cultural leaders were supplemented by hundreds of additional published writings by lay citizens similarly recommending educational reform. The frequent appearance of such writings demonstrates how thoroughly some of the most visible cultural leaders of this era imagined education as a primary means of prompting national identification among the public. As the historian Lawrence Cremin has noted, no other topic was so thoroughly discussed in the early republic as the need for universal education.

But if these writers agreed that education was essential to the flourishing of the republic, they differed on nearly all the specifics. Foremost were disagreements over the appropriate aims of such a national system. Whereas some advocates of egalitarianism saw education as a tool for creating a more democratic society and preparing large numbers of the people (even women and racial minorities) for political participation, most Americans—Federalist and Republican alike—did not agree. They maintained more conventional views that education was not necessary for the poor beyond learning to read and cipher. Neither did citizens believe that tuition should be free, particularly for older children who required more advanced or specialized topics. Some of the most aristocratic thinkers saw education more as a means of fostering social obedience than enhancing intellects; a few went so far as to oppose educating the poor. Others disregarded elementary-level schooling altogether, instead promoting improvements in advanced academies and colleges; one popular conversation concerned establishing a single national university. A significant subset of magazine writers were preoccupied with whether schools should teach "practical" subjects to boys and eschew Latin and Greek—a topic laden with class assumptions, since only a tiny number of the most privileged boys would find use for those languages. Virtually no one discussed the prospect of national oversight of schools or uniformity of curricula—most likely because such ideas were unimaginable, but also because they would have been anathema to a population accustomed to local control.

Virtually none of these proposals was implemented—and not for lack of trying. Several times between 1779 and 1817, Thomas Jefferson backed plans for Virginia to establish a state-administered system of free local "reading" schools and advanced regional academies for especially talented boys, the neediest of whom would receive free tuition at the College of William and Mary. Each time, however, his plan failed to win approval, as did similar legislation designed by Benjamin Rush for the state of Pennsylvania. Georgia passed a bill in 1785 modeled on Jefferson's ideas but did almost nothing to enact it except at the college and academy levels—efforts that were delayed by decades. Massachusetts passed a law in 1789 requiring towns of a certain size to provide schools for local children but neither funded nor enforced the measure. Considering the relative prevalence of common schools in that state, the law probably did little more than codify existing practices. New York and Connecticut established state-based endowments to fund local schools in 1795, but the New York legislature repealed its law after only five years, unwilling to continue exacting property taxes to pay for schools.

In each of these cases, the costs of instituting state-funded schools at any level may have been prohibitive, but expense was not the primary reason for the bills' demise. Most Americans in this era had little reason to view centralization as feasible, much less as a measurable improvement over existing schools, which were organized at the local level and funded by a combination of state assistance, taxes, and parents' tuition payments. This rule held true as much for funding colleges and upper-level academies as for elementary or reading schools. The later nineteenth-century distinction between "public" and "private" schools would have been meaningless in this era, when most Americans saw all schools, even those reserved for the elite, as serving the public good. Even those who argued most strongly for educational reform objected to losing local control, on both practical and philosophical grounds.

The disconnected and locally organized nature of schools is best exemplified in their use of schoolbooks. By the time of the Revolution it had become common for most schools to expect children to bring their own books—whatever titles they happened to own. "The spelling-lesson of a class would be heard one morning from one kind of book and on the next from a different kind," one memoirist remembered of his New York City childhood in the 1820s. "That boy was accounted lucky whose book chanced to be selected for any single occasion, as he, therefore, was more likely to be posted in the lesson than the rest of the class." Children transcribed lines from classmates' books into their own copybooks—a task that teachers viewed as doubly useful since it allowed them to improve their handwriting at the same time as they learned lessons.

To add to the lack of uniformity, families enjoyed a surprising choice in schoolbooks. Hundreds of titles appeared in the early republic, compiled by teachers, printers, college students, and ministers, most known only within their local communities. A few of these titles became extraordinary best sellers, far beyond the sales of other titles in this era aside from the Bible and psalters. The most prominent of these, Lindley Murray's English Reader (1799), went through 327 editions throughout the states by 1840 and, together with Murray's two other literacy textbooks, sold more than 12.5 million copies. Not far behind was Noah Webster's three-volume Grammatical Institute, which sold an estimated 10.6 million copies in the same period. These books were extraordinary sellers, but others achieved more localized success. John Hubbard's American Reader appeared in ten editions in rural areas of western New Hampshire, Vermont, and upstate New York, probably selling between 10,000 and 30,000 copies. But since dozens of other titles existed alongside these volumes in both the retail and used-book markets, classrooms always featured a wide variety of books.

Between the plethora of titles available to students and disagreements about the means and ends of education, Americans evinced little desire to make education more regular or uniform, even within a single state. Schools in the early republic remained locally run, decentralized, and subject to community-based educational standards, as they had during the colonial era. The uneven nature of formal schooling thus makes it impossible to gauge how many Americans in the Northeast attended school in the early days of the republic, particularly considering the vast differences in status, wealth, locale, and region. Most states required parents and guardians to arrange for their children's education, but some taught reading and ciphering within the family circle while others sent their children to school for as little as a single session. Moreover, while some areas featured established schools with regular schedules, other locales had "moving" schools (in which a single teacher traveled between several remote rural communities to teach brief sessions) or hired temporary teachers for periods as short as eight weeks.

Yet despite the apparently chaotic nature of early American schools, they shared important practices—primarily their reliance on oral performance. Their views of orality were grounded in theories derived from the Anglo-American elocution movement that began in the mid-eighteenth century and held sway long into the nineteenth. "If we add cadence, emphasis, together with suitable modulations of the voice, we shall then have included every thing necessary to [teach] children to read," explained Daniel Adams in his 1803 schoolbook, The Understanding Reader. As Adams and virtually all his contemporaries would have it, learning to read necessarily meant reading aloud and using "suitable modulations of the voice" to convey a text's meaning clearly. Educational theories and practices repeatedly stressed that written texts were directly related to spoken words, vocal emphasis, and inflection—practices believed to be useful for students at all levels, and outside the classroom as well as within.


Excerpted from A NATION OF SPEECHIFIERS by CAROLYN EASTMAN Copyright © 2009 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Introduction: Messy Beginnings

Part 1   Making an American Public: Overviews

1          Demosthenes in America          

            From Sensibility to Nationalism in Elocutionary Education

2          Vindicating Female Eloquence

            Girls’ Oratory and the Rise and Fall of a Female Counterpublic

3          Mourning for Logan

            “Indian Eloquence” and the Making of an American Public

Part 2   Contesting Public Participation: Debating “the Public”

4          “A Club Is a Nation in Miniature”

            Young Men on the Make and Their Debating Societies

5          Saint Franklin

            Journeymen Printers and the Medium of Democratic Virtue

6          “Who’s Afraid” of Frances Wright?
            Media Debates about the Public and Its Spokesmen in 1829

Conclusion: The Ongoing Process of Making an American Public




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