NCA Public Address Division: A Conversation with the Zborays

We are delighted to republish a piece from the Public Address Division of the National Communication Association. The article that appears below is the first of their series of scholarly conversations they are calling Vibrant Voices of Public Address. This first conversation is with Ronald J. Zboray and Mary Saracino Zboray — both of whom are members and have held fellowships at AAS — and the artifact they are discussing is a letter from AAS’s manuscript collections. Please check out the NCA Public Address Division blog for further information and future conversations.

A Conversation with Ronald J. Zboray & Mary Saracino Zboray

In this issue, Public Address Division members Ronald J. Zboray and Mary Saracino Zboray discuss their study of an eight-page letter by Eliza Bancroft Davis (1791–1872) of Worcester, Massachusetts, written to her husband, John Davis, a U.S. Senator, on 18 June 1840. The original letter is in Box 1 (“Family Correspondence”), Folder 7 (“1840”), in the John Davis Papers at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts. The Zborays’ transcription of the letter appears below as Appendix 1, and a facsimile of the original letter accompanies this conversation on the Public Address Division’s Web site. The transcription and facsimile of the original appear by courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.

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A transcription of Eliza Bancroft Davis’s letter of 18 June 1840 appears as pages 7–9 in the PDF of the Zborays’ conversation, available here:

What do you find especially compelling about this artifact?

We located this letter by Eliza Davis, the wife of a Whig U.S. Senator, in 1994 while researching a book about nineteenth-century reading practices. All about politics, the letter said nothing about reading. But it stuck with us, and it inspired our 2010 book, Voices without Votes. According to the “woman’s sphere” paradigm, women of the antebellum era were not supposed to voice partisan allegiances. To be sure, a few pioneering activists spoke out for women’s rights, the abolition of slavery, and other moral reforms. But hard-core electoral party politics? That was thought to be in the sphere of men. Eliza Davis showed us otherwise. As we contextualized the letter with newspaper reports, we learned that the partisan press and some speakers used it as 1840 campaign propaganda. Truly, we concluded, such personal letters can be the stuff of public address.

What do you believe are the most important contexts for understanding the rhetorical functions of this artifact?

The artifact captures a crucial moment in the birth of American mass politics, with all the hoopla that Robert Gray Gunderson sketched in his Log-Cabin Campaign (1957) on the 1840 election. Whigs, more so than Democrats, recruited nonvoters, including women, for campaigning. Yet would they be anything more than faces in the crowd? This letter, a self-revelation of the partisan activities of one disfranchised woman, portrays Eliza Davis as she steps from her private world into the political limelight. The document can be read as a testament of women’s fluency in the new argot of mainstream party politics and as an argument that they could and should be part of it.

Davis wrote from her home in Worcester to her husband John, the day after the Massachusetts Whig nominating convention, with its 30,000 attendees, was held there on 17 June 1840. She was heavily involved because John was to be nominated for governor of Massachusetts, at the same time that presidential nominee William Henry Harrison’s state electors were to be selected. She knew her letter’s importance to her husband. Being in Washington, he relied upon her overall persuasive effectiveness in responding to the situations that she faced. As she explains, her rhetorical activities involved meeting with convention committee members, accepting calls from Whig movers and shakers in town, and, ultimately, standing up before a parade of 10,000 to acknowledge cheers to “the Lady of John Davis.” One line about her publicity in this parade reveals her transition to self-conscious partisan efficacy: “[A]fter the first five minutes I forgot myself entirely; and received it only as a part of the enthusiasm of the day in which, such is the power of sympathy, I fully participated.” She had become part of the machinery of political persuasion.

Davis, like many political wives, was “on” all the time, and she had to strategize rhetorically before the public. For example, she was challenged to a verbal duel before a delegation of 150–200 Whigs. When its leader supposed that she would forget them, she admitted, “my memory was poor for names,” and quickly added, “but at such a time the name of Whig was enough.” Her adversary retorted that the opposition candidate, Martin Van Buren, “never forgets any one,” to which she parried, “I hope . . . I am as unlike Van Buren in every thing else as that.” The delegates applauded her. It was a verbal performance not unlike stump speaking, where the ability to respond extemporaneously to challenges from the crowd demonstrated character and tested one’s mettle. We would not have known about this unpublished, yet public rhetoric if we did not peer into “private” letters.

After being moved to tears by her letter, John Davis gave it to renowned Senate orator Daniel Webster, who deemed it the best letter he had ever read. It reached William Halstead, a New Jersey Congressman, who used it in a speech at a Whig rally in New Brunswick. Replete with misquotes about unexpected delegates who devoured her food, the speech also fabricated Webster’s tears. After excerpts appeared in the papers, Democrats had a field day. The Ohio Statesman proclaimed on 23 September: “The Great Whig Boobies, Daniel Webster and John Davis, crying!” due to “the guzzling propensities of a band of two hundred hungry Federals.” Other newspapers attributed Webster’s tears to envy of Eliza’s superlative rhetoric.

How would you characterize your critical approach to the artifact? Why have you chosen this approach?

This letter’s public afterlife shows that a critical reading of such rhetorical artifacts is contingent upon the context of their creation, as well as their dissemination and reception. If we had stopped at the text of the letter, we could not have known just how much Davis addressed the public from the confines of her home.

Woman’s sphere scholarship dating from the 1970s had left the impression that women’s partisanship was so proscribed that our finding of even a few nineteenth-century women writing such “personal” material in a partisan register was significant. That women could be political transformed our understanding of woman’s sphere from a discourse constitutive of women’s “experience” to an admonitory and contingent rhetoric. It also altered our critical approach to interpreting women’s letters and diaries: we adopted a hermeneutic that assumed that their partisanship would manifest itself under close textual reading and contextual research.

Through this interpretive practice, supported by chasing down (through online newspapers and other resources) unidentified politicians and events tossed into letters, we have constructed a sense of a vernacular of partisan awareness and activity that can apply to other marginalized groups engaged in their own forms of public address beyond the podium and pulpit. At least for the women we have studied, the vernacular rhetoric of partisanship turned out to be not just possible, but quite prevalent, sustained, and often eloquently expressed.

Such partisanship on the margins prompts a reimagining of what being marginalized means from a civic perspective. Is it a way of countering exclusion—by resisting civic alienation through thinking, expressing, and acting oneself into a sense of inclusion—or is it playing the hand one is dealt as best as one can? Or both?

Using a different lens, we wonder to what degree and under what conditions dominant groups recognized the vernacular political culture of the disfranchised. When interpreting speeches by privileged nineteenth-century white politicians, for example, should modern critics pause and consider that these speakers may have been addressing women as well as men?

How would you incorporate this artifact into a class?

We believe that historical manuscript letters and diaries have special pedagogical value in classes on the history of American public address, women’s rhetoric, and political communication. They show how vibrant political life was among groups whose members could not vote or easily obtain access to the podium. Granted, such materials by white, lower- to upper-middle-class women are easier to find than, say, those of African Americans or working-class people. But digging in archives can prove beneficial. Many letters appear in digital collections such as the North American Women’s Letters and Diaries database, North American Immigrant Letters and Diaries, and American Civil War Letters and Diaries. Several archives post facsimiles or transcripts of manuscript letters and diaries (e.g., Historical Journals and Diaries Online).

For this artifact specifically, one classroom activity might involve dividing the class into six groups, all of which read the Davis letter but in conjunction with a different piece of scholarship on women’s public address. Questions for discussion could be: What light does the scholarship throw upon the Davis letter and vice versa? In what types of political rhetorical activity did nineteenth-century American women engage, as seen in the scholarship and the letter? How did their roles as daughters, wives, and mothers shape their rhetoric? What kind of roles can private letters play in the study of American public address?

The secondary public address scholarship to draw from offers such an embarrassment of riches, that it is difficult to choose which articles to assign. A small sample of six, selected for breadth, might include the following pieces. Analyzing the text of one abolitionist’s published letter, Stephen Howard Browne’s 1996 Quarterly Journal of Speech essay, “Encountering Angelina Grimké,” locates rhetorical public action in the epistolary form. Lisa M. Gring-Pemble’s “Writing Themselves into Consciousness,” published in the Quarterly Journal of Speech in 1998, argues that by corresponding, Lucy Stone and Antoinette Brown honed a feminism that prefigured their women’s rights activism. In their 2002 Rhetoric and Public Affairs essay, “The Rise of the Rhetorical First Lady,” Shawn J. Parry-Giles and Diane M. Blair examine letters to find nineteenth-century precedents for the more activist contemporary political wife. Nineteenth-century partisan women’s more overt challenges to disfranchisement can be seen in Angela G. Ray’s “The Rhetorical Ritual of Citizenship,” published in the Quarterly Journal of Speech in 2007. Susan Zaeske’s “Little Magic: Martin Van Buren and the Politics of Gender,” in Martin J. Medhurst’s edited volume Before the Rhetorical Presidency (2008), demonstrates the power of women’s Whig rhetoric to disrupt the President’s agenda. Susan Zaeske and Sarah Jedd’s “From Recovering Women’s Words to Documenting Gender Constructs,” in Shawn J. Parry-Giles and J. Michael Hogan’s volume Handbook of Rhetoric and Public Address (2010), guides public address scholars through the archives.

Where can interested readers find additional information?

Zboray, Ronald J., and Mary Saracino Zboray. “Gender Slurs in Boston’s Partisan Press during the 1840s.” Journal of American Studies 34 (2000): 413–46 [See especially 422, 429, 430.]

——. Voices without Votes: Women and Politics in Antebellum New England. Durham, NH: University of New Hampshire Press, 2010. [See especially 50–63, 81–88.]

——. “Whig Women, Politics, and Culture in the Campaign of 1840: Three Perspectives from Massachusetts.” Journal of the Early Republic 17 (1997): 277–315 [Davis discussed on 285–95, illustration on 304.]

Contributors: Ronald J. Zboray (Professor of Communication, Affiliate Faculty in Women’s Studies, and Director of the Graduate Program for Cultural Studies), and Mary Saracino Zboray (Visiting Scholar in Communication), both at the University of Pittsburgh, have published extensively on women in antebellum political life and on nineteenth-century U.S. print culture. Their paper “I Have Said My Say: Ordinary Women and Partisan Speech Making in the Antebellum Era” won the NCA Public Address Division’s 2010 Wrage-Baskerville Award. Their book Voices without Votes won the 2011 Everett Lee Hunt Award of the Eastern Communication Association. Their other coauthored books include Everyday Ideas: Socioliterary Experience among Antebellum New Englanders (2006), Literary Dollars and Social Sense: A People’s History of the Mass Market Book (2005), and A Handbook for the Study of Book History in the United States (2000). Ronald Zboray also published A Fictive People: Antebellum Economic Development and the American Reading Public (1993). The Zborays’ articles have appeared in American Quarterly, American Studies, Journalism History, Journal of American Studies, Journal of the Early Republic, Libraries and Culture, Libraries and the Cultural Record, Nineteenth-Century Contexts, and Nineteenth-Century Literature. They are working on a new book, tentatively entitled “The Bullet in the Book: Reading Cultures during the American Civil War”; this work in progress is supported with a research grant from the American Journalism Historians Association and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Editor: Angela G. Ray, Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Northwestern University, is chair of NCA’s Public Address Division for 2012.

Published by

Elizabeth Watts Pope

Curator of Books, American Antiquarian Society

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