Some Lessons From ‘The Columbian Orator’

The ardor of eloquence, the love of virtue
December 17, 2019 Updated: December 17, 2019
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Though a history major in college and a disciple of Clio (the muse of history) ever since, I was unfamiliar with Caleb Bingham and his once famous compendium, “The Columbian Orator.”

After stumbling across an online article about Bingham’s book, I ordered a copy and received the historian and biographer David Blight’s edition of “The Columbian Orator: Containing a Variety of Original and Selected Pieces Together With Rules, Which Are Calculated to Improve Youth and Others, in the Ornamental and Useful Art of Eloquence.”

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Frederick Douglass’s copy of the 1812 edition of “The Columbian Orator,” compiled by Caleb Bingham. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

What a title! And let me say that in addition to finding pleasure in reading history, I’m a sucker for compilations and for books on rhetoric and writing.

And so I set out.

columbian orator cover
The cover of David W. Blight’s 1998 bicentennial edition of “The Columbian Orator.”

The Book Itself

First, I read the blurb from the back of the book and discovered I was holding in my hands an early American bestseller:

“First published in 1797, ‘The Columbian Orator’ helped shape the American mind for the next half century, going through some 23 editions and totaling 200,000 copies in sales. The book was read by virtually every American schoolboy in the first half of the 19th century. As a slave youth, Frederick Douglass owned just this one book, and read it frequently, referring to it as a ‘gem’ and his ‘rich treasure.’”

Caleb Bingham (1757–1817) was a remarkable American. As Blight tells us in his introduction, Bingham graduated from Dartmouth College, taught school in various capacities, opened the first private school for girls in Boston, pushed to increase the teaching of reading and literature, and wrote and sold more than a million copies of different textbooks.

Bingham kicks off “The Columbian Orator” with a lengthy introduction titled “General Instructions for Speaking,” and then introduces his readers to 84 pieces that he deems excellent examples of the practice of rhetoric: speeches, sermons, poetry, bits of plays, and dialogues. Referring to himself in the third person, Bingham notes in his Preface: “In his choice of materials, it has been his object to select such as should inspire the pupil with the ardor of eloquence, and the love of virtue.” (A typo in Blight’s edition of the book mistakenly renders that “and” as “end.”)

In this diverse collection, we find speeches by Cicero, William Pitt, and George Washington; works such as “The Speech of Galgacus to the Caledonian Army,” the satirical “Dialogue Between a School-Master and School Committee,” “Socrates’ Defense Before His Accusers and Judges,” “Slaves in Barbary: A Drama in Two Acts,” Milton’s “Christ Triumphant Over the Apostate Angels,” a scene from Addison’s “Cato,” which was George Washington’s favorite play, and much more.

The Book’s Influence

Two of the 19th century’s greatest orators immersed themselves in these lessons on eloquence. In 1831–1832, 21-year-old Abraham Lincoln was absorbing the rich language and elocution techniques of Bingham’s compilation.

A year earlier, 12-year-old slave Frederick Douglass, who was like Lincoln largely self-taught, purchased a copy of “The Columbian Orator” for 50 cents that he had earned polishing boots, and began a lifelong love affair with what he called his “noble acquisition.” Pieces like “Dialogue Between a Master and Slave,” where a slave reasons with his master and wins his freedom, must have left a profound mark on the young Douglass.

Frederick Douglass
American social reformer, orator, writer, and statesman Frederick Douglass, circa 1879. National Archives and Records Administration. (Public Domain)

As Blight points out, “The Columbian Orator” and Bingham’s other publications not only shaped the American mind but also “helped build the American character.” Like so many other textbooks of the 19th century, “The Columbian Orator” expected its readers to draw moral lessons from its contents. Liberty, religious faith, truth, virtue, and patriotism are concepts deserving high praise. Slavery and injustice draw condemnation.

What We Can Learn Even Now

For modern readers, this collection provides other lessons and insights as well. First, the supple language found in these selections—the carefully chosen words, the intricate syntax, the logic and care in erecting various arguments—demonstrates the power and value of well-constructed spoken or written thought. Read, for example, a passage by the Frenchman Abbot Claude Fauchet as he eulogizes Benjamin Franklin. Or better yet, read the passage aloud as Bingham intended:

“At one and the same time, he governed nature in the heavens and in the hearts of men. Amidst the tempests of the atmosphere, he directed the thunder; amidst the storms of society, he directed the passions. Think, gentlemen, with what attentive docility, with what religious respect one must hear the voice of a simple man, who preached up human happiness when it was recollected that it was the powerful voice of the same man who regulated the lightning.”

“The Columbian Orator” also offers us a lesson in humility. That such a book, so rich in ideas and vocabulary, was once commonplace among school children, including that 12-year-old slave, should raise an eyebrow regarding our modern standards of education. Here in this book is a feast of words and ideas, a banquet table when compared to the thin soup we sometimes deliver to today’s young people.

Bingham’s selections, particularly those speeches and letters contemporary to his times, reveal as well a formality missing in our own public debates and arguments. The writers and speakers of that era are as fervent about their various causes as are we today, but they fancy-dress their speech, as if realizing that language, even when carrying a rapier, should obey certain standards of civility. We are more direct in our communications, but might gain by emulating the spoken and written courtesies practiced by our ancestors.

Finally, “The Columbian Orator” is a reminder of the value of public and private virtue, and their relationship with liberty. At the close of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, as Benjamin Franklin was leaving Independence Hall, someone asked him, “Well, doctor, what have we got—a Republic or a Monarchy?” Franklin supposedly replied, “A republic—if you can keep it.”

“They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither safety nor liberty.” Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790). One of the founding fathers of the United States. A polymath, known as one of the major figures of the American Enlightenment and in physics for his discoveries in electricity. (Portrait by Joseph-Siffred Duplessis)
A portrait of Benjamin Franklin by Joseph-Siffred Duplessis. (Public Domain)

The designer of  “The Columbian Orator” aimed to help keep that republic by generating republican values in its citizens. The book celebrates liberty and virtue, and warns that “if avarice, if extortion, if luxury, and political corruption, are suffered to become popular among us, civil discord, and the ruin of our country will be the speedy consequence of such fatal vices.”

A lesson to bear in mind: Virtues lost end in lost republics.

‘The Columbian Orator’
New York University Press
Caleb Bingham, Editor; David Blight’s edition
300 pages, paperback

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C., Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.