The theory of rhetoric was discussed by Aristotle and Quintilian; and three main classes of oratory were later designated by classical rhetoricians: (a) deliberative—to persuade an audience (such as a legislature) to approve or disapprove a matter of public policy; (b) forensic—to achieve (as in a trial) condemnation or approval for a person's actions; (c) epideictic—
display rhetoric used on ceremonial occasions. Rhetoric was included in the medieval liberal arts curriculum. In subsequent centuries oratory was utilized in three main areas of public life—politics, religion, and law. During the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Reformation, oratory was generally confined to the church, which produced such soul-searing orators as Savanorola, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Knox.
With the development of parliaments in the 18th cent., great political orators appeared—Charles James Fox, Edmund Burke, Henry Gratten, and Daniel O'Connell in England and Ireland; Patrick Henry and James Otis in the United States; and Danton and Mirabeau in France. Because these politicians usually spoke to men of their own class and education, their orations were often complex and erudite, abounding in classical allusions. In the 19th cent., the rise of Methodism and evangelical religions produced great preachers like John Wesley and George Whitefield who addressed a wide audience of diverse classes of people. Their sermons, replete with biblical allusions and appeals to the emotions, profoundly influenced the oratorical style of many politicians. Famous 19th cent. orators included Disraeli and John Bright in England, Charles Stewart Parnell in Ireland, Lamartine in France, Ferdinand Lasalle in Germany, Louis Kossuth in Hungary, and Joseph Mazzini in Italy. Great American orators included Abraham Lincoln, Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, Daniel Webster, Stephen Douglas, and Henry Ward Beecher.
In the 20th cent., orators made frequent use of the
catch phrase (e.g., William Jennings Bryan's
cross of gold speech). Noted orators in the first half of the 20th cent. were Bryan, Eugene Debs, Susan B. Anthony, and Woodrow Wilson in the United States, Lenin and Trotsky in Russia, and David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill in England. The bombastic oratorical style of Hitler and Mussolini, inevitably associated with their discredited political ideologies, brought grandiloquent oratory into disrepute. The advent of radio forced oratory to become more intimate and conversational, as in the
fireside chats of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Television forced additional demands on the orator (usually now called the public speaker), who not only had to sound good but also had to look good. Still, most politicians, notably Adlai E. Stevenson and John F. Kennedy, succeeded in utilizing the ubiquitous television camera to heighten the impact of their speeches. The particular effectiveness of great oratory was movingly demonstrated in 1963 when the civil-rights leader Martin Luther King delivered his
I have a dream speech to an audience of 200,000 people in Washington, D.C., and to millions more listening to him on radio and watching him on television.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2023, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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