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Fanatical Schemes

Proslavery Rhetoric and the Tragedy of Consensus

Written by Patricia Roberts-Miller

Publication Year: 2009

What was the relationship between rhetoric and slavery, and how did rhetoric fail as an alternative to violence, becoming instead its precursor?
 
Fanatical Schemes is a study of proslavery rhetoric in the 1830s. A common understanding of the antebellum slavery debate is that the increased stridency of abolitionists in the 1830s, particularly the abolitionist pamphlet campaign of 1835, provoked proslavery politicians into greater intransigence and inflammatory rhetoric. Patricia Roberts-Miller argues that, on the contrary, inflammatory rhetoric was inherent to proslavery ideology and predated any shift in abolitionist practices.
 
She examines novels, speeches, and defenses of slavery written after the pamphlet controversy to underscore the tenets of proslavery ideology and the qualities that made proslavery rhetoric effective. She also examines anti-abolitionist rhetoric in newspapers from the spring of 1835 and the history of slave codes (especially anti-literacy laws) to show that anti-abolitionism and extremist rhetoric long preceded more strident abolitionist activity in the 1830s.
 
The consensus that was achieved by proslavery advocates, argues Roberts-Miller, was not just about slavery, nor even simply about race. It was also about manhood, honor, authority, education, and political action. In the end, proslavery activists worked to keep the realm of public discourse from being a place in which dominant points of view could be criticized--an achievement that was, paradoxically, both a rhetorical success and a tragedy.

Published by: The University of Alabama Press

Contents

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p. vii-vii

Acknowledgments

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pp. ix-x

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Introduction: “Industrious in scattering the seeds of insurrection”

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pp. 1-17

In late July 1835, the New York–based Ameri can Anti-Slavery Society (AAS) mailed, or, more accurately, tried to mail, the first number of a new publication, Human Rights, to citizens in South Carolina. The pamphlets were never delivered. Seized in the Charleston post office by the postmaster, they were destroyed by a self-appointed vigilante group. There was a flurry of correspondence among the Charleston postmaster (Alfred...

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1. “Slavery shall not be discussed”: The Political Power of the Irrational Rhetor

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pp. 18-45

Slavery was an economic and political institution. It was also, however, a rhetorical construct. People argued for and against it, and, in the course of doing so, implicitly or explicitly defined it. For instance, while various speakers in the gag rule debate disagreed about the identity, motives, and rights of abolitionists, every speaker agreed that “the South” was proslavery. This fantastical synecdoche was created rhetorically, by the constant...

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2. “With firm, undaunted resolution”: The Rhetoric of Doom

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pp. 46-71

Scholars have often remarked on a striking quality of southern antebellum culture: its fatalism, sometimes called “the rhetoric of doom,” “the myth of the lost cause,” or the “rhetoric of defense.” Although any and each of those terms is accurate, I will settle for the rhetoric of doom, an ideology (and practice) that precludes the consideration of particular historical...

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3. “A deep conviction, settled on every bosom”: Alarmism, Conspiracy, and Unification

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pp. 72-102

One reason scholars tend to accept the narrative of calm waters broken by the pamphlet mailings is that there was an impressive amount of anti-abolitionist agitation in the summer and fall of 1835. There were meetings of concerned citizens who passed belligerent resolutions, condemning abolitionists as “mischievous” (“The Union Must Be Preserved,” Western Christian Advocate, September 11, 1835); there were politicians who berated...

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4. “For the sake of your wives, children and their posterity”: Manly Politics

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pp. 103-126

Many of the rhetorical qualities of the newspaper articles discussed in the previous chapter are ones that Richard Hofstadter has identified as elements of the “paranoid style,” which was tremendously popular in the 1820s and 1830s. He says that writers of that era “illustrate the central preconception of the paranoid style—the existence of a vast, insidious, preternaturally...

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5. “Careless of the Consequences”: Extended Defenses of Slavery

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pp. 127-158

Traditionally, rhetoricians describe a triangle of author (intention), text (strategies), and audience, set against a background of context; rhetorical analysis means to explain a text in regard to each of those relations, how the author has shaped a text in order to have a particular intended impact on a certain kind of reader within generic and historical contexts. To categorize the kinds of intentions an author might have, rhetoricians...

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6. “Our laws to regulate slaves are entirely founded on terror”: The Political Theory of Slave Codes

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pp. 159-186

In the previous chapters, I have emphasized how public discourse both appeals to and creates consensus about group identity, with sometimes tragic consequences. Thus far, I have relied on the fairly conventional understanding of public discourse as discourse about policy; in this chapter I want to consider policy itself as a form of public discourse. Specifically, I want to look at laws related to slavery in various states in two, closely...

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7. “The Sweet Waters of Concord and Union”: Pro slavery Rhetoric in a Deliberative Setting

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pp. 187-210

In the 1830s, abolitionism was a good example of what Nancy Fraser has famously called a “subaltern counterpublic.” Politically marginalized (every single speaker in the gag rule controversy distanced himself from abolitionists, even the one who spoke in favor of the petition), made up of the legally marginalized (such as women and free African Americans), abolitionism was further hampered by the dominant constitutional theory.1...

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Conclusion: “Any rational plan”: The Responsibilities of Rhetoric

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pp. 211-237

He describes a “Hesperean” view of the elegant plantation house (I: 230), a sumptuous dinner “served by two or three young slaves, who were drilled to a glance of the eye” (I: 235), and a picturesque village of slave quarters. Yet, once he leaves the picturesque village, he comes across a villainous overseer: “A white man, with a very unpleasing physiognomy, carelessly...

Notes

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pp. 239-257

Works Cited

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pp. 259-274

Index

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pp. 275-286


E-ISBN-13: 9780817381257
Print-ISBN-13: 9780817356538

Page Count: 286
Publication Year: 2009

Research Areas

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Subject Headings

  • Consensus (Social sciences) -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Slavery -- Political aspects -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • United States -- Politics and government -- 1837-1841.
  • Rhetoric -- Political aspects -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Fanaticism -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Politicians -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Antislavery movements -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Abolitionists -- Political activity -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • United States -- Politics and government -- 1829-1837.
  • Slavery -- United States -- Justification -- History -- 19th century.
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