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Voices in the Wilderness: Public Discourse and the Paradox of Puritan Rhetoric

Voices in the Wilderness: Public Discourse and the Paradox of Puritan Rhetoric

by Patricia Roberts-Miller

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What has gone wrong with discourse and deliberation in the United States? It remains monologic, argues Patricia Roberts-Miller in Voices in the Wilderness, which traces America’s dominant form of argumentation back to its roots in the rhetorical tradition of 17th-century American Puritans. A work of composition theory, rhetorical theory, and cultural


What has gone wrong with discourse and deliberation in the United States? It remains monologic, argues Patricia Roberts-Miller in Voices in the Wilderness, which traces America’s dominant form of argumentation back to its roots in the rhetorical tradition of 17th-century American Puritans. A work of composition theory, rhetorical theory, and cultural criticism, this volume ultimately provides not only new approaches to argumentation and the teaching of rhetoric, composition, and communication but also an original perspective on the current debate over public discourse

Both Jürgen Habermas and Wayne Booth—two of the most influential theorists in the domain of public discourse and good citizenry—argue for an inclusive public deliberation that involves people who are willing to listen to one another, to identify points of agreement and disagreement, and to make good faith attempts to validate any disputed claims. The Puritan voice crying in the wilderness, Roberts-Miller shows, does none of these things. To this individual of conscience engaged in a ceaseless battle of right and wrong against greedy philistines, all inclusion, mediation, and reciprocity are seen as evil, corrupting, and unnecessary. Hence, the voice in the wilderness does not in any real sense participate in public deliberation, only in public pronouncement.

Arguing that our culture’s continuing affection for the ethos of the voice crying in the wilderness is one of our more troubling inheritances from the early American ambivalence to public discourse—including the Puritan denigration of rhetoric—Roberts-Miller contends that the monologic discourse of the Puritans in fact contains within it arguments for dialogism. Thus, the history of rhetoric can provide much richer fields for reimagining discourse than heretofore credited. Roberts-Miller concludes by extending her findings into their practical applications for argumentation in the public sphere and in the composition classroom.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“This book examines what has gone wrong with public discourse and deliberation in the United States using the American Puritans as a case study that informs our understanding of current practice.” -Gregory Clark, Brigham Young University

Voices in the Wilderness contributes to the expansion of research beyond the history of ideas about rhetoric to examine the rhetorical and ethical practices of more diverse traditions. Roberts-Miller’s analysis will be of particular interest to scholars working on theories of the public sphere and histories of religious rhetorics.” —Rhetoric Society Quarterly

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University of Alabama Press
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1st Edition
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Voices in the Wilderness

Public Discourse and the Paradox of Puritan Rhetoric

By Patricia Roberts-Miller

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 1999 The University of Alabama Press Tuscaloosa
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-8758-7


Ghost in the Sphere

The time of his sicknes, nor the urgent cause, were not allowed to be urg'd for him; but whatsoever could be thought upon against him was urged, seeing hee was a carnall man of them, that are without. So that it seems by those proceedings there, the matter was adjudged before he came: Hee onely brought to heare his sentence in publicke: which was, to have his tongue bored through; his nose slit; his face branded; his eares cut; his body to be whip'd in every severall plantation of theire jurisdiction: and a fine of forty pounds impos'd with perpetuall banishment.

— Thomas Morton, 1637

Like a good Puritan minister, I will begin with my thesis. The paradoxical nature of the Puritan public sphere — that it was both authoritarian and democratic, hegemonic and individualistic — was the result of Puritan conceptions of how the truth is constituted, how one knows what is and is not true, how language can represent one's knowledge, and how the self is constituted and converted. In my exhortation, I will speculate that many of our current problems with argument, especially our cultural and pedagogical inabilities to enact a public sphere in which argument is a form of inquiry, can be explained as the ghost of the Puritan spirit that haunts our culture and classrooms.

Such an argument begs the rather obvious question: why study the Puritans at all? There are several answers to that question, ranging from the nearly pedantic (that the recent interest in the history of American rhetoric has left Puritanism strangely neglected) through arguments about the role of case studies in cultural criticism to my own idiosyncratic intellectual wanderings. Before going into more detail on those reasons, I'll mention that they are (more or less) compressed in the almost emblematic story that Thomas Morton tells of Faircloath (quoted above).

The man whom Morton calls Faircloath, actually named Phillip Ratcliffe, was not a member of the church, so he was considered a sinner (or "carnall" man). He acted as agent for a man who lived in England, living off a portion of the money he was collecting on behalf of that man. He was having so much trouble collecting various debts that he was nearly reduced to starvation. When one church member refused to pay what was owed (on the grounds that debts to nonmembers could be ignored) Ratcliffe insulted him and any church that would have him as a member. In response, Ratcliffe was punished in the manner described in the epigraph above — fined, tortured, and banished. What one cannot help but wonder while reading the account is, why did the Puritans care so much about verbal abuse? Only people who took public discourse very, very seriously would feel so threatened by a conventional insult that they would respond in such a positively extravagant manner. Yet, they did not take public discourse so seriously that they thought a discursive answer would suffice. This incident is, in short, an emblem of the Puritan tendency to see language as simultaneously dangerously powerful and utterly ineffectual. And that is the paradox of Puritan rhetoric.


The recent resurgence of rhetoric has been coupled with an increased interest in the history of the discipline, but Puritanism — whether American, British, or Continental — is generally left out of such histories. Instead, these histories typically move from the Renaissance directly to the Enlightenment (Conley, Horner, Bizzell). If Puritanism is included, it is in the person of Peter Ramus in a chapter on Renaissance rhetoric, but this inclusion is itself somewhat odd. His inclusion in Renaissance rhetoric is jarring because — although chronologically correct — this puts him in exactly the category to which he was most hostile. He was, in fact, so antagonistic to rhetorical humanism that the triumph of his attitude has been posited as the primary cause of the death of Renaissance and humanist rhetoric (Ong, Sloane).

As mentioned, it is most common simply to ignore Ramus and Puritan rhetoric altogether. For instance, most historians of the academic discipline of rhetoric in America begin in the nineteenth century, with, at most, some gesture toward the eighteenth (Berlin, Johnson, Horner). There are several scholars who have studied Puritan rhetoric, but their discussion usually remains within the seventeenth or early eighteenth centuries (Adams, Bercovitch, White). There is, then, very little work that talks about Puritan rhetoric in the context of more recent scholarly debates regarding rhetoric, culture, and ideology. Simply because Puritanism has been ignored, then, it seems well worth investigating.

Ironically enough, in other aspects of Puritanism, scholars have often been criticized for overdetermining the significance of seventeenth-century New England culture for American history. Sacvan Bercovitch refers to the "American" Jeremiad (which encompasses nineteenth-century American literature), and the Puritan origins of "the American self." Other aspects of American culture and history have been tied to seventeenth-century New England: American political democracy (Shipton, Foster, J. Miller); American literary history with its tendency toward a particular kind of symbolism (Brumm, Feidelson); what has come to be called "the Antinomian strain" in American thought (Lang, Bercovitch); the importance of contract in American political thought (P. Miller); the American tradition of autobiography (Shea); the American inability to perceive difference of opinion as anything other than diabolical or degenerative (P. Miller, Bercovitch); and even the rhetoric used in the American Revolution (Stout). If these other scholars are correct in their presumption that American culture remains Puritan in significant ways, it seems reasonable to infer that Puritan notions of public discourse might continue to haunt the American public sphere.

The most intriguing possibility presented by the American Puritans is not, however, their possible causal relationship to current practice, but their status as a case study. Theirs was a conscious and highly educated attempt to form a public sphere of rational and ethical discourse — a place in which only good people would say only what is true. The ways and reasons that their attempts continually devolved into violence are important given current theoretical interests in discourse (as represented by, for instance, the communicative ethics controversy). In this regard, Charles Taylor has pointed out that historical explanation of a culturally powerful idea can be used to answer two similar, yet distinct, questions. The first is a question of historical genesis and tradition — what specific historical forces caused it to arise, dominate, and transform? This is largely a question of historical causation, of placing and tracing the history of the idea backward and forward. The second is not to insist on the long-term context for the idea, but for a deep analysis of the immediate context. An idea becomes a force not only because of its relation to earlier ideas but also because it explains something in ways that the people who hold it find powerful. As Charles Taylor says, "What this question asks for is an interpretation of the identity (or of any cultural phenomenon which interests us) which will show why people found (or find) it convincing/inspiring/moving, which will identify what can be called the 'idée-forces' it contains" (Taylor 203). This method uses a historical period as a case study: an era or community becomes part of an analogy that might help to explain the same phenomenon in other eras and communities.

Taylor's two kinds of questions actually break into three here. The first is to show the chain of events that lead individuals to engage in unproductive methods of argument — to look at their training in public discourse. While this is not the approach I will take, it does seem an extremely important question to be pursued. After all, if there are serious problems with the American public sphere of argumentation, it is likely that there are equally serious problems with methods of teaching argument. The second is to look at the history of public discourse in America. Scholars who have examined this have, for the most part, excepted American Puritanism. The third method is to look closely at an individual or community that most promoted the paradox of public discourse as hyperbolic rationality and that would be a close and careful study of American Puritans.

My argument is that the Puritan failure to find discursive resolution of conflict was a failure of imagination in that their models of the mind, argumentation, the self, and language precluded their finding ways for people with genuinely different views on important issues to engage in dialogue. And I suggest that the history of rhetoric provides much richer fields for reimagining discourse, but this failure is not unique to the Puritans. My interest in this topic arose out of teaching argumentation in freshman composition courses, preparing graduate students to teach composition, and my alternating puzzlement and irritation with the way argumentation is typically discussed in contemporary composition journals and conferences. This book is not an attempt to link Puritan practices and the current status of argumentation through a historical genealogy of American rhetoric. Although such a study would be extremely valuable, it would also be extremely long. Later I will discuss Weber's metaphor of the ghost of Puritanism haunting the economic sphere in order to suggest that there is a similar ghost in our public sphere. But I am not saying that it is the only ghost or that the history of American discourse is some kind of linear progression from Puritanism. The Puritan failure of imagination haunts us, and it is probably an especially active ghost because of the influence of New England universities in the history of rhetoric, but it shares the house. In other words, the history of American attitudes toward public discourse is not itself monologic; there have always been other voices, and at times they have been much louder than Puritanism.

For instance, recent scholarship has emphasized the important shift that took place with the advent of Jacksonian democracy and American sentimentalism. Whereas the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth-century public spheres promoted intellectualism, high style, and the aristocrat as the ideal rhetor, Jacksonian democracy relied on a kind of common man rhetor who was openly anti-intellectual (see especially Cmiel). Neither of these models was specifically Puritan, especially since they were promoted by people whose public ideals were often classical (Jefferson), Anglophile (Adams), or sentimental (Jackson). Nor were they the only models available — Gregory Clark and S. Michael Halloran have shown the variety of theories and practices operating within the oratorical culture of the nineteenth century. Some of these theories and practices (such as Timothy Dwight's) can accurately be called Calvinist (Clark and Halloran 57) but others are dependent upon post-seventeenth-century philosophical, literary, and educational movements (such as the notion of the picturesque, Clark and Halloran 226–46).

The history of rhetoric as an academic discipline in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America is similarly variegated. As Nan Johnson, Winifred Horner, and others have argued, American pedagogies were strongly influenced by British (especially Scottish) movements. Hence, an argument that tried to make a direct and simple line of influence would have to explain the ways in which Campbell, Whateley, Locke, Hutcheson, and the other influential models were themselves influenced by the Calvinist origins of many American universities.

I do not want to be understood as arguing the opposite, however — that Puritanism had no influence on nineteenth- or twentieth-century American culture. Although other regions in America had other traditions (such as the Anglican tradition in the American South), and trends in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American rhetorical practice were grounded in non-Puritan movements, Puritanism did not disappear. It is possible, for example, to point to the ways that those trends moved differently in America from similar trends in other cultures. American sentimentalism, for instance, was more explicitly (and institutionally) religious than English sentimentalism (which tended toward deism). American sentimentalism was also more explicitly political, and some of the great documents of American sentimentalism (such as Uncle Tom's Cabin and Walden) have justifiably been identified as instances of the American Jeremiad. Other scholars have pointed to the strong influence exerted on American Romanticism by American Puritanism. As Mason Lowance has said, "The two vectors of historical influence between Puritanism and the American Renaissance may be seen in the connections between Edwards and Emerson in the area of epistemology, and between Edwards and Thoreau in the transformation of the prophetic language of Canaan into a viable imagery for expressing the hope of regeneration" (279).

Numerous other scholars have remarked on the Puritan origins of various more recent cultural traits. Mona Harrington has discussed "the myth of deliverance" that she defines as "the conviction that human relations are, by their nature, harmonious, that serious conflict in human societies is unnatural and unnecessary" (16). She has argued that this myth, which she says is rooted in the American Puritans, has contributed to the American failure thus far to find solutions to complicated world and domestic problems. Perry Miller has described this same denial of difference as: "This habit of ambiguity [which] developed out of New England's insecurity, out of its inability to face frankly its own internal divisions, out of its effort to maintain a semblance of unity even while unanimity was crumbling" (Miller, From Colony to Province, 199). Perhaps most famously, Robert N. Bellah et al.'s Habits of the Heart describes the essentially Puritan conflict between individualism and community (see especially "Finding Oneself"). Amy Schrager Lang's argument regarding the Antinomian strain in American literature emphasizes our tendency to admire the individual who relies on his/her own knowledge over and against what the crowd says. Bercovitch has argued that the American Jeremiad has resulted in the melding of sacred and secular issues in the sense of American identity. Garry Wills has suggested that the messianic tendency in Americans has been at the root of our interventionist foreign policy, and Frances Fitzgerald has argued that our Puritan heritage causes our continual creation of small communities intended to re-form the world.

In other words, Puritanism is one instance of monologism, and one might look at others. Puritanism is, however, distinguished from those others by how intellectually thorough it was. Whatever their faults, the Puritans were intellectually courageous, thinking through a system to logical conclusions that even they sometimes found frightening. For proponents of dialogism, then, it is an intelligent and informed opposition; it is monologism at its best. That is, the Puritans are a case study of a failed public sphere — failed in the sense that it did not encourage or permit people with different points of view to take stands on matters of community interest without incurring great risks, and it failed (I will argue) due to its monologic nature.

Jürgen Habermas's Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere has been characterized as posing the following question: "What are the social conditions, he asks, for a rational-critical debate about public issues conducted by private persons willing to let arguments and not statuses determine decisions?" (Calhoun 1). The question I am posing is only slightly different: What are the social and intellectual conditions that prevent a rational-critical debate about public issues conducted by private persons intending to let arguments and not statuses determine decisions? Or, to put it more simply: Why did a culture as self-consciously discursive as seventeenth-century New England have a public sphere in which differences of opinion frequently ended in banishment, torture, disenfranchisement, or confiscation? The Puritans' failure results, I will argue, from a variety of assumptions regarding ontology, epistemology, interpretation, and linguistic reference, or, more generally, from the Puritan denigration of rhetoric.

As James Berlin has famously argued, "A rhetoric is a social invention" (1). Berlin not only means that rhetoric is a social construct but also that it helps to reinvent what constitutes the realm of the social. Rhetoric, he says, is "implicated in all a society attempts. It is at the center of a culture's activities" (2). When students in a writing class learn a particular rhetoric, "They are learning assumptions about what is real and what is illusory, how to know one from the other, how to communicate the real, given the strengths and limitations of human nature, and finally, how language works" (2). These are precisely the kinds of assumptions that the various participants in Puritan controversies shared. Specifically, such apparently opposed figures as John Winthrop and Anne Hutchinson, or Roger Williams and John Cotton, had the same sense as to what the appropriate stance is for an individual to take when participating in public argumentation. Although they made different arguments, they made them in the same way: like an Old Testament prophet crying in the wilderness. In Puritanism, a good person will demonstrate his/her integrity by acting like Isaiah (or John the Baptist), announcing a hard truth to which all right-thinking people must assent.


Excerpted from Voices in the Wilderness by Patricia Roberts-Miller. Copyright © 1999 The University of Alabama Press Tuscaloosa. 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.
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Meet the Author

Patricia Roberts-Miller is Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Composition at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

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