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The conjoining of the terms ‘rhetoric’ and ‘history’ suggests at least three related but distinct areas of study. One, the history of rhetoric, focuses on rhetorical theory and practice during particular time periods (e.g., Rhetoric, Pre-Socratic). The focus here is on rhetorical processes in history and the rhetoric of history.
The first, the study of rhetorical processes in history focuses on the ways in which rhetoric functions in historical contexts. The scholarship of the first decades of ‘speech’ focused on specific speeches and speakers in historical contexts using ‘historical-critical research,’ exemplified by the classic three-volume anthology, A History and Criticism of American Public Address (Hochmuth 1955). Criticized in the 1960s as producing ‘cookie cutter’ studies lacking theoretical value, many scholars shifted from rhetorical texts as historically situated products to explorations of historical developments as captured in, and created by, rhetorical processes.
A move toward book-length studies created venues in which to make significant arguments and interpretations. The renewed use of primary resources stressed the invaluable insights from examining such archival materials as correspondence, oral histories, and photographs. Increasing digital access to archival holdings facilitates meticulous historiographical research in the face of accelerated scholarly schedules.
Studies of rhetorical processes in history still attend to individual rhetors, with particular attention to the speeches of American presidents (e.g., Stuckey 2013). Other examinations broaden the scope of ‘public address’ to incorporate differing forms of communication, such as the wide-reaching exploration in which Condit and Lucaites (1993) delineate the evolution of the term ‘equality’ from the mid-eighteenth to the end of the twentieth centuries. Rhetorical historians do debate certain aspects. Should rhetorical history be defined as seeking “to understand the context through messages that reflect and construct that context” (Turner 1998, 2), or as any study of rhetoric of the past? Are rhetorical history and criticism distinct approaches or indistinguishable? Must historical studies be explicitly based on and constructed as contributions to theoretical inquiry? Is rhetorical history thriving or marginalized?
More recently, the second area rhetoric of history focuses on how the construction of history constitutes an essentially rhetorical process. Such studies argue that the standard of ‘objectivity’ masks the choices that not only can but must be made in constructing stories of the past, such as developing narrative frameworks and creating arguments of causality and relationship. Such choices constitute essential epistemological decisions: one’s very way of knowing about what and who have gone before is created through the writing of history, perhaps even to the point that there is no ‘history’ – at least, none that is humanly knowable – beyond what is rhetorically constructed. From this perspective, such cherished criteria as ‘accuracy’ and ‘facts’ depend on not only the individual but also the social and cultural context in which the histories are created and received. As Carpenter (1995) contends, historians serve as opinion leaders because they create stories that resonate with their audiences and the social truths of their times.
Some scholars extend this investigation to explore the rhetorical purposes to which historical arguments are put. Precisely because historical accounts are rhetorically constructed, the ‘lessons of history’ drawn from the same events are often diametrically opposed. ‘The lessons of Vietnam’ suggest to some that the United States and its allies should have been more aggressive in their military intervention in Iraq, and to others that they should not have undertaken the venture in the first place.
An additional rhetorical use of history celebrates the past as embodying the essence of the society. Blair (2007) examines how civil rights memorials use historical concepts to inspire and symbolize public memory. Whether rhetorical processes in history or the rhetoric of history, the connection between these two key terms reveals both the interdisciplinary significance of communication as a central liberal art, and the valuable insights to be generated through the interdisciplinary turn in academia.
- Blair, C. (2007). Civil rights/civil sites: … Until justice rolls down like waters … National Communication Association Carroll C. Arnold Distinguished Lecture. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
- Carpenter, R. H. (1995). History as rhetoric: Style, narrative, and persuasion. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press.
- Condit, C. & Lucaites, J. L. (1993). Crafting equality: America’s Anglo-African word. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
- Hochmuth, M. (ed.) (1955). A history and criticism of American public address, Vol. 3. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Stuckey, M. (2013). The good neighbor: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the rhetoric of American power. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press.
- Turner, K. J. (ed.) (1998). Doing rhetorical history: Concepts and cases. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press.