Rhetoric in American Literature: 1830-1860

Updated on December 23, 2019
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Brandon Riederer is an Adjunct Instructor of English at Bryant & Stratton College. He has a M.A. in English from National University.

In Book I, chapter 2 of Aristotle’s “Rhetoric,” he introduces perhaps the most famous understanding of the aspects of persuasion in Western history: ethos, logos, and pathos (Rapp, 2010). According to Aristotle, great arguments are built upon a balanced attack of ethos, logos, and pathos because they collectively create the most effective persuasive appeal to audiences. The founding fathers of the United States of America, for example, drew on aspects of classical argumentation when they drafted the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution (Lucas, 1998). Ironically, however, rhetoric can be act as a boomerang or double-edged blade. The same rhetoric the founding fathers used to earn their freedom and equality in the Americas was later used between in American literary works between 1830 and 1860 by repressed minorities such as Native Americans, enslaved African Americans, and women for the same reason: to achieve freedom and equality. Thus, writers such as Black Hawk, Frederick Douglass, Fanny Fern, and Abraham Lincoln took the classical aspects of rhetoric— ethos, pathos, and logos— and the values and beliefs promoted and promised in the Declaration of Independence, and combined these elements to apply them to their own arguments while demonstrating the contradictory nature of American politics between 1830 and 1860.

Rhetoric of the Founding Fathers

The role of literature during the pre-Civil War era (1492 A.D. – 1860 A.D.) is most noted by its power and purpose to capture current events and persuade audiences. Besides the early colonies, which primarily used literature as a means to create historical records, the New Republic had great political and economic interests as a result of the American Revolution. Thus, the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution were not only historical records or public letters; they were highly rhetorical documents which aided to fuel early American nationalism and its promise of freedom and equality. Even so, between 1830 and 1860 there was a significant literary shift of focus from interests of the New Republic to more the cultural and ideological interests of writers such as Black Hawk, Douglass, Fern, and Lincoln. Although they borrow many of the arguments made by their adversaries found in documents such as the Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution, and the Bible, they do so strategically to introduce new counter arguments to present their struggles with American government in their words to address topics like westward expansion, slavery, patriarchal constraints, and the crumbling of a nation’s identity.

Black Hawk: Orality versus Literacy

Black Hawk’s “Life of Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak, or Black Hawk” is a rhetorical literary work that persuades primarily through pathos. The thematic concern Black Hawk presents to readers is the language barrier between Native Americans and the Americans, specifically the formality of writing, such as in a signature, and how those American customs marginalized Native American political understandings in their delegations with American representatives. Even though Black Hawk’s argument is written rather than spoken, it conveys a similar effect as the Declaration of Independence because they both use orality-grounded rhetoric in their respective styles (Ong, pg. 155). The irony, however, is that Black Hawk’s only opportunity to persuade Americans to sympathize with the Native Americans was by adopting the English language in his autobiography. Furthermore, Black Hawk had to use strictly Western concepts for his audience to understand his issues such as “rights,” “lies,” “property” (Black Hawk, pgs. 351-353). Essentially, in order to reach his rhetorical potential Black Hawk had to abandon the very language and culture he was attempting to protect.

Frederick Douglass: Writing and Equality

Frederick Douglass’s slave-narrative “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself” is a rhetorical work that persuades audiences through a balanced attack of ethos, pathos, and logos. Even so, the rhetorical significance of the title of his slave-narrative cannot be overlooked. According to most Americans between 1830 and 1860, slaves were merely irrational beasts incapable of literacy (Sundstrom, 2012). Douglass, however, makes a huge countermove against pro-slavery advocates and the idea of blacks as beasts by literally writing his own autobiography. Whereas previous slave-narratives were often transcribed into script by white editors (Garrison, 1845/2012), Douglass proves first-hand—by his hand—that slaves are rational humans and deserve the freedom and equality promised to all citizens as stated in the Declaration of Independence. Thus, as Yale English Professor Robert Stepto accurately phrases it, “Douglass’s tale dominates the narrative because it alone authenticates the narrative” (Stepto, 1979); therefore, honesty was Douglass’s most effective rhetorical tool in his narrative. His genuineness lead abolitionists such as Wendell Phillips to comment praise such as “Every one who has heard you speak has felt, and, I am confident, every one who has read your book will feel, persuaded that you give them a fair specimen of the whole truth” (Stepto, pg. 269)

Fanny Fern: a Voice through Script

Fanny Fern’s Horation satirical writings “Hungry Husbands” and “Male Criticism on Ladies’ Books!” are rhetorical works that persuade readers through a combination of humorous pathos and bitter logos. Her stylistic approach reveals the 19th century American woman’s silenced but nevertheless passionate voice for equality. Fern in particular wrote with very high energy and with such intensity that Nathaniel Hawthorne once wrote in description of Fern’s literature that “The woman [Fanny Fern] writes as if the Devil was in her” (Wood, pg. 1). Nevertheless, her extreme passion for social concerns such as gender inequalities, divorce laws, poverty, and suffrage were not in vain. Fern reached the masses with her regularly published columns in the New York Ledger and moved audiences with her powerful rhetorical skills. By 1860, Fern had a very large readership and achieved much fame therefore creating herself as a living representative of her feminist philosophies and a model of opportunity for women in the field of American journalism.

Abraham Lincoln: The Struggle for Unity

Abraham Lincoln’s famous “A House Divided” speech is a highly rhetorical work that attempts to persuade the American public through a professional balance of ethos and logos. His appeal to American nationalism, and values and beliefs such as freedom and equality is a skilled tactic to denounce slavery and promote political unity by bridging the cultural gaps between regional differences, particularly those between the Northern and Southern states. When Lincoln said in paraphrase of the Bible, Matthew 12:25, “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” he was creating a rhetorical stance that was difficult for pro-slavery advocates to oppose (Lincoln, pg. 732). Essentially, Lincoln’s maneuver was to create an ultimatum based on the Kantian ethical principle of the universal quantifier: ‘either we stand as one, or we fall into rubble’; in context to the issue of slavery: ‘either we all accept slavery, or we all deny it.’ Since Lincoln was against the institution of slavery, this speech placed significant stress upon the southern states to either adhere to the law, or flee from the authority. Thus, Lincoln’s “A House Divided” is an appropriate foreshadowing of the Civil War, which unfolded just two years following the speech.

What Does it All Mean, Anyway?

The bulk of American literature titled “Pre-Civil War,” including all major American documents produced between 1492 A.D., the arrival of Columbus, and 1860 A.D., the year before the outbreak of the American Civil War, all contain aspects of the classical aspects of rhetoric first articulated by Aristotle. This large span of time covers the literature produced from the earliest American settlers such as John Smith and William Bradford, to the writings of the New Republic exemplified by figures such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine, and then lastly, the literature published between 1830 and 1860, also known as the Age of Transcendentalism, boasts the writers discussed above such as Black Hawk, Frederick Douglass, Fanny Fern, and Abraham Lincoln. Across this timeline many changes occurred within the American literary realm and these changes had direct cultural significance in the sense that they were ambivalently influenced by and influential to cultural developments and events. This is why one of the most important aspects of early American literature is its strong rhetorical focus on persuading readers. Whether an author’s aims were to protect their native lands, to free their brothers and sisters from the bondage of slavery, to liberate women from their domestic constraints, or stitch together the politics of a crumbling nation, early American rhetoric must be known for its diversity among active groups contesting to shape the nation’s uncertain future.


Baym, N., Levine, R. (2012). The norton anthology american literature (8th ed., Vol. A). New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

Garrison, W. (1845/2012). Preface. In Narrative of the life of frederick douglass, an american slave, written by himself. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

Hawk, B. (1833/2012). Life of ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak, or black hawk. In The Norton Anthology American Literature (8th ed., Vol. A). New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

Lincoln, A. (1858/2012). A house divided. In The norton anthology american literature (8th ed., Vol. A). New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

Lucas, S. (1998). The rhetorical ancestory of the declaration of independence. In Rhetoric & Public Affairs (Vol. 1, pp. 143-184). Retrieved from http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/rap/summary/v001/1.2.lucas.html

Ong, W. (2003). Orality and literacy. In New Accent Series. New York, NY: Routledge.

Rapp, C. (2010). Aristotle’s rhetoric. In The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.). Retrieved from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-rhetoric/

Stepto, R. (1979/1994). I rose and found my voice: Narration, authentication, and authorial control in four slave narratives. In Within the circle: An anthology of African american literary criticism from the harlem renaissance to the present, Angelyn Mitchell (ed.). Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Sundstrom, R. (2012). Frederick douglass. In The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy. Retrieved from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/frederick-douglass/

Wood, A. (1971). The “scribbling women” and fanny fern: Why women wrote. In American Quarterly. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press.

© 2019 Instructor Riederer


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    • B. Leekley profile image

      Brian Leekley 

      6 months ago from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA

      Appealing to pathos, ethos, and logos—to the gut, the heart, and the brain; to the brain's hypothalamus and limbic system and the brain's frontal lobe; to readers' emotions, morals, and reason; why care; what's good; what's reasonable—is an important aspect of rhetoric (the craft of writing) for hubbers to keep in mind. Important for readers is critical analysis, asking if rhetorical devices are masking lying propaganda. Like, for the wealthy men who were the USA's founding fathers, freedom meant, for instance, the freedom to forcibly grab land from American Indian tribes unfettered by a monopoly on such power by the King of England, according to a US history I recently read.

      Just as a matter of curiosity, does your description of pre-Civil War American literature apply to fiction writers such as Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Edgar Allen Poe?


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