The Power of Speaking: Rhetoric
in American Public Life

Thursday, Nov. 17, 2011
7:00–8:30 p.m. (EST) Enter Classroom Enter Forum
Declaration of Independence


James Engell
Gurney Professor of English
Professor of Comparative Literature
Harvard University
National Humanities Center Fellow

About the Seminar

America would not exist without rhetoric. John Quincy Adams observed that rhetoric is essential to democracy. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution stand on firm rhetorical foundations, and rhetoric has shaped debate on issues from abolition in the nineteenth century to abortion in the twenty-first.

Legislation requires deliberative rhetoric; the courts require judicial rhetoric; and public events call on ceremonial rhetoric. How does it work? How have American leaders deployed it to persuade, to rally, to warn, to heal, to inspire, to celebrate, and to challenge? This seminar will consider examples of rhetoric in American history, from the Declaration of Independence to President Obama’s Cairo speech, to discover their formal structures and to see how they engage surrounding events in order actively to shape them.

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Assigned Readings

  1. Elementary Rhetoric
  2. The Declaration of Independence, 1776
  3. James Madison, Federalist 10, 1787
  4. Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” 1852
  5. Abraham Lincoln, “A House Divided,” 1858
  6. Abraham Lincoln, The Gettysburg Address, 1863
  7. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “First Inaugural,” 1933
  8. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Four Freedoms 1941
  9. Margaret Chase Smith warns against degraded rhetoric, 1950
  10. Dwight Eisenhower, Farewell Address 1961
  11. John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address 1961 (as PDF)
  12. John F. Kennedy, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” 1963
  13. Lyndon Johnson urges the 1964 Civil Rights Act
  14. Jimmy Carter, “A Crisis of Confidence,” 1979
  15. Ronald Reagan, “Making America Great Again,” Republican National Convention, 1980
  16. Barack Obama, from Address to the Muslim world, Cairo, 2009

Suggested Additional Resources

  1. Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student, ed. Edward P. J. Corbett and Robert J. Connors (4th ed., Oxford University Press), esp. pp. 15–33, 42–51, and 71–84.
  2. In Our Own Words: Extraordinary Speeches of the American Century (the twentieth century), ed. Robert Torricelli and Andrew Carroll, Foreword by Doris Kearns Goodwin.

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