nineteenth-century rhetoric

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Richard Whately
In his influential text Elements of Rhetoric (1828), Richard Whately characterized rhetoric as "an off-shoot from logic.". (Archive Photos/Getty Images)


The expression nineteenth-century rhetoric refers to the study and practice of rhetoric during the nineteenth century, especially in North America and Europe.

Until recently, as Nan Johnson observes in Nineteenth-Century Rhetoric in North America (1991), the conventional premise of scholars was that "nineteenth-century [rhetorical] theory was essentially synthetic, being derived from the integration of classical elements with eighteenth-century belletristic and epistemological approaches to theory and practice." But as discussed below, recent scholarship has altered this perspective.

An important transitional figure between Enlightenment rhetoric and nineteenth-century rhetoric was English logician, rhetorician, and theologian Richard Whately (1787-1863). His books Elements of Logic (1826) and Elements of Rhetoric (1828) were particularly influential in both Britain and America.

Periods of Western Rhetoric

19th-Century Essays and Speeches on Rhetoric and Style

Examples and Observations

  • "Routinely, until the late twentieth century, histories of rhetoric either collapsed discussions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, characterized the nineteenth century as a stagnant era of imitation, or dismissed the period as vacuous. However, [Donald] Stewart [in the 1990 edition of The Present State of Scholarship in the History of Rhetoric] argues that nineteenth-century rhetoric takes on shape and form when viewed in terms of the classical canon--invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery--and he delineates the following 'strands' of nineteenth-century rhetoric: classical, elocutionary, psychological-epistemological, belletristic, and practical (composition). . . .

    "The late 1990s witnessed a watershed moment, however, particularly in American rhetoric, as revision and recovery research methods resurrected primary works and yielded secondary information about specific figures . . .. [T]he tide has turned overwhelmingly in favor of a broadened and more inclusive canon. . . . [T]he period is no longer considered a void, a century of study contained within the traditional 'strands,' or a codified 'preceptive' tradition."
    (Lynée Lewis Gaillet, "The Nineteenth Century." The Present State of Scholarship in the History of Rhetoric: A Twenty-First Century Guide, ed. by Lynée Lewis Gaillet with Winifred Bryan Horner. University of Missouri Press, 2010)

  • Overview of Rhetoric in the Nineteenth Century
    "Nineteenth-century rhetoric has been described consistently as a composite: 'early nineteenth-century school rhetoric [was] an amalgam of classical and eighteenth-century discourse theory' (Crowley, 'Evolution' 146). Both initial and recent research into the theoretical foundations of nineteenth-century rhetoric points to three overt influences: 'firm classical foundations,' belletristic interests in 'criticism and literary taste,' and epistemological approaches to rhetoric as a 'science' closely related to the study of the 'mental faculties.' . . . This synthetic character can be traced to the durable influence of eighteenth-century models such as Campbell's Philosophy of Rhetoric [1776] and Hugh Blair's Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres [1783] as well as Richard Whately's early nineteenth-century work Elements of Rhetoric [1826]. Nineteenth-century rhetoricians followed their immediate predecessors in combining classical treatments of the canons of invention, style, and arrangement with epistemological discussions of the laws of the mind and belletristic treatments of the principles of taste, style, and the literary genres. . . .

    "[E]ven the most persistent critics of the 'dispersed' state of nineteenth-century rhetoric conclude that nineteenth-century rhetoric extended traditional praxis beyond oratory and public speaking to include the arts of prose composition and critical analysis. . . .

    "One of the most distinctive characteristics of the nineteenth-century tradition was its unquestioned authority over institutional standards of literacy and the general public's notion of why the educated individual should learn to speak and write eloquently. Rhetoricians in the period perceived themselves as responsible for accounting for the nature of discourse, the techniques of rhetoric, and the development of the intellectual and moral virtues that enabled the speaker or writer to communicate in an effective and beneficent fashion."
    (Nan Johnson, Nineteenth-Century Rhetoric in North America. Southern Illinois University Press, 1991)

  • Evolving Perspectives on Nineteenth-Century Rhetoric
    "Linda Ferreira-Buckley's excellent overview of 19th-century rhetoric in the Encyclopedia of Rhetoric and Composition (1996) identifies important emerging rhetorical trends influenced by 'empiricism, Scottish common-sense philosophy, associational and faculty psychology, Romanticism, scientism, and phrenology' that contest [the] sterile. stereotypical view of the period. Citing recent scholarship, Ferreira-Buckley demonstrates ways in which the field was beginning in 1996 to understand how rhetoric addressed 'the public (civic life), the professional (individual expertise), or the private (individual self-improvement) (p. 468). The past 10 years of scholarship concerning 19th-century rhetoric supports Ferreira-Buckley's claim."
    (Lynée Lewis Gaillet and Elizabeth Tasker, "Recovering, Revisioning, and Regendering the History of 18th- and 19th-Century Rhetorical Theory and Practice." The SAGE Handbook of Rhetorical Studies, ed. by Andrea A. Lunsford, Kirt H. Wilson, and Rosa A. Eberly. Sage, 2009)

  • The Development of Women's Rhetorics
    "By the end of the nineteenth century, American women did have some access to higher education, both in the few coeducational schools, such as Oberlin, Iowa, and Cornell, and in women's colleges such as Mount Holyoke, Vassar, Smith, and Wellesley. Women in these schools could study rhetoric devoted in the classical spirit to public address on issues of civic importance. Moreover, they could study with a growing number of gifted women teachers. For example, Gertrude Buck, who held a PhD in English and taught at Vassar, published a textbook, Argumentative Writing, in 1899, in which she describes a course she offered with a professor of economics. . . .

    "Not surprisingly, as women's education improved, women increasingly began to speak in public and to reflect on their rhetorical practices. . . . [A]s speech communication scholar Karlyn Kohrs Campbell has suggested, women's rhetoric was based not on culturally dominant values and well-established occasions for oratory but on strategies 'to subvert popular belief and to overcome unusually significant persuasive obstacles, such as prohibitions against speaking itself and stereotypes that reject [women] as credible or authoritative.'"
    (Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg, editors of The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings From Classic Times to the Present, 2nd ed. Bedford/St. Martin's, 2001)

  • The Emergence of African-American Rhetoric
    "Enslaved people of African descent manipulated their situations the best they could to survive their hostile situations. They adapted language, art, thought, religion, work, everything that they were made to endure, to their own means and purposes. This is the making of African American culture, a culture developed out of struggle for freedoms and resistance to oppressions. The critique of social injustice and hypocrisy in American democracy is a significant theme in African American culture. In the nineteenth century, especially, African American activists exploited the available means of the time to problematize notions of text and subjectivity. Through their use of analogies, irony, and metonymic language, semantic inversion, to name a few, African American rhetors signified their alternative visions of democracy."
    (Victoria Cliett, "The Rhetoric of Democracy: Contracts, Declarations, and Bills of Sales." African American Rhetoric(s): Interdisciplinary Perspectives, ed. by Elaine B. Richardson and Ronald L. Jackson II. Southern Illinois University Press, 2004)

  • Richard Whately's Elements of Rhetoric (1828)
    - "The finding of suitable arguments to prove a given point, and the skilful arrangement of them, may be considered as the immediate and proper province of Rhetoric, and of that alone."
    (Richard Whately, Elements of Rhetoric: Comprising an Analysis of the Laws of Moral Evidence and of Persuasion for Argumentative Composition and Elocution, 1828)

    - "Like Augustine, [Richard] Whately sees rhetoric as the art of promoting and defending divine truth. Thus, rhetoric does not search for the best available truth under the circumstances, the goal of the Sophists. Nor does it reason from doxa or widely held opinions, as it had for Aristotle. Rather, Whately sought a systematic presentation of a practical art for expressing and defending the absolute truth handed down to humans by God in the revelation of the Bible. . . .

    "Unlike George Campbell, Whately is not particularly concerned with the larger philosophical and epistemological issues that lie at rhetoric's foundations. Whereas Campbell is concerned to understand how the mind works, Whately does not mention the issue at all. Whately's rhetoric is practical, and is particularly focused on issues of argument. . . .

    "Whately made traditional concepts of presumption and burden of proof relevant to a broad range of debates and controversies. . . .

    "George Kennedy calls Whately's Elements of Rhetoric 'the last treatment of rhetoric as a discipline in Britain and was studied, if at all, as a discipline in the classical tradition.' Rhetoric itself, Kennedy notes, 'ceased to be a separate discipline in Britain and was studied, if at all, as a part of English composition' by the middle of the nineteenth century. Whately's classical approach to a largely oral rhetoric was giving way to interest in writing and literary criticism."
    (James A. Herrick, The History and Theory of Rhetoric, 3rd ed. Pearson, 2005)