Orators and Oratory
This study explores the rhetoric of African-American educator and abolitionist William Grant Allen through an analysis of "Orators and Oratory," an address delivered to the Dialexian Society of New York Central College. I feature Allen's effort to meld a variety of traditions and approaches to enlist his student audience in the cause of abolition. Further, I take up two related, but distinct components of "Orators and Oratory": the emphasis on appeals to the emotions and the portrayal of violence. More generally, I suggest ways in which Allen's speech serves as a window onto the rhetoric of marginalized abolitionist rhetors.
[P]aranoia about purity is the real enemy of black cultural expression. At its best it has been characterized by the amalgamation of radically different elements.
Michael Eric Dyson
The precursor of "miscegenation," "amalgamation" was a particularly ugly word in mid-nineteenth-century America, marshaled by whites to express their deep-seated animosity toward the mixing of the races.1 In the speeches, narratives, and epistles of African-American educator and abolitionist William Grant Alien, though, the concept of amalgamation suggested not the degradation of the white citizenry, but the great benefits of interracial procreation. Alien, who self-identified as a "quadroon" (Prejudice 3), believed that the blending of Anglo-Saxon and African "blood" would perfect, rather than pollute, the American character.2 In a letter to Frederick Douglass published in Frederick Douglass' Paper on May 20, 1852, he wrote that Americans, who "roll up their eyes, and go into pretended fits, at the mere mention of amalgamation, are, of all the races, the most amalgamated under the sun; and, as a matter of course-the most energetic and powerful," and he often extolled the benefits of racial "fusion," "mixture," "admixture," and "intermixture."
It is most fitting, then, that as a rhetor, Allen employed a kind of inventional amalgamation, drawing on all the available means of persuasion and the traditions of oratory to further social justice. This study explores William Allen's rhetoric through an analysis of "Orators and Oratory," an address delivered to the Dialexian Society of New York Central College on June 22, 1852. Through explication of this significant, yet neglected text, I will feature Alien's effort to meld classical learning; Scripture and Christian sentiment; Enlightenment rhetorical theory; British and American literature; contemporary scholarship; various current perspectives on politics, race, and language; and his own insights on oratory, culture, and the public sphere to craft an empowering discourse designed to enlist his student audience in the cause of abolition. Advocating neither an obsequious imitation nor an outright rejection of the rhetorical practices and traditions of the white power structure, Alien strives pragmatically to overturn America's pervasive racism and to usher in an era of true freedom. In the process of exploring Alien's amalgamated rhetoric, I will take up two related, but distinct components of "Orators and Oratory": the emphasis on appeals to the emotions and the portrayal of violence.
More generally, I will suggest ways in which Alien's speech serves as a window onto the rhetoric of marginalized abolitionist rhetors. I seek to contribute to the critical conversation about the rhetorical practices marshaled when antebellum African Americans strive to persuade by combining the discursive conventions and practices of the dominant tradition with values, positions, and experiences particular to their standpoint (see Wilson; Logan; Stephens; Bacon and McClish; Bacon, Humblest).
First, though, a little background on Alien and the context and publication history of "Orators and Oratory" is in order.3 Alien was born free in Virginia around 1820 and was orphaned at an early age. He began his education in Norfolk, and when formal channels of learning were closed to him, he studied with Federal soldiers stationed in the area and gained access to local libraries. Eventually, his scholarly achievement earned him the attention of noted New York abolitionist Gerrit Smith, and he was admitted to Beriah Green's Oneida Institute, located in Whitesboro, New York. This institution was known for its commitment to educating African Americans and to abolition. While still a student there, Alien taught fugitive slaves at a Canadian school founded by Oneida graduate Hiram Wilson.
Upon completing his studies at Oneida, Allen taught in Troy, where he also co-edited the National Watchman, a reformist newspaper focusing on temperance and abolition, with African-American abolitionist Henry Highland Garnet. In 1847, he began clerking in the law office of Boston abolitionist Ellis Gray Loring. He became known in New England as an eloquent advocate for African-American causes. Allen accepted a professorship in Greek, German, rhetoric, and belles lettres in 1850 at New York Central College, which was founded by the American Baptist Free Mission Society in 1849 in what was then McGrawville. Explicitly endorsing gender and racial equality, this remarkable but short-lived institution welcomed female and African-American students. Alien was one of three African-American professors employed by New York Central College and is the first known African-American instructor of rhetoric. Well-connected in the abolition movement, he was a frequent contributor to the North Star and Frederick Doug lass 'Paper.
As mentioned above, Alien delivered "Orators and Oratory" on June 22, 1852. The Dialexian Society of New York Central College soon published the speech in a pamphlet entitled Addresses Pronounced before the Dialexian Society of New York Central College, by J. Bascom, A. M., and Prof. Wm. G. Alien. (It is this version of the text that I cite below.) In addition, it was printed in three abolitionist papers. The Pennsylvania Freeman brought out the first version on October 16, 1852, along with an introductory note asserting, "The address is worthy of publication upon its intrinsic merits, but as the production of a colored man, who, in spite of the barriers of caste, has raised himself, by the force of his genius and moral worth, to an honorable position in the republic of letters, it will be read with peculiar interest" ("Professor Alien's Address"). Bight days later, Frederick Douglass'Paper provided a second version. On October 29, Garrison's Liberator reprinted both the speech and the enthusiastic introductory note from the Pennsylvania Freeman.*
In early 1853, less than a year after delivering "Orators and Oratory," Alien felt the full force of America's fear of racial amalgamation when he courted and married Mary King, a white woman who had been a student at the college. For entering into this relationship, which galvanized the local white community against him and inspired numerous hostile stories in the press, he was nearly murdered. He and his new wife found peace only by immigrating to the British Isles, where, so far as it is known, they lived for the rest of their lives.5 There, he published two accounts of his perilous experience with his native country's intolerance of amalgamation: The American Prejudice Against Color: An Authentic Narrative, Showing How Easily the Nation Got into an Uproar (1853); and A Short Personal Narrative (1860). New York Central College closed In 1861.
We have little information about the Dialexian Society of New York Central College, to which Alien spoke, or the circumstances of the addresses they heard. Comments within "Orators and Oratory" indicate that the presentation was an evening event. From what is known of the student body of New York Central College, we can surmise that the Society may have been racially mixed. John Bascom's "Mental Vigor and Its Component Parts," paired with Alien's in the 1852 pamphlet of addresses published by the Society mentioned above, makes clear that the Society was comprised of male students and provides some clues about the rhetorical context for "Orators and Oratory."6
Presented less than a month after Alien's speech, Bascom's spirited, if uneven, "Mental Vigor and Its Component Parts" begins with a cautious treatment of the tension between received wisdom and independent thought and culminates in a rousing attack on the doctrine of materialism, specifically the phrenology of Orson Squire Fowler. Early in the speech, in language typical of the performance, Bascom declares that one establishes "a wise, safe course of action" with regard to the conflicting tugs of experience and formal education,