I've now been home for two days from a fantastic trip. Although in the second week it became a for-pleasure wandering tour of central Italy, I was technically there for "work," attending the conference of the International Society for the History of Rhetoric at the University of Bologna. Since then, several people I've spoken with (some of whom are frequent readers of this blog) have asked to see the paper I presented; so--although it makes me a little uncomfortable to publish this in blog form--I'm sharing it here. Please feel free to criticize as brutally as you feel necessary. I took a methodology that calls for exhaustive research and attempted to reduce it to a fifteen minute-long talk, so I'm aware that it has weaknesses, and would be delighted to get feedback from you fine, intelligent folks.
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Regional Interests, Universal Truths: The Legal Implications of Conflicting Christian Moral Rhetorics.
On March 7, 1850, Daniel Webster of Massachusetts gave a now infamous speech advocating passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, mandating that all runaway slaves must be returned to their masters, and that the law was enforceable in Free Soil states on pain of fines and/or prison sentences. Part of the Compromise of 1850, the Act was viewed by many of Webster’s constituents as a betrayal of northern sovereignty. Abolitionists obviously opposed it, but even many more moderate and more inclined toward compromise viewed this compromise as an encroachment which forced their hand in the most divisive and important issue of the day, with no less than Abraham Lincoln famously alleging a Southern conspiracy to turn the U.S. into one large slaveholding nation. In Webster’s speech, the emphasis was not on the moral virtue of slavery, but on preservation of the Union and the prevention of secession as the primary objective for American legislators.
By contrast, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s reaction to passage of the Fugitive Slave Act and especially to Daniel Webster’s role as an advocate for the Act considers preservation of the Union a worthless goal if the purpose of a nation and its laws amounts to nothing more than the protection of property and the exploitation of human beings as property. Both of these noted pieces of Antebellum oratory make use of an interpretation of human law based on the transcendental Law of God as interpreted in different parts of the New Testament. For considering the use of biblical allusions in each of these famous speeches, I plan to read them through the prism of Steven Mailloux’s rhetorical hermeneutics, in order to show how such a method illuminates the ways in which such oratory is contemporarily and historically interpreted, as well as its effect on the historical interpretation and even canonization of particular works, figures, and movements in American politics.
In favor of the Fugitive Slave Act, Daniel Webster’s March 7 Speech characterizes the Boston Senator “not as a Massachusetts man, nor as a Northern man, but as an American, and a member of the Senate of the United States…a body not yet moved from its propriety…” With the specter of secession looming, Webster follows this self-description by noting, “I speak to-day for the preservation of the Union.” Personally opposed to slavery but generally moderate and accommodating to Southern interests in his policy decisions, Webster lists the opposing factions on either pole of the debate: well-meaning, devoutly Christian Southern slaveholders, whose peculiar institution certainly has its flaws but who are generally misunderstood and mischaracterized by their foes; and Abolitionists, whose radical perversion of Scripture for the Abolitionist cause sows discord and undermines the possibility of a gradual progress which might organically bring about the end of slavery in due time if given the chance. In support of his allegation that the Abolitionists are in fact engaging in little more than anti-Christian rabble-rousing, Webster points to the Book of Romans, chapter 3 verse 8, in which St. Paul admonishes the Christians at Rome not to “do evil that good may come of it.” Webster’s allusion to Paul’s letter—itself an address aimed at heading off an ideological split between Jewish Christians and converted Gentiles—employs a deceptively simple good/evil binary that nonetheless speaks volumes and quickly makes a complex case for his preferred emphasis.
It’s important to remember that Webster’s support for the 1850 Compromise was the result of political wrangling in the North, lifelong opposition to radical measures taken for any purpose, and compromise and cooperation with Southerners, especially the Kentuckian Whig Henry Clay. It is with that in mind that audiences would have heard Webster’s self-identification not as a Massachusetts man or Northerner, but an American legislator first and foremost. By identifying this vocation as one which includes him in an august “body not yet removed from its propriety,” Webster lays claim to a correctness of ethical interpretation based on his position as an elected official, and to the ultimate goal of preserving the institution that allows for election, for debate, and for the democratic tradition on which all of Webster’s most celebrated oratory is predicated. In so many words, Webster proves his mettle as primarily American by showing a willingness to compromise his own personal beliefs for an ultimate national good; and the very possibility of such service, debate, and compromise is itself proof of that national good’s superiority to other more specific moral and ethical concerns. The dissolution of slavery would, it is implied, be good; but the disunion inspired by that good would be the greatest possible evil.
If we accept Webster’s claims, his allusion to the Book of Romans does not posit a purely pragmatic realpolitik approach by which compromise is simply necessary for a chosen outcome; rather, it’s a hermeneutic tool by which the Union and its laws are interpreted as the ultimate manifestation of a shared moral tradition, so that any threat to the Union must be seen as more immoral and more unethical than the alternative.
Interestingly enough, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s argument against the Fugitive Slave Act over a year later operates on the basis of many shared assumptions regarding the status of the United States and its Constitution as the ultimate manifestations of western moral tradition and ethical progress; with one important distinction: that the Act itself represents not the necessary compromise for maintaining the Union but the opening salvo in a dissolution brought about by national participation in an unforgivable immoral act. Formerly an admirer of Webster’s intelligence and oratorical skill, Emerson considers the March 7 Speech an affront to the principles for which Webster once stood and fought, and which catapulted him to regional admiration and national fame. Throughout his best known works, Emerson sees in the U.S. and its Constitution the embodiment of his paradoxical reconciliation of radical autonomy and a collective spirit of progress. In particular, Emerson had long seen in New England the moral beacon of the republic, with Webster as one of its brightest lights and one of its staunchest defenders of a moral and ethical legislature that upheld what Emerson refers to alternately as “natural law” and “first principles.” Drawing on legal precedents taken from British judicial history, Emerson argues repeatedly that the institution of slavery itself is contrary to basic human morality and decency. For example, quoting from Blackstone, Emerson holds that sovereignty is “the antecedent to any positive precept of the law of nature” and that all “should live honestly, should hurt nobody, and should render unto every one his due,” continuing that “No human laws are of any validity, if contrary to this.” Going on to borrow from such notables as Coke, Mansfield, Montesquieu, Burke, and even Cicero, Emerson drives home in no uncertain terms the point that even one so dedicated to the letter of the law as Daniel Webster must acknowledge that legal precedent itself holds to a standard of human decency which transcends the merely political. Political ethics and morality, Emerson argues, must be founded on a universal and incontrovertible moral standard which endures throughout human history. This, the argument goes, is not negotiable, regardless of political contingencies: “Laws are merely declaratory of the natural sentiments of mankind and the language of all permanent laws will be in contradiction to any immoral enactment: And thus it happens here: statute fights against statute…”
To buttress his case, Emerson presents—as the foundation of European and American civilization—the Golden Rule as stated in the Book of Matthew, 7:12: “Do unto others as you would have others do to you.” Here it’s worth noting that my analysis of these speeches consciously omits the voices of staunch activists on the abolition or pro-slavery sides, not to mention the oratory and writing of such important African-Americans as Frederick Douglass and David Walker. This is to underscore that the discourse being examined here is what would have passed for a quite mainstream treatment of the events of the day, with Webster’s and Emerson’s views being those of a prominent legislator and public intellectual, respectively. With the former addressing fellow members of Congress and the latter a series of patrician New England lecture attendees, it virtually goes without saying that, within the context in which these speeches were heard, the subaltern certainly did not speak. Although both personally disliked the practice of slavery, neither Emerson nor Webster self-identified as a member of the abolitionist movement and—even at the height of their anti-slavery sentiments—both evinced varying levels of ethnocentrism with regards to relations between white and black Americans. Even among abolitionists, there were in the Antebellum period debates as to what would be the rights of freed slaves post-abolition, or whether they should even be allowed to remain in the United States at all.
Thus we return to Emerson’s citing of the Golden Rule to ask, “Who are these others unto whom we should do as would be done to ourselves?” In other words, who is a citizen, who is human, and who deserves the benefit of universal human morality? It is an obscene question in the 21st century, and yet even in the Romantic humanist milieu of the Antebellum period, the 1850 Compromise was viewed in many quarters as the most sensible and least radical option. As such, the Golden Rule as used by Emerson takes on several implications. The primary concern outlined by Emerson is that the Fugitive Slave Law mandates kidnapping. This applied not only to escaped slaves, but to the fact that several legally freed African-Americans at the time were kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South. Emerson does not need to distinguish between the kidnapping of freedmen and that of escaped slaves, since the primary topic of his speech is not the well-being of the kidnapped, but the moral standing of the kidnappers and the fact that it legally intends to turn otherwise moral citizens into kidnappers: “It is contravened by the mischief it operates. A wicked law can not be executed by good men, and must be by bad. Flagitious men must be employed, and every act of theirs is a stab at public peace. It cannot be executed at such a cost, and so it brings a bribe in its hand. This law comes with infamy in it, and out of it.”
Speaking to an audience of anti-slavery advocates occupying various spots on the ideological spectrum, Emerson would have found it rhetorically inexpedient to wade into debates about the status of African-Americans, but could easily find common ground among Northerners who felt that the Fugitive Slave Law imposed immorality upon them through a political act which subordinated their own sense of justice to the commercial interests of the South. Thus is revealed a clash of universalities in the speeches of Emerson and Webster. Both New Englanders claim to want to protect the moral foundations upon which the United States was founded, and in doing so both refer to Christian Scripture for evidence of that foundation. Ostensibly, each speaker uses biblical moral standards as a hermeneutic tool with which to interpret the constitutionality and necessity of the Fugitive Slave Act, and yet they reach opposite conclusions. How is this possible?
I would argue that the use of Christian Scripture as an interpretive tool for positing opposing arguments about the Fugitive Slave Law is itself an example of what Steven Mailloux in Disciplinary Identities describes as “contingent rhetorical beliefs,” whereby the rhetorical heft of the statements used relies not on accuracy of interpretation (which is impossible to determine) or logical validity so much as the “rhetorical force of the ideas hovering around” the terms and quotations in question. So whereas Daniel Webster defends the law based on the need to keep intact the Union and its Constitution, Emerson argues that the law violates natural Law and the human constitution, which chafes against abuse of other humans; thus setting in motion the inevitable unraveling of the Union due to its residing on an unstable foundation—the defense of property rather than human rights, freedom, and love.
Logically, Webster’s is a strong enough argument: the Union must avoid disunity at all costs; disagreements between free and slave states threaten to create disunity; ergo, the Fugitive Slave Act must be passed to effect a compromise which will prevent secession and Civil War. But as Mailloux aptly points out in describing how discourses often traverse the boundaries of their respective disciplines, “For some people a belief can be weakened not logically but rhetorically by the effects of new experiences, including being scandalized by someone you admire who holds a belief you also hold or by being persuaded that the philosophical status you once gave to your belief (that it was true absolutely) is no longer believable.” If applied to the debate at hand, we might consider some of the absolutes to which both Emerson and Webster (and, presumably, their audiences) subscribed: mainly justice and freedom, as insured in and upheld by the Constitution of the United States of America. Quoting from the New Testament is not merely a way of calling attention to the particular statements quoted, but is itself a powerful signal; the New Testament stands as a rhetorically potent trope, a signifier that carries with it associative implications of transcendental first principles, unquestionable moral standards, and the history of western civilization. By signaling such an interpretation of their speeches, both Webster and Emerson build their arguments regarding the Fugitive Slave Law on the foundation of the universally (at least to their audiences) coveted idea of the United States, which itself rests on deeper, more generally universal foundations such as freedom and justice.
But what do we mean when we talk about “universals,” “absolutes,” and “first principles”? Building from Stanley Fish’s antifoundationalist critiques of universalism, Mailloux remarks that “Positive universals are empty and must always be filled in by instantiations that are not universal but local, not neutral but interested, not transcendentally general but politically specific. Positive formal universals can never serve the guiding function they claim for themselves.” Thus we see the rhetorical pragmatism at work in the speeches of Webster and Emerson: far from taking their positions on the Fugitive Slave Act from a democratic ethic based on interpretations of universal or natural Law, their uses of biblical allusion are based on foregone moral conclusions. So even as first principles are rhetorically positioned as preceding the political arguments being made, they are actually selected based on the rhetorical efficacy of the very idea of absolutism and universal Law as a metaphor for an otherwise unreachable Truth. This is not to accuse our rhetors of abject relativism—far from it—but rather to consider the structure of truth claims founded upon abstract principles that are paradoxically both unverifiable and extremely powerful. To quote Mailloux again:
These are practical and pragmatist questions, practical in not being based on universalizing theories and pragmatist in making judgments by looking toward the effects of actions. They are also, I submit, rhetorical hermeneutic questions insofar as the judgments made are based on interpretations of past conditions and future probabilities, and those interpretations and resulting judgments are rhetorically enmeshed in the persuasive arguments, enabling tropes, and grounding narratives of the times and places of their rhetorical performance.
And it is the historical context of the performance—as well as the consistency of the truth claims upon which Webster and Emerson base their arguments—that ultimately dictate interpretations of those speeches for posterity. As mentioned before, Emerson and Webster both operate on assumptions that take for granted such abstract principles as freedom and justice. Both men consider history teleologically, making the case throughout their illustrious careers that the progressive arc of history is toward greater justice and human dignity. And yet, in this instance, only Emerson upholds those principles at the most abstract and affecting—indeed the most pathetic—level. While both make pragmatic rhetorical arguments about the morality of the law as well as practical arguments about the viability of its implementation, Webster uses universal Law not as a centerpiece of his argument but primarily as a precedent to make the case for the necessities of mundane earthly law.
Lest we consider this a foolish decision on his part, context must again be considered. Webster’s speech was made to a meeting of exasperated Congressmen, many from slaveholding states working to diffuse a four year-long conflict between the Free-Soil and slave states; and it worked: the law was passed. Yet in scholarly settings the speech is now considered—if at all—not for its moral strength or even its persuasiveness but for its rhetorical flourishes, clarity, and construction; what Rufus Choate called the “crystal water of the style.” It is mainly regarded with infamy as an example of skillful oratory used to ignominious ends. And so we see an example of a formerly “extreme” position (abolition) taking on the valence of a universally accepted principle and in so doing changing the interpretation of all the tropes used in a speech predicated on the immutability of certain principles.
I consider this an example of what Mailloux identifies as stemming from “events of universal truth-making.” This concept is drawn from philosopher Alain Badiou’s interpretation of Pauline Christianity, which considers Paul’s proclamation of the Word the event that emerges out of a particular situation, which must be named and in its naming develops around itself a truth procedure. Mailloux’s own example in discussing the theory of the event is the September 11 terrorist attacks, an event whose impact had to be universally acknowledged in order for the discourse surrounding it to make sense by standing on a common foundation. To identify at what point Webster’s speech begins to be considered less sensible and less moral in American public discourse than Emerson’s is a difficult task because there are so many individual events that could be said to have turned the tide, and such an analysis requires more historical and theoretical rigor than this short paper allows for. What we can certainly say, however, is that much had not yet taken place in March of 1850 or in May of 1851. Webster’s speech followed the anxieties of the Mexican-American War in a context punctuated by the fear of slave revolts and anxieties over states’ rights; it also preceded the beginnings of more widespread abolitionist sentiment by about a year, and Bleeding Kansas by four years. The election of Abraham Lincoln and Civil War were eleven years away, the Emancipation Proclamation twelve, and the Thirteenth Amendment still fifteen. All of these events—and more—played a role not in relativizing the concept of truth but in constructing it around a shared set of principles drawn from common experience and discourse. As such, they not only shape how we interpret individual tropes within a work, but cause the dominant discourse to view those works themselves—as well as the works to which they allude—as signifiers for ideologies and their valuation as outmoded, progressive, revolutionary, opportunistic or any number of judgments we might apply to them with the benefit of hindsight and careful reading.