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Dartmouth College Library Bulletin

Thesis Topics: Ready-Made



As I write this I am holding in my lap a two-volume first edition, published in 1810, of bound lectures by United States Senator John Quincy Adams. (1) Already a rising political star, Adams had spent a year commuting between Washington and Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he occupied the nation's first endowed chair of rhetoric. The benefactor was Nicholas Boylston, a wealthy Boston merchant who wanted to ensure that the new nation's leaders had the finest governing skills teachable. Rhetoric -- the logic and art of persuasion -- had been central to the education of ancient gentlemen. And it was central to the education of this nation's first elite.

These days, if the two volumes in my lap are any indication, rhetoric is so far from the core curriculum as to have been almost completely forgotten. The paper is yellowing, but the pages look largely unread, except for one dog-eared lecture on 'Eloquence of the Pulpit.' 'Lecture too long,' someone has pencilled into the margin. The books were rebound in 1929, but few people seem to have paid them much attention since then. The last time they were checked out was in 1976.

'You must have discovered a new field!' the woman behind the counter in Baker exclaimed when I came to her with an armful of rhetorics. Of the forty-two books I eventually borrowed on the subject, only two had been taken out in eight years. I put one of the Adams books up to my nose and smell that old-library taint of acidic paper and old glue. The smell speaks of old arcana, of lost wisdom -- of obsolescence as well, I suppose.

I found the books in Baker Library several years ago, after I read Garry Wills's marvelous book, Lincoln at Gettysburg. (2) The climax of Wills's book is a detailed rhetorical analysis of Lincoln's address, a speech that, as historians have claimed, allowed him to win the argument as well as the war. I wondered what sort of education Lincoln had had to cut such a brilliant diamond of oratory, and learned through biographies that he was a devotee of Daniel Webster, Dartmouth class of 1801. Webster in his day had drawn crowds of the size and enthusiasm of today's rock concerts, and his speeches were published a hundred thousand at a time. He in turn was the product of a thorough classical education, and I found myself being drawn into the textbooks of that curriculum and their implication for the rhetoric of today.

For you see, while the study of rhetoric has been forgotten, we still practice it. If coaches didn't exist, we would still play sports. If the clergy all quit, we would still pray. We are a rhetorical species, arguing with one another, attempting to sway each other, seeking a consensus in our communities.

The first rhetorical textbooks came out of this hard-wired human characteristic. In 467 B.C. the people of Syracuse ejected the tyrant Thrasybulus and replaced him with a democracy. During his reign, Thrasybulus had thrown many families out of their homes and replaced them with people loyal to the government. To clear up the clouded titles, the Syracusans began suing each other.

The problem was, they didn't know how to sue, having spent several millennia without a democracy, or, the gods forbid, lawyers. People argued their own cases back then, before juries that could number in the hundreds. The Syracusans turned to an older democracy, Athens, to supply coaches for the litigants. Some of these teachers wrote textbooks, which became instant bestsellers throughout Greece. The books eventually branched out to cover political as well as judicial persuasion. Schools for young gentlemen began teaching the art. Aristotle wrote a textbook. So did Cicero in Rome. Another Roman, Quintilian, wrote detailed rules of argument. Some of these rules were memorized by William Shakespeare in grammar school. Among some of the creakier pedagogues the rules became more important than the principles of argument, but that did not displace their status in the center of the teaching of humanities. Rhetoric and poetry were the centerpieces of eloquence when our nation was founded.

You can see the preserved ruins of this curriculum in Baker today. Go into the fourth level of Baker stacks. (3) The grand Dartmouth library is not quite as musty anywhere else. You will find stack upon stack of books, many of which have never been opened by a scholar in this century. Some of them will help you understand why the teaching of rhetoric died, as this nation became more writing-oriented. There are books that illustrate the proper gesture for every point, for every emotion of the audience: silly-looking little men with arms like windmills. But you can also find, in these same stacks, the reawakening of rhetoric in America. In 1965, P.J. Corbett's Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student caused a revival of the ancient art and its application in surprising ways. (4) Classical techniques have been used to study Ronald Reagan's speeches, to construct a theory of local consensus-building, to study the dialect of African-Americans, even to fathom the origins of the Holocaust. Rhetoric now fuels one of the most exciting branches of modern philosophy. And academicians now discuss the 'rhetoric of furniture,' 'the rhetoric of pop songs,' and 'the rhetoric of pets.'

As a former reporter on Capitol Hill, I had begun my amateur reading of rhetoric to see if there was a means to modern political consensus in America. A leaner government can no longer afford to buy compromise among political opponents. Our prime means of persuasion since the Civil War and up until the 1960s had been the written word; but now, as Bill Clinton and Rush Limbaugh have both proven, we are becoming an increasingly oracular nation. Do the old textbooks on oral persuasion have anything to teach us as a nation? I believe they do. They teach more than a beautiful art; they teach us a belief in consensus.

I have a hope, albeit a naive one, that the dust will someday be blown off some of those rhetoric books in the stacks. Rhetorical theory is no longer taught at Dartmouth; at Harvard, Adams's rhetoric chair is occupied by a poet. Imagine if poetry had been forgotten and lay moulding in the Baker shelves! Imagine if the novel disappeared from our lives!

Still, the woman behind the desk was right: I had discovered a new field. May there be many readers behind me, scholars far more skilled than I, who can discover it afresh.

  1. John Quincy Adams, Lectures on Rhetoric and Oratory, Delivered to the Classes of Senior and Junior Sophisters in Harvard University, 2 vols. (Cambridge [Mass.]: Hilliard and Metcalf, 1810).
  2. Garry Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg: the Words that Remade America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992).
  3. One can also 'browse' this subject in the online catalog by searching on the topics 'oratory' and 'rhetoric.' -Eds.
  4. Edward P. J. Corbett, Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965).