Analyzing Speeches

Learning Objectives

  • Understand the importance of analyzing argumentative primary documents

Types and Uses of Primary Documents

Earlier in this course, you learned how to make sense of complex documents, which often seem to be written in a language unfamiliar to modern ears. That work was largely focused on understanding what those documents were saying and why they are considered important to historians. Our aim in this section is similar in that we are reading analytically with a particular goal in mind, namely to recognize the methods of persuasion being used by opposing speakers who have different preferred outcomes in mind.

Some of the primary documents that historians seek out as evidence for explaining and contextualizing past events include journals and diaries, archival records, photographs, material artifacts such as housewares or clothing, and speeches, whether recorded as audio or print media. The two primary texts we will work with in this exercise are both excerpts from speeches addressing the topic of Indigenous civilization and culture and the degree to which these should be preserved or relocated. The first, “An Address to the Whites” is from Elias Boudinot, and dates to 1826. The second is President Andrew Jackson’s “Speech to Congress on Indian Removal” from 1830.

We might infer from the titles that these texts likely represent opposing viewpoints, and we also know who the immediate intended audiences were. We know that the matter being argued was an important one, given that the devaluation of Indigenous culture and the subsequent policy of Indian Removal that will result in the forced migration of the Choctaw and Creek peoples (among others) from the southeast, as well as the Trail of Tears, during which the Cherokee Nation was forcibly relocated to present-day Oklahoma.

A key reason why historians study political speeches (and other things like campaign literature, and declarations of war) is that these materials can help us understand what was at stake for those attempting to explain themselves or to advocate a particular point of view or course of action. In retrospect, we can often see the major events that these arguments might have led to, as well as how different arguments might have produced different outcomes.

Try It

Primary Sources and Zeitgeist

Primary documents that present a position or make an argument, like speeches, are especially important to historians because they give us access to the debates and issues that were considered important in a given time and place. Note that this is a different type of information compared to that provided by primary documents such as family photographs or an inventory list for a medieval marketplace. While those sources can help us verify facts, they do not necessarily help us understand what consequential ideas or policies were being contested by those with a stake in the outcome.

As we examine our two primary texts, we’ll be performing two main tasks:

  1. Reading analytically to note important, related details in both speeches.
  2. Reading rhetorically to understand what techniques of persuasion the speakers use.

Excerpts 1 and 2: Elias Boudinot and Andrew Jackson

In the following excerpts, we see arguments for and against acknowledging Indigenous civilization and thus accepting or opposing the goal of Indian Removal. The first, from Elias Boudinot, the editor of the newspaper The Cherokee Phoenix, is from a speech given in a Presbyterian church where Boudinot was fundraising for a Cherokee national academy that would be part of a larger project of “civilizing” the Cherokee people. The second is from President Andrew Jackson’s address to Congress giving an update on and an argument in favor of the Indian Removal policy.

Read them both carefully, looking for terms that both speakers use, or concepts they both address.

Elias Boudinot and Andrew Jackson Speeches

From Boudinot’s speech

From Andrew Jackson’s address:

When before did a nation of Indians step forward and ask for the means of civilization? The Cherokee authorities have adopted the measures already stated, with a sincere desire to make their nation an intelligent and a virtuous people, and with a full hope that those who have already pointed out to them the road of happiness, will now assist them to pursue it. With that assistance, what are the prospects of the Cherokees? Are they not indeed glorious, compared to that deep darkness in which the nobler qualities of their souls have slept. Yes, methinks I can view my native country, rising from the ashes of her degradation, wearing her purified and beautiful garments, and taking her seat with the nations of the earth. I can behold her sons bursting the fetters of ignorance and unshackling her from the vices of heathenism. She is at this instant, risen like the first morning sun, which grows brighter and brighter, until it reaches its fulness of glory.

She will become not a great, but a faithful ally of the United States. In times of peace she will plead the common liberties of America. In times of war her intrepid sons will sacrifice their lives in your defence. And because she will be useful to you in coming time, she asks you to assist her in her present struggles. She asks not for greatness; she seeks not wealth, she pleads only for assistance to become respectable as a nation, to enlighten and ennoble her sons, and to ornament her daughters with modesty and virtue. She pleads for this assistance, too, because on her destiny hangs that of many nations. If she completes her civilization then may we hope that all our nations will then, indeed, may true patriots be encouraged in their efforts to make this world of the West, one continuous abode of enlightened, free, and happy people.

But if the Cherokee Nation fail in her struggle, if she die away, then all hopes are blasted, and falls the fabric of Indian civilization. Their fathers were born in darkness, and have died in darkness; without your assistance so will their sons.[1]

The consequences of a speedy removal will be important to the United States, to individual States, and to the Indians themselves. The pecuniary advantages which it promises to the Government are the least of its recommendations. It puts an end to all possible danger of collision between the authorities of the General and State Governments on account of the Indians. It will place a dense and civilized population in large tracts of country now occupied by a few savage hunters. By opening the whole territory between Tennessee on the north and Louisiana on the south to the settlement of the whites it will incalculably strengthen the southwestern frontier and render the adjacent States strong enough to repel future invasions without remote aid. It will relieve the whole State of Mississippi and the western part of Alabama of Indian occupancy, and enable those States to advance rapidly in population, wealth, and power. It will separate the Indians from immediate contact with settlements of whites; free them from the power of the States; enable them to pursue happiness in their own way and under their own rude institutions; will retard the progress of decay, which is lessening their numbers, and perhaps cause them gradually, under the protection of the Government and through the influence of good counsels, to cast off their savage habits and become an interesting, civilized, and Christian community.

What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns, and prosperous farms embellished with all the improvements which art can devise or industry execute, occupied by more than 12,000,000 happy people, and filled with all the blessings of liberty, civilization and religion?

The present policy of the Government is but a continuation of the same progressive change by a milder process. The tribes which occupied the countries now constituting the Eastern States were annihilated or have melted away to make room for the whites. The waves of population and civilization are rolling to the westward, and we now propose to acquire the countries occupied by the red men of the South and West by a fair exchange, and, at the expense of the United States, to send them to land where their existence may be prolonged and perhaps made perpetual. Doubtless it will be painful to leave the graves of their fathers; but what do they more than our ancestors did or than our children are now doing?[2]


Step One: Reading Analytically

If analyzing a text is to take it apart and note important details, and look for connections between those details, then we can start our work on these two excerpts by identifying concepts or terms they have in common.

Here are some helpful steps for analyzing the texts:

  1. reading carefully—this means taking your time and expecting that you’ll need to pay close attention to notice important details and connections.
  2. looking for keywords—this means identifying important terms that seem to come up often in the passages.
  3. asking questions about the text—make notes about what confuses you, and reread difficult sections.

With this annotation complete, you can then synthesize your ideas and summarize the main point of what the author is saying. Let’s give it a try.

Try It

Note that in both excerpts the speakers make reference to the idea of civilization. Where do you see the terms “civilization” and “civilized” (they are highlighted in the passages above)? Closely read those sections and consider what the speaker is trying to argue about the concept of civilization. Remember that he is trying to persuade his audience to understand this idea the same way he does, and to therefore act in accordance with his preferred outcome.

Try It

  1. Boudinot, E. (2012). From An Address to the Whites. Delivered in the First Presbyterian Church [of Philadelphia] on the 26th of May, 1826. The Georgia Review, 66(3), 443-448. Retrieved September 7, 2021, from
  2. President Jackson's Message to Congress "On Indian Removal", December 6, 1830; Records of the United States Senate, 1789‐1990; Record Group 46; Records of the United States Senate, 1789‐1990; National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)