Eloquent Talking Founding Fathers Say Wut?

Name and Place for Tuesday, November 4 (’14)


Again, from Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman describes why 18th century Americans sound so strange to 21st century Americans:

The point all this is leading to is that from its beginning until well into the nineteenth century, America was dominated by the printed word and an oratory based on the printed word as any society we know of.  This situation was only in part a legacy of the Protestant tradition.  As Richard Hofstadter reminds us, America was founded by intellectuals, a rare occurrence in the history of modern nations.  ‘The Founding Fathers,’ he writes, ‘were sages, scientists, men of broad cultivation, many of them apt in classical learning, who used their wide reading in history, politics, and law to solve the exigent problems of their time.’  A society shaped by such men does not easily move in contrary directions.  We might even say that America was founded by intellectuals, from which it has taken us two centuries and a communications revolution to recover.  Hofstadter has written convincingly of our efforts to ‘recover,’ that is to say, of the anti-intellectual strain in American public life, but he concedes that his focus distorts the general picture.  It is akin to writing a history of American business by concentrating on the history of bankruptcies.

The influence of the printed word in every arena of public discourse was insistent and powerful not merely because of the quantity of printed matter but because of its monopoly.  This point cannot be stressed enough, especially for those who are reluctant to acknowledge profound differences in the media environments of then and now.  One sometimes hears it said, for example, that there is more printed matter available today than ever before, which is undoubtedly true.  But from the seventeenth century to the late nineteenth century, printed matter was virtually all that was available.  There were no movies to see, radio to hear, photographic displays to look at, records to play.  There was no television.  Public business was channeled into and expressed through print, which became the model, the metaphor and the measure of all discourse.  The resonances of the lineal, analytical structure of print, and in particular, of expository prose, could be felt everywhere. For example, in how people talked.  Tocqueville remarks on this in Democracy in America.  ‘An American,’ he wrote, ‘cannot converse, but he can discuss, and his talk falls into a dissertation.  He speaks to you as if he was addressing a meeting; and if he should chance to become warm in the discussion, he will say, ‘Gentlemen’ to the person with whom he is conversing.’  This odd practice is less a reflection of an American’s obstinacy than of his modeling his conversational style on the structure of the printed word.  Since the printed word is impersonal and is addressed to an invisible audience, what Tocqueville is describing here is a kind of printed orality, which was observable in diverse forms of oral discourse.  On the pulpit, for example, sermons were usually written speeches delivered in a stately, impersonal tone consisting ‘largely of an impassioned, coldly analytical cataloging of the attributes of the Deity as revealed to man through Nature and Nature’s Laws’ (41-42).

Postman goes on to discuss George Whitefield, a notable exception in some regard:

And even when the Great Awakening came—a revivalist movement that challenged the analytical, dispassionate spirit of Deism—its highly emotional preachers used an oratory that could be transformed easily to the printed page. The most charismatic of these men was the Reverend George Whitefield, who beginning in 1739 preached all over America to large crowds.  In Philadelphia, he addressed an audience of ten thousand people, whom he deeply stirred and alarmed by assuring them of eternal hellfire if they refused to accept Christ.  Benjamin Franklin witnessed one of Whitefield’s performances and responded by offering to become his publisher.  In due time, Whitefield’s journals and sermons were published by B. Franklin of Philadelphia (42).

Ben Franklin’s involvement is all the more striking because he was an avowed Deist and disagreed completely with Whitefield’s staunchly Calvinistic theology and Bible.  The following is Ben Franklin’s own recording of his reaction to hearing the great Whitefield’s oratory regarding the need for orphanages in the colony of Georgia (and you can read a fuller report here):

The settlement of that province had lately been begun, but instead of being made with hardy industrious husbandmen [farmers] accustomed to labor, the only people fit for such an enterprise, it was with families of broken shopkeepers and other insolvent debtors, many of indolent and idle habits, taken out of the jails, who being set down in the woods, unqualified for clearing land, and unable to endure the hardships of a new settlement, perished in numbers, leaving many helpless children unprovided for. The sight of their miserable situation inspired the benevolent heart of Mr. Whitefield with the idea of building an Orphan House there, in which they might be supported and educated. Returning northward, he preach’d up this charity, and made large collections; for his eloquence had a wonderful power over the hearts and purses of his hearers, of which I myself was an instance [example]. I did not disapprove of the design [plan], but as Georgia was then destitute of materials & workmen, and it was propos’d to send them from Philadelphia at a great expense, I thought it would have been better to have built the house here [Philadelphia] and brought the children to it. This I advis’d, but he was resolute in his first project, and rejected my counsel, and I thereupon refus’d to contribute.

I happened soon after to attend one of his sermons, in the course of which I perceived he intended to finish with a Collection, and I silently resolved he should get nothing from me. I had in my pocket a handful of copper money, three or four silver dollars, and five pistoles [Spanish coins] in gold. As he proceeded I began to soften, and concluded to give the coppers. Another stroke of his oratory made me asham’d of that, and determin’d me to give the silver; and he finish’d so admirably, that I emptied my pocket wholly into the Collector’s Dish, gold and all.

Do we live in a society like this any longer?  Some would say, “Yes,” and point to then-Senator Obama’s speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, and (of course) others since then.  It is, however, arguable whether such a speech carries any such weight when printed, or whether it carries any real weight in a truly print-based culture.  Postman’s argument is that we do not live in a such a time and place as the Colonies were, for better or worse.

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