Communication Currents

Current Commentary

Response to George F. Will: Don't Fear Oratory

December 1, 2008
Political Communication

Editor's note: In the November 17, 2008 issue of Newsweek, George F. Will presented his view of rhetoric (also known as oratory or public speaking) in relationship to the outcome of the 2008 presidential election. Will's column, The Last Word: The Final Repudaation, is linked here. Communication scholars Tom Frentz (University ofArkansas), Jennifer Mercieca (Texas A & M University), and David Levasseur (West Chester University)provide alternative interpretations.

George F. Will writes in the November 17, 2008 issue of Newsweek that President-elect Obama's campaign was powered solely by “the ‘popular art' of oratory,” which in Mr. Will's judgment represents the “antithesis of the Founders' system” and “the final repudiation of the Founders' intentions regarding the selection, and hence the role, of presidents.”  While we often turn to the Founders to make sense of current political questions, we do not always listen very carefully to what they had to say. By oversimplifying the Founders' complex debates and by hastily denigrating rhetoric, Mr. Will has not only gotten the Founders wrong on the question of presidential selection, but he has also unwittingly exposed his own mistrust of the rule of the people.

Mr. Will draws heavily from the analysis of University of Virginia professor James W. Ceaser to assert that Barack Obama's two-year “campaign—for his party's nomination, then for the presidency—was itself virtually the entire validation of his candidacy.” Mr. Will also cites John Jay'sFederalist 64—“brilliant appearances . . . sometimes mislead as well as dazzle”—to support his claim that Obama's well-run campaign was the “antithesis of the Founders' system.”  Drawing from Professor Ceaser and Jay allows Mr. Will to argue that the Founders designed a nomination process that they hoped would be immune to “the popular art of oratory” and that Barack Obama's campaign not only repudiates the Founders' intent, but also potentially threatens our republic. Let's examine these claims a little more closely.

The first question to consider is whether or not the Founders designed a systematic presidential nomination process. The quick answer is no. The Founders were conflicted over how the president would be selected and therefore did not design a coherent system.

James Madison's Notes on the Debates in the Federal Convention chronicles how the Founders struggled to create a republican system of government that would not degenerate into an aristocracy centered in the Senate. Madison's original Virginia Plan had given the power to select the president to the national legislature (the popularly elected House of Representatives, which would elect the Senate from those nominated by their state legislatures), but this plan did not sit well with many Convention Delegates. As an alternative, Pennsylvania Delegate James Wilson suggested that empowering the people to select their own representatives, senators, and president would “make [the different branches] as independent as possible of each other” and would protect liberty by preventing an aristocratic cabal between the Legislative and the Executive Branches.

Most Convention Delegates were as nervous about giving the people too much power as they were about the republic degenerating into aristocracy, and so Wilson's proposal to give the people the power to choose their leaders was not well received. Wilson tried again, this time suggesting that “the persons qualified to vote in each district for members of the first branch of the national Legislature” should also vote for the “electors of the Executive magistracy.” Wilson's second suggestion formed the basis for what we now call the Electoral College. The Committee of Eleven revised and expanded upon Madison's and Wilson's plans, adding a Vice-President and requiring the Electors “to vote by ballot for two persons, of whom one at least shall not be an inhabitant of the same State with themselves” and giving the Senate the power to choose the President in the cases where no candidate had a majority. Fearing that most elections would be thrown into the Senate, Delegates once again reconsidered the Electoral College plan.  Virginia Delegate George Mason believed that the plan would allow the Senate and Executive “to subvert the Constitution” and would lead to “an Aristocracy worse than absolute monarchy.” Connecticut Delegate Roger Sherman argued that the House should resolve ties rather than the Senate, which Mason and the rest of the Convention finally approved because they agreed that it would lessen “the aristocratic influence of the Senate.”

As Mr. Will and Professor Ceaser both point out, this haphazard system failed almost immediately after George Washington announced his resignation in 1796. First John Adams and Thomas Jefferson—members of opposing political parties—became President and Vice-President in 1796. Then a tie between Jefferson and Aaron Burr in 1800 resulted in a confusing impasse in the House. By 1804, the Twelfth Amendment once again attempted to fix the presidential selection procedure by requiring Electors to vote separately for the president and the vice-president, which has remained the constitutionally sanctioned method for nomination and selection. However, the rise of organized mass-political parties between 1824 and 1828 allowed the nomination and selection of the Executive Branch to escape its constitutional limitations.  What was once essentially a negotiation between the political elite became an extended campaign in which presidential hopefuls mobilized a nation-wide coalition of supporters, and Electors represented their parties rather than the people.

Therefore, to agree with Mr. Will that Barack Obama's campaign represented the “antithesis of the Founders' system” would require our knowing which Founder Will meant. Did Obama violate Madison's system? Wilson's? The Committee of Eleven's? Mason's? Sherman's?  No matter which Founder we turn to, it is clear that the Constitutional Convention hoped to prevent the nomination and selection of the president from sliding into the hands of the aristocratic Senate, not that it hoped to prevent “the popular art of oratory” from entering into the process. In fact, the word oratory was never mentioned in the Convention's debates over the president.

The Founders feared corruption and instability, not oratory. The Founders were excellent orators who prided themselves on their ability to persuade with republican dignity. Thomas Jefferson studied rhetoric and advised his favorite grandson to do the same, especially if he wanted a career in politics. The Adamses (Sam, John, and John Quincy) all studied rhetoric and John Quincy Adams' Lectures on Rhetoric and Oratory explicitly argued that oratory was necessary to prevent tyranny.  

Not only is Mr. Will's analysis of the Founders, oratory, and presidential selection wrong, but it points to a fundamental truth about American discourse about oratory: We often fear oratory precisely because it is popular. To say that oratory is the tool of demagogues is to say that the people are fools who cannot, or will not, use their reason to judge right from wrong. Yet, as John Quincy Adams wrote in 1809:

“Under governments purely republican, where every citizen has a deep interest in the affairs of the nation, and, in some form of public assembly or other, has the means and opportunity of delivering his opinions, and of communicating his sentiments by speech; where government itself has no arms but those of persuasion; where prejudice has not acquired an uncontroled ascendency, and faction is yet confined within the barriers of peace; the voice of eloquence will not be heard in vain.”

If the government is based upon the will of the people, then oratory is necessary to create community, negotiate difference, and resolve problems. Whenever we hear political observers like Mr. Will disparage “the popular art of oratory,” therefore, they are also dismissing popular rule. In fact, if citizens and political leaders could not employ “the popular art of oratory,” then as Quincy Adams says, all that would remain is a government of coercion and violence—the antithesis of the Founders' hopes for the nation. 

It is clear that the Founders did not reject what Mr. Will calls “the popular art of oratory” any more than they rejected popular government. The Founders were well aware that a government without oratory was a government by force and not by persuasion. Yes, the Founders recognized that demagogues could use oratory to mislead the people, but they also knew that politics without oratory could only be violence. That President-elect Obama chooses oratory over violence should give Mr. Will cause to celebrate, not worry.

About the author (s)

Jennifer R. Mercieca

Texas A&M University

Associate Professor

Jennifer R. Mercieca