The democratic ethic that has dominated the intellectual history of the United States has shaped a rhetorical practice driven by the socio-cultural influence of the word. The result has been a rich multiplicity of voices that defy generalization, yet define a complex texture. The first rhetorical period, approximately the first century and a quarter of the presence of British settlement in North America, was dominated by religious rhetoric and specifically by the Puritans. Puritan sermons were highly structured, linking lessons from biblical text to everyday life. Puritans respected reason and viewed it as a gift from God that opened human insight into God’s structuring of the universe. The democratic content of Puritan rhetoric was constrained. Beneath God, the minister was separated from others in the community by his trained role as the interpreter of the Word. Men and women were similarly differentiated by the biblical separation of gender. And finally the elect of the Puritan community were separated from non-believers. Within that narrowed but still broad slice of Puritan life, democratic equality defined access to power.
As the eighteenth century proceeded, secular rhetorics began to grow in importance. In these rhetorics can be heard two voices: democratic pragmatism and radical reform. Secular institutions of governance developed with an openness to public persuasion. Courts featured common law and self-representation for plaintiffs and defendants. Legislatures responded to petitions formulated at public meetings, most often requests for governmental attention to practical community problems. Beside the pragmatic secular rhetoric grew a more moralistic and spiritual religious rhetoric. The so-called Great Awakening or New Light preaching located spirituality and morality in the human heart. When joined with the Enlightenment’s belief in the human capacity for reason, the result was a radical rhetoric of reform. The great rhetorical triumph of the eighteenth century, the American Revolution, was achieved with this combination of institutional pragmatism and reform.
With independence achieved, the dialectic tension between these two rhetorical forces grew. Adoption of the United States Constitution and similar state constitutions established forums for deliberation and persuasion. The United States Senate, particularly, became a great deliberative body where the issues of the day were debated. Outside of the governmental forums, a high style of oratory, particularly prominent in great civic events, celebrated the nation and motivated the energy of expansion. The primacy of public rhetoric as the keystone of a democratic society was both a theme and the demonstrable commitment of this institutional discourse. Outside the government, through specialized newspapers, committed issue-interested organizations, the pulpit, and the lecture circuit, reformers called upon an idealistic moral rhetoric to resist injustice and motivate change. The energy of reform, and the failure of institutions such as the Senate to contain that energy, culminated in the collapse of rhetoric into the Civil War.
In the latter half of the nineteenth century, the balance of power between reform and institutional rhetoric shifted away from the institutions of government toward a more public rhetoric. The public was perceived as an agency of change and, as democracy diffused through broader notions of citizenship, the public became the dominant audience for rhetoric. The emergence of a more public rhetoric was exemplified most prominently in the great disputes about the impact of the new industrialization, the great immigration, and the emergence of urban poverty. Within the more conservative institutional venues the debate proceeded about poverty and its causes. Movements as diverse as social Darwinism, Christian socialism, and the gospel of wealth shaped public views on the responsibility of the poor for their own condition and the responsibility of the community to address poverty. But this intellectual exchange was in counterpoint with the great efforts of reformers among labor, African-Americans, women, farmers, and others to organize through direct action to alter the political and economic circumstances of ordinary citizens. The morality of reform was joined with the sense of democratic power that rhetorically motivated those affected to force change in their conditions.
The struggle between institutional voices and voices of reform culminated in the progressive movement by the turn of the twentieth century. Progressivism was more conservative than the reformist call for civil rights and economic conscience, but its agenda addressed the reformers’ issues. Through its successful call for direct election of senators, recall, and referendum, progressivism expanded the institutional venues of a rhetorical public. But the most dramatic rhetorical change was the rhetorical presidency: presidents enhanced their power over other institutions of government by direct appeal to the public.
As the twentieth century proceeded, rhetoric’s focus on the public audience was transformed by technologies of communication, including most prominently radio, television, and electronic augmentation of voice. Speakers could reach millions; millions could literally hear and later see their president and other leaders at the moment they spoke. Ironically, in the balance between institutional and reform voices, mass communication returned power to the institutions that controlled media. Yet, particularly in mid-century, reformers began to master techniques of mass communication and to activate civil rights movements for African-Americans, women, and other marginalized groups, as well as opposition to the Vietnam War. Even a more general counterculture rhetoric promoted a more libertine and free individualism. Popular conservative movements emerged late in the century, particularly from religious speakers who had mastered mass communication.
At the start of the twenty-first century, the growth of the Internet promises to again transform the nature of rhetoric in the United States. The dominance of mass communication, where one addressing many dominated communicative technology, appears at an end. The connections of virtual space multiply the possibilities for voices to reach others. At the same time, the sheer proliferation of voices presents a problem of focus for those who attend to rhetoric. The model of citizenship developed within the context of mass communication must now adapt to new parameters created by the diffused Internet.
- Brigance, W. N., & Hochmuth, M. K. (eds.) (1943, 1955). History and criticism of American public address. 3 vols. New York: McGraw-Hill, Longman Green.
- Eidenmuller, M. E. (comp.) (2006). American rhetoric. At www.americanrhetoric.com/, accessed December 4, 2006.
- Reid, R. F., & Klumpp, J. F. (2005). American rhetorical discourse, 3rd edn. Long Grove, IL: Waveland.