The Blogora: The Rhetoric Society of America


Contest: Rhetoric and Thomas Jefferson

Submitted by syntaxfactory on May 31, 2011 - 10:00pm

The Blogora announces its first ever contest.

We have received copies of "Thomas Jefferson and the Rhetoric of Virtue" by James Golden

It's an exciting book, one that both asks what Jefferson's understanding of rhetoric was and how that understanding inflects his rhetorical practice. More info below.

If you'd like to win this book, FREE, mailed to anywhere within the United States for free, please consider entering our competition below.


The early issues of Rhetoric Society Quarterly were populated with papers that echoed panels at the conferences, in which three scholars would advance claims about "the most important passage for rhetoric in the works of [insert figure here]." I'd like to revise that practice here. In the thread below, post your suggestion for the most important passage for rhetoric in "the writings and/or speeches contemporary to the American Revolution" and briefly explain its importance.

Entries will be judges entirely idiosyncratically, though with careful attention paid to three criteria:
1. new insight into a familiar rhetor
2. new insight into a novel or unfamiliar rhetor
3. exciting discussion generated here at the Blogora

Contest will close June 15, 2011, so I can mail out the book shortly thereafter.

Teach me something about Early American Rhetoric!


Submitted by syntaxfactory on June 28, 2011 - 9:33am.

...would you please email me your addresses? I'd like to send you your books! Longaker for being first and insightful, Mercieca for being exhaustive and insightful!


Submitted by syntaxfactory on June 13, 2011 - 12:50pm.

Two days until the next contest...

Submitted by Jim Aune on June 5, 2011 - 7:29pm.

Barbary Treaty of 1797 (unanimously approved by the US Senate and signed by John Adams) Art. 11. As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.

Submitted by Mike Duncan (not verified) on June 5, 2011 - 6:26pm.

I'll go with the Declaration.

Too easy, too obvious, too Jeffersonian, cheap to pick; it's like saying the greatest baseball player was Babe Ruth - probably right, but not new, not an edgier answer like Jackie Robinson. But for total impact and importance, I'll play safe.

My Texas neighbors – and they are not alone – think it’s natural law, second only to the Bible. And I can see why. The beginning reads like a first-hand eyewitness report from the mouth of Plato’s cave. When you have that, the rest is details, right? Mistaking the content of the Declaration for the Constitution is as American as, well, baseball. Even our candidates for President can’t tell them apart - witness Herman Cain two weeks ago. There is no law guaranteeing pursuit of happiness, but it seems like there ought to be; our values and laws are melded together under the massive symbolic weight resting on this text.

And the rhetorical forest is right there, but rarely seen for the trees. My first glimpse of the Declaration was in a charmingly reproduced and laminated form, mounted on the wall of a shopping mall in Memphis, Tennessee, along with other early American documents; the same prominent display was installed in my elementary and middle schools. But how many who stop to read know what its original audience generally knew - that it was a carefully constructed, strategically thought-out and timed broadside, a declaration not just of independence, but of war, and dependent on Locke, Mason, and innumerable others for its reason and its style? Not enough.

Submitted by Jen Mercieca (not verified) on June 3, 2011 - 10:16pm.

Dear Blogarians,

It seems to me that there is no easy answer to this contested question, largely because it depends upon our judging criterion. "The most important passage for rhetoric in the writings and/or speeches contemporary to the American Revolution" could be judged in at least three ways:

1. The passage that had the most dramatic political/social effect upon history (in this case the American Revolution).

2. The passage that is the most beautifully crafted, best adapted to its audience, or most appropriate to its rhetorical exigence.

3. The passage that speaks most directly to shifts in rhetorical theory or practice.

Professor Longaker has given us a passage that would satisfy the third criterion, but not the other two. I think that a case can be made for a passage that satisfies all three criteria. In fact, I think that there are two candidates and I'm having a difficult time deciding which I should offer up for the contest. I'm going to argue for Thomas Jefferson's Summary View, but I think a strong case could also be made for Thomas Paine's Common Sense.

Thomas Jefferson's "A Summary View of the Rights of British Americans":

1. TJ wrote a Summary View for the first Continental Congress in 1774. Based upon the prevailing view of government (what I call the "monarchic fiction" in Founding Fictions)it is blatant treason, yet it points to precisely the view of government and citizenship that would become dominant by 1776 (the romantic republican fiction). It's immediate reception was limited to the members of the CC in 1774 and as TJ admitted it was deemed "too bold" for many, so the case for immediate political effect for the Summary View is limited, even though by 1776 its sentiment was commonplace.

2. A Summary View is a pitch perfect rhetorical performance of what would become a citizen's "watch dog" function within the government. While TJ was technically a subject of the Crown, he judged his government as if he had a right to evaluate its conduct (a subject could only obey, not judge). TJ offered criteria based Enlightenment views of rationality in government and judged King George III based upon nothing more or less. In forceful and elegant prose TJ laid out a strong case with syllogistic certainty. In short, while the CC did not expect or (some would argue) appreciate sufficiently TJ's Summary View in 1774, it was a masterful attempt to respond to the rhetorical situation at hand. TJ was ready to move forward in ways that the CC was not, so, once again the case for the strong case for rhetorical adaption is difficult to make.

3. A Summary View is not rhetorical theory, but it certainly contains an implied rhetorical theory, one that would become the standard for how citizens think of how to interact with their government. A Summary View is (I think!) the first public text in the Colonies to perform patriotic citizenship. It models a way to think about government and a citizen's relationship to government and also a way to think about how a citizen should communicate with his or her government. It uses vigilant criticism, rationality as the standard for judgement, appeals to the common good, and conspiracy/fear appeals to make its case. TJ's Summary View embodies a rhetorical style that is tradition today, but was radical in 1774 and as such it is a strong example of American rhetorical theory.

In Summary (lol, I love puns!), A Summary View:

1) while it was not widely circulated and did not persuade its immediate audience (the CC of 1774), became within two years the standard view of how to judge the government and such judgment led directly to the Revolution

2) was a well crafted rhetorical performance, modeling Enlightenment rationality and nascent American watchdog rhetoric (what Aune and I call "vernacular republicanism" in a QJS piece).

3) embodies a rhetorical theory that became standard in America.

Therefore, I humbly submit Thomas Jefferson's A Summary View of the Rights of British Americans for your consideration as the most important passage of the American Revolution. Do what the Continental Congress was not bold enough to do in 1774 and vote for Tommy!

Submitted by Longaker (not verified) on June 8, 2011 - 9:57am.

Professor Mercieca's answer is much better than mine--more well-thought out, more carefully argued, even better spelled. Those who know her work should not be surprised.

--"Professor" Longaker--

Submitted by syntaxfactory on June 8, 2011 - 10:25am.

Don't be surprised to be impressed by someone who opens her statement by offering her own criteria for the competition, then articulating the competition's inability to meet their private criteria, then articulating the way that they meet their own private criteria.

She must have been a debater in high school.

No one's conceding anything. And no one has met my third criterion: generating conversation on the Blogora yet.


Submitted by syntaxfactory on May 29, 2011 - 10:06am.

This is something. This is really something. I want to see more -- more like this and more about this.

I'll go this far: I have just bought a second copy of the prize book to give away -- now, to the two most provocative and insightful and awesome posts. in this thread. Wow!

Submitted by Longaker (not verified) on May 26, 2011 - 1:27pm.

The most important passage in early-American rhetoric appears on p. 159 of Samuel Newman's _Practical System of Rhetoric_ (1827), where Newman defines stylistic perspicuity as writing that can “clearly convey, the true meaning of the writer,” the opposite of “ambiguity and obscurity.” This is the first time a rhetorical theorist in the American tradition relied on George Campbell's definition of the term (and Campbell's rhetorical theory) rather then Hugh Blair's. (Blair defines perspicuity as the “positive beauty,” by which an author “carries us through his subject without any embarrassment or confusion.” Blair parsed perspicuity into three qualities--purity, propriety, and precision.)

Newman's innocuous choice of Campbell over Blair is "most important" because it is the first such choice. Prior to Newman, Hugh Blair's stylistically focused belletristic rhetorical theory dominated the American tradition. Campbell's _Philosophy of Rhetoric_ never even got an American imprint in the 18th century (judging by Richard Sher's history of publication and reprinting in England, Scotland, Ireland, and America: _The Enlightenment and the Book_). But during the 19th century, Campbell's influence trumped Blair's, leading to "modal" rhetorics like those produced by Henry Noble Day. Newman was the first to cross the Blair-Campbell line, which is also--in many regards--the 18th-19th-century line in American rhetorical theory.

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