Charles Summer"s use of oratory as a tool of social influence

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1970

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The purpose of this study was to answer the question: how did Charles Sumner"s oratory aid and/or hinder him in acquiring immense political influence? The method of accomplishing this purpose was the result of a combination of Aristotelian and Burkian critical principles. Specifically, the method consisted of (1) reducing the texts of Sumner"s speeches to enthymematic form, (2) determining whether or not the Senator made his lines of argument con- substantial with the common thoughts of his auditors, and (3) explaining and evaluating why and how Sumner failed and succeeded in achieving consubstantiality with his audiences. The combination of purpose and method employed in this study affirmed the tripartite thesis therein advanced. First, Sumner identified his reform proposals with ideas widely accepted by Americans in the fifteen years prior to the Civil War. Second, this identification through rhetorical strategies approached completeness only with Sumner"s specific audience composed of Northern reformers. Third, Sumner was never able to achieve substantial identification between his proposals and the ideas of his auditors on a national level. Hence, he failed to maximize the influence obtainable in an ideal sense from his rhetorical endeavors. This thesis was affirmed through the study of nine speeches on various social issues delivered by Sumner between the years 1845 to 1860. The success of Sumner in utilizing oratory as an instrument of political influence came from his ability to support his proposals with ideas central to the public faith and philosophy of most mid-nineteenth-century Americans. Through the use of rhetorical strategies such as religiofication and victimage, Sumner was able to create for many of his listeners a secular religion of human progress. The persuasive impact of this secular analogue of the Christian faith was more localized in the case of Sumner"s addresses on social reform and pacificism. On these two issues, he achieved consubstantiality with only a small group of Northern philanthropists because most Americans simply were not as ego-involved on the questions of social reform and pacificism as was Sumner. The Massachusetts Senator was, therefore, never able to completely establish his secular faith in the minds of most Americans on these two issues. With his speeches against slavery, however, Sumner found an issue felt very intensely by most Antebellum Americans, and he was able to utilize his oratory in such a way as to capitalize upon these feelings. Again relying on the strategies of religiofication and victimage, always couched in terms found in the everyday beliefs of his auditors. Sumner gained immense support from Northern opponents to slavery as a result of his oratory. The increasing number of people in the North who came to oppose slavery served to increase Sumner"s political influence. His oratory, although it did not cause the antislavery movement and perhaps did not even significantly swell the ranks of the movement, was the necessary instrument which spotlighted Sumner as a political leader of slavery"s opponents. As a result of the sectional appeal of Sumner"s oratory, however, he never was successful in identifying himself with a sufficient number of Americans to become a national political leader. In this way, therefore, his oratory limited his political influence.

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