in A Nation of Speechifiers

Published by University of Chicago Press

Published in print December 2009 | ISBN: 9780226180199
Published online March 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780226180212 | DOI:

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In January 1835, the Northern Debating Society in Boston, comprising young male clerks, participated in its very first debate. The topic was whether oratory or writing should be regarded as more valuable to the public. Ironically, the majority votes went in favor of writing over public speaking. However, the young men were unperturbed; they viewed good speech and good writing as conjoined skills necessary for those who planned to impress their social superiors. The expansion of education, print and oral media, and democratic politics during the antebellum period represented a continuation and reinterpretation of public participation by ordinary people after the American Revolution. Non-elites actively produced speech and writing, often to articulate their own roles as cultural arbiters or to envision an alternative view of the public sphere. Compared with the messy beginnings of the 1780s which had fostered fantasies of public unity, many Americans during the 1830s did not agree that unity was the best model for the public, the best ideal for social improvement, or the best means of modulating public opinion.

Keywords: Northern Debating Society; young men; public speaking; writing; education; media; non-elites; speech; public opinion; public participation

Chapter.  2689 words. 

Subjects: History of the Americas

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