The conjoining of the terms “rhetoric” and “history” suggests at least three related but distinct areas of study. One, the history of rhetoric, focuses on rhetorical theory and practice during particular periods of time; entries on various aspects of this area abound. Two others are the focus here: rhetorical processes in history and the rhetoric of history.
Rhetorical Processes In History
The study of rhetorical processes in history focuses on the ways in which rhetoric functions in historical contexts. As “speech” emerged as a distinct field in the early to mid-1900s, its origins in public address were evidenced in its scholarship. Early inquiries focused on specific speeches and speakers in historical contexts using what came to be known as “historical-critical research,” exemplified by the classic three-volume anthology, A history and criticism of American public address (Brigance 1943; Hochmuth 1955). In the mid-1960s, publications using this methodological approach came under attack as “cookie cutter” studies that did little to advance either rhetorical theory or the discipline’s status in the academy.
By the 1970s, such challenges met rejoinders from several authors who sought to restore luster to the study of rhetorical processes in history. During a gradual renaissance, many scholars shifted from the assessment of rhetorical texts as distinct products that were historically situated to explorations of historical developments as captured in, and created by, rhetorical processes. Echoing the move in departments of history from “drum and trumpet” topics to social and cultural perspectives, rhetorical scholars increasingly explored historical events as rhetorically constituted.
Two trends characterized this resurgence. A move toward book-length studies evolved as scholars found journal articles and book chapters too abbreviated as venues in which to make significant arguments and interpretations. In addition, an emphasis (some scholars would say re-emphasis) on the significance of primary resources came from the recognition that invaluable insights may be obtained from examining such archival materials as memoranda, correspondence, reports, oral histories, appointment calendars, photographs, and recordings The development of Internet databases and resources has eased access to some archival holdings, and such access is especially valuable given the accelerating graduate study and tenure schedules that encroach on the time required for meticulous historiographical research.
Studies of rhetorical processes in history still attend to individual rhetors, with particular attention to the speeches of American presidents (e.g., Ritter & Medhurst 2003). Other examinations broaden the scope of “public address” to incorporate differing forms of communication. Ball (1992), for example, uses primary sources from presidential libraries to trace the decision-making processes in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, connecting the arguments within these small groups to the execution of and justifications for the Vietnam War. In a wide-reaching exploration, Condit & Lucaites (1993) delineate the evolution of the term “equality” from the mid-eighteenth to the end of the twentieth centuries, exploring the crucial role of discourse in developing connotations and applications that shifted across time and subject. “Equality” for white colonists, for example, did not have the same meaning as for black slaves.
Scholars interested in the rhetorical analysis of historical processes agree on its significance, but other aspects are debated. Issues include how rhetorical history should be defined; one characterization is that “rhetorical history,” broadly construed, seeks “to understand the context through messages that reflect and construct that context” (Turner 1998, 2), while others suggest that any study of rhetoric that occurred in the past constitutes rhetorical history. Another issue is whether rhetorical history and criticism are so closely related as to be indistinguishable, or constitute distinct perspectives that deserve delineation in order to appreciate their complementary approaches. A third point of difference centers on what the relationship between rhetorical history and rhetorical theory should be: should historical studies be explicitly based on and constructed as contributions to theoretical inquiry, or do they serve other functions? Finally, scholars differ concerning the current status of rhetorical history, with some declaring it to be alive and well while others contend it has been marginalized.
The Rhetoric Of History
A more recent area of inquiry, the rhetoric of history, focuses on how the construction of history constitutes an essentially rhetorical process that by its very nature emphasizes certain aspects in certain ways while overlooking others. Paralleling explorations of other specialized discourse communities (e.g., the rhetoric of scientific inquiry and of law), such studies argue that the standard of “objectivity” masks the choices that not only can but must be made in constructing stories of the past. These choices include delineating a time frame for the subject, identifying key “characters,” developing narrative frameworks, evaluating and using evidence, creating arguments of causality and relationship, employing metaphors, and constructing the historian’s own credibility. Central to such analyses is the contention that such choices constitute not mere window dressing but essential epistemological decisions: one’s very way of knowing about what and who have gone before is created through the writing of history. The most advanced versions of this argument contend that there is no “history” – at least, none that is humanly knowable – beyond what is rhetorically constructed.
From this perspective, such cherished criteria as “accuracy” and “facts” depend on not only the individual but also the social and cultural context in which the histories are created and received. As Carpenter (1995) contends, such historians as Frederick Jackson Turner, Carl Becker, and Barbara Tuchman served as opinion leaders because they created stories that resonated with their audiences and their times. Whether writing for academics, the general public, or both, historians make their arguments within the contexts of the social truths of their times.
Some scholars extend this investigation to explore the rhetorical purposes to which historical arguments are put. Political, social, and economic debates rely on “the lessons of history” to construct cases for both the interpretation of current events and the recommendations for future action. Precisely because historical accounts are rhetorically constructed, the “lessons” drawn from the same events are often diametrically opposed. Arguments over reparations for slavery, for example, pit meta-narratives of white innocence and the individual nature of history against those of white implicature and the institutional nature of history, in contentions that Bacon (2003) asserts reveal the rhetorical nature of historical constructions. Similarly, “the lessons of Vietnam” suggest to some that the United States and its allies should have been more aggressive in their military intervention in Iraq, and to others that they should not have undertaken the venture in the first place.
Gronbeck (1991) suggests two key forms of argument from the past to illuminate issues of the present. The “genetic argument” traces the subject of discussion to a particular point of origin, cited as the “beginning” of the story currently being addressed. That originating point may be cast either as an ideal from which the community has gradually but inevitably progressed, or as an ideal to which the community must return in order to realize its potential. The “analogical argument” constructs parallels between historical and current characters, events, or situations to suggest cautionary tales or advisory actions. In both cases, appropriations of the past construct and are constructed by views of the present and the future.
An additional rhetorical use of history celebrates the past as embodying the essence of the society. Inspired by Kammen (1991), these studies examine how the commemoration of historical concepts serves to inspire and embody a people. Blair et al. (1991), for example, trace how changing expectations for public monuments reveal the ways in which a society’s public memory frames the past, while Biesecker (2002) elucidates how, at the turn of the twenty-first century, such popular “memory texts” as the World War II memorial and the movie Saving Private Ryan serve as rhetorical reconstructions of the past to create a sense of national unity and purpose for a fractious American public.
Whether the focus is on rhetorical processes in history or the rhetoric of history, the connection between these two key terms reveals both the interdisciplinary significance of communication as a central liberal art, and the valuable insights to be generated through the interdisciplinary turn in academia.
- Bacon, J. (2003). Reading the reparations debate. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 89, 171–185.
- Ball, M. A. (1992). Vietnam-on-the-Potomac. New York: Praeger.
- Biesecker, B. (2002). Remembering World War II: Rhetoric and politics at the turn of the twentyfirst century. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 88, 393–409.
- Blair, C., Jeppeson, M. S., & Pucci, E. (1991). Public memorializing in postmodernity: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial as prototype. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 77, 263–288.
- Brigance, W. N. (ed.) (1943). A history and criticism of American public address, vols. 1 and 2. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Carpenter, R. H. (1995). History as rhetoric: Style, narrative, and persuasion. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.
- Condit, C., & Lucaites, J. L. (1993). Crafting equality: America’s Anglo-African word. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Gronbeck, B. E. (1991). Argument from history1 and argument from history2: Uses of the past in public deliberation. In D. Parson (ed.), Argument in controversy: Proceedings of the seventh SCA/ AFA conference on argumentation. Annandale, VA: Speech Communication Association, 96– 99.
- Hochmuth, M. (ed.) (1955). A history and criticism of American public address, vol. 3. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Kammen, M. (1991). Mystic chords of memory: The transformation of tradition in American culture. New York: Vintage Books.
- Medhurst, M. (ed.) (1994). Eisenhower’s war of words: Rhetoric and leadership. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press.
- Ritter, K., & Medhurst, M. J. (eds.) (2003). Presidential speechwriting: From the New Deal to the Reagan revolution and beyond. College Station: Texas A & M Press.
- Turner, K. J. (ed.) (1998). Doing rhetorical history: Concepts and cases. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.
- Zarefsky, D. (1990). Lincoln, Douglas, and slavery: In the crucible of public debate. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.