Public Speaking and Social Movements in the United States 1730–1900

Learning Objectives

Explain how social movements in the U.S. have used public speaking to advance their causes.

One of the most powerful uses of public speech is to bring people together around a common cause. Throughout the history of the United States, leaders, preachers, activists, and politicians have used the spoken word to inspire and motivate, challenging their listeners to imagine a better, holier, or more just world.

The following case studies represent only a small sample of the social movements we could consider. These were chosen largely to highlight the speaking traditions that have had the most influence on the way contemporary speakers approach their craft.

Great Awakenings: The Evangelical Movements in the 18th and 19th centuries

Within the development of an American public speaking tradition, the role of evangelical preaching, especially traveling revivalist preachers, cannot be overstated. The Great Awakening is the name given to a series of Christian revivals that began in England and the North American colonies in the 1730s and continued into the mid-1800s. Building on the foundations of older traditions—Puritanism, pietism, and Presbyterianism—major leaders of the revival such as George Whitefield, John Wesley, and Jonathan Edwards articulated a theology of revival and salvation that transcended denominational boundaries and helped forge a common evangelical identity.

Revivalist preachers were known for their fiery rhetoric and emotional delivery. Services became more emotional and some people had visions and mystical experiences. The passionate style of delivery favored by evangelical preachers had a strong influence on the American oratory tradition and has echoes to this day.

The worship style of the revivals appealed to many Africans, and African leaders started to emerge from the revivals soon after they converted in substantial numbers. These figures paved the way for the establishment of the first black congregations and churches in the American colonies.[1] Before the American Revolution, the first black Baptist churches were founded in the South in Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia; two black Baptist churches were founded in Petersburg, Virginia.

Early black preachers combined the powerful rhetoric of revivalist preaching with a variety of traditions specific to the African diaspora—perhaps most influentially, a call-and-response pattern that was a continuation of earlier African oral traditions. In the call-and-response style, the preacher speaks and the congregation responds with support and affirmation.[2]

A black and white engraving of a painting of a Christian religious ceremony

The Ordination of Bishop Francis Asbury by Bishop Thomas Coke (1784). Thomas Coke Ruckle, painter; A. Gilchrist Campbell, engraver, 1882. If you click to enlarge the image, you can see Harry Hosier in the upper left.

Harry Hosier, an illiterate freedman who drove the preacher Francis Asbury on his circuits, was able to memorize large passages of the Bible verbatim and became a crossover success, as popular among white audiences as the black ones Asbury had originally intended for him to minister to.[3] His sermon at Thomas Chapel in Chapeltown, Delaware, in 1784, was the first to be delivered by a black preacher directly to a white congregation.[4]

Despite being called the “greatest orator in America” by Benjamin Rush[5] and one of the best in the world by Bishop Thomas Coke,[6] Hosier was repeatedly passed over for ordination and permitted no vote during his attendance at the Christmas Conference that formally established American Methodism. Richard Allen, the other black attendee, was ordained by the Methodists in 1799, but his congregation of free African Americans in Philadelphia left the church there because of its discrimination. They founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) in Philadelphia. After first submitting to oversight by the established Methodist bishops, several AME congregations finally left to form the first independent African-American denomination in the United States in 1816.


The historian James M. McPherson defines an abolitionist “as one who before the Civil War had agitated for the immediate, unconditional, and total abolition of slavery in the United States”.[7] He does not include antislavery activists such as Abraham Lincoln or the Republican Party, which called for the gradual ending of slavery. Throughout the period leading up to the Civil War, the cause of abolition was advanced through pamphlets, books, and—especially—traveling speakers. One of the most powerful of these speakers was Frederick Douglass (1818–1895), who had escaped slavery in Maryland and became a leader of the abolitionist movement in the Northeast. On July 5, 1852, Douglass gave a speech to the ladies of the Rochester Anti-Slavery Sewing Society. This speech, which is often called “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”, is often cited as the “greatest anti-slavery oration ever given.”[8] In the speech, Douglass calls out the hypocrisy of the nation’s egalitarian rhetoric:

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.

To watch

In this clip, Danny Glover reads Frederick Douglass’s “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” Glover is introduced by the historian Howard Zinn.

You can view the transcript for “Danny Glover Reads Fredrick Douglass” here (opens in new window).

Text of the entire speech

What to watch for:

In his speech, Douglass walks a fine line between rational argument and emotional appeal. In one remarkable passage, he claims to describe what he is not doing, while actually availing himself of the dramatic rhetoric he insists is out of his reach.

At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could reach the nation’s ear, I would, to-day, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.

Women’s Suffrage: 1848–1920

In the United States and Europe, women organized and rallied for suffrage, or the right to vote.

At the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, an older Black woman named Sojourner Truth asked, “May I say a few words?” The speech that followed was the most powerful at the convention and has become one of the most famous speeches of all time. Unfortunately, we do not have a verbatim account of the actual words that Truth spoke that day. You may have heard of this speech as the “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech because these words appeared in the version written down by the abolitionist Frances Gage in the National Anti-Slavery Standard on May 2, 1863. However, the Southern dialect reported by Gage twelve years after hearing the speech—including the line “…and ain’t I a woman?”—would probably not have been used by Truth, who grew up speaking Dutch and learned English as a child. (You can compare two reports of the speech here). Despite these uncertainties, the spirit of Sojourner Truth’s speech continues to move and inspire audiences to this day.

To Watch

At a 2006 event with historian Howard Zinn, poet and novelist Alice Walker reads a version of Sojourner Truth’s speech from the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention.

You can view the transcript for “Alice Walker reads Sojourner Truth” here (opens in new window).

What to watch for:

Walker’s performance of the speech illuminates the wit, passion, and humor of Truth’s words. By emphasizing or inflecting certain words, Walker brings out both the heartbreaking realities and biting (but humorous) sarcasm of Truth’s contribution. Note how the crowd reacts to these two contrasting emotions.

Susan B. Anthony was an American social reformer and women’s rights activist who played a pivotal role in the women’s suffrage movement. On election day, 1872, Anthony and fourteen other women from her ward convinced the election inspectors to allow them to cast ballots. Anthony was arrested on November 18, 1872, by a U.S. Deputy Marshal and charged with illegally voting. Anthony’s trial generated a national controversy and became a major step in the transition of the broader women’s rights movement into the women’s suffrage movement. Just before her trial, Anthony gave a speech entitled “Is it a Crime for a U.S. Citizen to Vote?” At one point in her speech, Anthony talked about taxation and representation. Note how she used specific, individual, relatable examples. This rhetorical strategy is still used widely by activists and politicians to connect abstract ideas to real human stories.

I would that the women of this republic, at once, resolve, never again to submit of taxation, until their right to vote be recognized.

Miss Sarah E. Wall, of Worcester, Mass., twenty years ago, took this position. For several years, the officers of the law distrained her property, and sold it to meet the necessary amount; still she persisted, and would not yield an iota, though every foot of her lands should be struck off under the hammer. And now, for several years, the assessor has left her name off the tax list, and the collector passed her by without a call.

Mrs. J. S. Weeden, of Viroqua, Wis., for the past six years, has refused to pay her taxes, though the annual assessment is $75.

Mrs. Ellen Van Valkenburg, of Santa Cruz, Cal., who sued the County Clerk for refusing to register her name, declares she will never pay another dollar of tax until allowed to vote; and all over the country, women property holders are waking up to the injustice of taxation without representation, and ere long will refuse, en masse, to submit to the imposition.

There is no she, or her, or hers, in the tax laws. [9]

To Watch

Emmeline Pankhurst was a British political activist. She is best remembered for organizing the UK suffragette movement and helping women win the right to vote. In 1913, Pankhurst visited Hartford, Connecticut, to raise money for her cause. In the famous speech she gave there, she compared the women’s suffrage movement to the American War of Independence. The following recreation of parts of the speech gives a sense of the way she frames the issue as a matter of life and death.

You can view the transcript for “Emmeline Pankhurst Hartford Speech November 1913 | Suffragettes | 4 minute history” here (opens in new window).

What to watch for:

Note how Pankhurst tailors her speech to the audience, talking about the “men of Hartford” and the American revolution, instead of just speaking to the situation in England.

The struggle for women’s rights did not end with the 1920 ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, which ensured women the right to vote. The feminist movement was active throughout the 20th century, and continues to be an engine of social change.

  1. Butler, Jon, et al. Religion in American Life: a Short History. Oxford University Press, 2011.
  2. Loeb, L. “Call and Response: An Anatomy of Religious Practice.” Discourse Studies, vol. 16, no. 4, 2014, pp. 514–533.
  3. Morgan, Philip. Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Lowcountry, UNC Press, 1998, p. 655.
  4. Smith, Jessie C., "Methodists: 1781." Black Firsts: 4,000 Ground-Breaking and Pioneering Historical Events (3rd ed.), pp. 1820–21. Visible Ink Press, 2013.
  5. Webb, Stephen H. "Webb, Stephen H. "Introducing Black Harry Hoosier: The History Behind Indiana's Namesake." The Indiana Magazine of History (2002): 30-41.
  6. Smith
  7. McPherson, James M. The Abolitionist Legacy: from Reconstruction to the NAACP. Princeton University Press, 1975, p. 4
  8. William S. McFeely, Frederick Douglass, W. W. Norton, 1991, p. 173.
  9. Channing, W. H. The History of Woman Suffrage. Fowler & Wells, 1881, p. 636