MAHG Summer Course Explores the Influence of Political Rhetoric on Citizens' Choices
MAHG Summer Course Explores the Influence of Political Rhetoric on Citizens’ Choices
Abigail Wegter is Associate Professor of Political Science at Berry College and Honorary Visiting Lecturer for the Master of Arts in American History and Government.

How does rhetoric shape citizens’ understanding of the political choices they face? In the political debates of our history, which arguments have had more influence on the outcome: rational or rhetorical? These are some of the questions teachers will cover during the American Political Rhetoric Summer Course. Master of Arts in American History and Government program. The course will be taught by Professor Abigail Wegter of Berry College.

“Spanning the speeches of George Washington and the speeches of Donald Trump, the course will look at how the tools used by politicians teach us something about the society of the time,” Wegter said. “We will both read and listen to audio recordings of key speeches throughout our history. Reading Lincoln’s moderation speech and reviewing Obama’s speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, we explore the rhetoric of unity and division. We will use the inaugural speeches of Washington and Kennedy to trace how civil religious language has influenced political rhetoric over time. As a class, we will evaluate rhetoric and new media to determine how political communication has changed and continues to change in our American context.”

Wegter’s research concerns the rhetoric of recent history

Barack Obama used rhetoric to shape citizens' understanding of their political choices.
Barack Obama delivers the keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. YouTube.

Wegter’s own research interests led her to consider particularly dangerous uses of rhetoric in contemporary politics. She studies religion and politics, especially the intersection of religion with political disputes about the Second Amendment. She writes about “the relationship between religion and gun ownership, especially the role of identity in shaping political attitudes and the political process.” In writing her dissertation, she used various social science methods. The Faithful Firearm: The Role of Religion in Gun Owner Identity, Gun Policy Views, and Gun Policy Adoption. She also writes about morality politics, LGBTQ+ politics, and new methodological approaches to studying interest groups.

As Wegter notes, rhetorical appeals involve a two-way process: “At any point in history, our methods of political communication reflect the personal values ​​of decision makers and the culture of our political world.” The call that the leader makes must not only defend his or her own opinion; it must be connected to the desires and values ​​of the constituents to whom it appeals. However, the desires and values ​​of voters are ambiguous. As Lincoln suggested in his first inaugural address, people sometimes react to promptings from their “best angels” and sometimes to arguments that are rationally or morally flawed.

How rhetoric enhances reason in politics: an example

Sometimes it takes a strong rhetorical argument to elevate rational and moral choices over what appears to be common sense choices. Eighth grade teacher Melanie Stathard provides an interesting illustration of this phenomenon.

Lincoln used both logic and rhetoric to shape citizens' understanding of their political choices.
A statue of Lincoln by Augustus Saint-Gaudens shows him collecting his thoughts just before he starts his speech. Taken in 1916. Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-46755.

When Stuthard’s students discuss the Kansas-Nebraska Act, she asks them to consider the idea of ​​”popular sovereignty.” This, of course, was Senator Stephen Douglas’ decision to decide whether slavery should be allowed to enter Kansas and Nebraska. He argued that the inhabitants of these territories should vote for the solution of the issue. Stuthard invites students to look up the definition of popular sovereignty in a dictionary. She then asks them to write an answer to the question: “In your opinion, is popular sovereignty an acceptable solution to the question of allowing slavery into new territories? Explain your answer.”

“Almost all of my students say, “Yes, of course. You should always decide questions by voting. This is the democratic path,” says Stathard. She then asks the students to read an excerpt from Lincoln’s speech in Peoria:

The doctrine of self-government is true—absolutely and eternally correct—but it has no just application, as is being attempted here. . . . If the Negro is a man, is it not a complete destruction of self-government to say that he, too, should not govern himself? When the white man governs himself, it is self-government; but when he governs himself and also governs another person, it is more than self-government, it is despotism. If the Negro is a man, why does my ancient faith teach me that “all men are created equal”; and that there can be no moral right in connection with the fact that one person makes another a slave. . . . Well, I have no doubt that the people in Nebraska were and will be as good as the average people elsewhere. I’m not saying otherwise. What I’m really saying is that no person is good enough to control another person without that other’s consent. I say that this is the guiding principle – the anchor of American republicanism.

— Abraham Lincoln, Missouri Compromise Speech, October 16, 1854

After that, Stutthard’s students write answers to another set of questions:

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Melanie Stathard, a 2013 James Madison Scholar and 2016 MAHG alumnus, was named the 2014 Ohio History Teacher of the Year by the Gilder Lerman Institute. She teaches at Revere High School in Bath, Ohio.

What, according to Lincoln, is the “anchor of American republicanism”?

(When Lincoln says:) “My ancient faith teaches me that ‘all men are created equal'” which founding document (Declaration of Independence or Constitution) is he referring to?

Lincoln believed that the job of the federal government was to keep slavery out of the western territories. Do you agree with Lincoln, or do you think Douglas was right to let the people decide? Explain your answer.

— Melanie Stathard, “Section 5, Slavery Divides the Nation,” Collaborative 8th Grade US History Textbook.

“Now the students are saying, ‘Oh my God, Douglas is totally wrong! Lincoln is right! The students understand that one cannot vote for the enslavement of other people; it undermines the very logic of democratic governance.”

The power of rhetoric today

Stuthard realized that even today, students’ untested assumptions about voting and majority rule sway them to accept Douglas’s argument for popular sovereignty at face value. They needed Lincoln’s help to see the falsity of Douglas’ policies. In 1854, when racial prejudice was deep and widespread, citizens needed even stronger persuasion to understand what was wrong with Douglas’s arguments.

No doubt the instructors of Wegter’s course will address many rhetorical problems comparable to the one faced by Lincoln. Since a course in American political rhetoric will cover even modern political speech, teachers of both history and government should consider it appropriate to the interests of their students and their own learning objectives. TAH program educators often state their goal of helping students learn to be critical of the news they consume. Learning to analyze the logical consequences of rhetorical appeals is an important step in this process.

Wegter will teach the course—HIST 631 4A / POLSC 631 4A: American political rhetoric— during the fourth session of the Ashland Summer Residence Program, from Sunday, July 16 to Friday, July 21.. You can read more about it and also check out the syllabus here. To learn about the Master of Arts in American History and Government program, visit this page.