- Daniel Webster and the Oratory of Civil Religion
In a 1988 Quarterly Journal of Speech review, Stephen E. Lucas wrote of a "renaissance" of American public address, a rebirth of critical and historical scholarship in our discipline that had emerged in the wake of Edwin Black's Rhetorical Criticism: A Study in Method. That same year, at the first Public Address conference at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Martin J. Medhurst reflected on that renaissance, and hoped for further signs of it in "the production of scholarship that makes a difference." Since then, public address critics and historians have answered that challenge. Excellent book-length critical studies, article publication outside the discipline, and the successful first decade of this journal, all testify to the fact that public address scholars have produced, and continue to produce, a body of work that, even in its theoretical diversity, both maintains a disciplinary identity and exercises a growing influence on the study of history, law, culture, and politics.
As if to announce the coming of that renaissance Greenwood Press published a series of studies on great American orators. The first in that series was Craig R. Smith's Defender of the Union: The Oratory of Daniel Webster. In reviewing that work in 1989 for the Journal of the Early Republic, I wrote that I could not recommend the book, regretting that "the historical flaws are compounded by the generally unimaginative rhetorical criticism." As a new Ph.D., I was flush with the enthusiasm of the public address renaissance that lay ahead. I wanted to be sure that scholars in other disciplines did not take Smith's book as representative of a discipline just growing into its full critical and historical adulthood. I felt a particular obligation to demonstrate to an audience of historians that public address scholars also valued rigorous scholarship and were willing to point out failures among their disciplinary colleagues. To my mind, Smith's work did not meet the standards that had been articulated by Lucas, Medhurst, and others whose work was defining the public address renaissance.
But what are the marks of public address scholarship "that makes a difference?" I would maintain there are at least three characteristics of such work: critical imagination, scholarly rigor, and good writing. To be of interest and value to other scholars, the history and criticism of public address must begin by asking an interesting question, and then explore that question with a critical imagination informed but not burdened by the discipline of rhetoric. In short, the public address scholar must have something new and worthwhile to say. The critic must aim to interpret the artifact and reveal aspects of a cultural or artistic or political or legal performance invisible to the historian, the political scientist, or legal scholar. But the question posed, and the interpretation [End Page 126] offered, should be clear enough, and compelling enough, that no scholar studying that artifact, in any discipline, can thereafter master the subject without first considering the arguments of the public address critic.
Public address scholars must also match the rigor of historians. We must habitually examine the full corpus of scholarly work on our subject, master it ourselves, and seek to contribute to it with our critical and historical work. That means reading in other disciplines as well as turning instinctively toward the study of primary material, the letters, diaries, pamphlets, and newspapers in printed or archival collections.
Public address scholars must also write about their subjects with clarity and vivacity. That means abandoning reliance on theoretical jargon of interest to a narrow audience. It means developing coherent critical arguments that both advance our understanding of the subject and use the available evidence convincingly. In general, it means presenting a rhetorical interpretation of events that resonates with readers whose interest is less in theoretical controversies or ideological battles among critics, than in the person, the era, or the artifact the critic is studying.
All of this is by way of saying that like his earlier work, Craig R. Smith...