In the nineteenth century the United States was ablaze with activism and reform: people of all races, creeds, classes, and genders engaged with diverse intellectual, social, and civic issues. Nineteenth-Century American Activist Rhetorics focuses on rhetoric that is overtly political and oriented to social reform. In this conversation, the volume’s editors, Patricia Bizzell and Lisa Zimmerelli, explain why it’s important to teach nineteenth-century activist rhetorics to students today and how their volume can help instructors.

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MLA: What are “activist rhetorics”?

PB and LZ: Today, an activist works to move people toward social change. The term activist was not used in nineteenth-century America, but the period abounded with reform causes and those who supported them across the political spectrum. We call these people activists to clarify their agendas for modern readers. We believe our volume is timely, since the United States is presently immersed in a similar period of wide-ranging and passionate advocacy.

Denoting rhetorics in the plural suggests that these activists employed a variety of rhetorical strategies. More familiar means were used by those who wrote protest pamphlets, such as Ida B. Wells, crusading against lynching, or those who spoke from public platforms, such as Elias Boudinot, defending Cherokee land rights. But others, also discussed in some of our chapters, dramatized their opinions on the stage, like the high school seniors who wrote a play about famous women’s accomplishments, or enshrined them in monuments, like the postbellum Confederate patriots who raised a statue of John C. Calhoun.

MLA: Why is it important for students to examine nineteenth-century American activist rhetorics today?

PB and LZ: First, we have found that many students have little sense of the historical trajectory of efforts to enable the United States to live up to its founding ideals of liberty and justice for all. As our book chapters show, nineteenth-century movements resonate with today’s issues because they aimed to

  • abolish slavery and secure civil rights for Black people, thus connecting with Black Lives Matter and anti-systemic-racism efforts today
  • improve the legal status of women and gain them the vote, thus connecting with today’s efforts to protect women’s reproductive rights and equal educational and work opportunities
  • oppose discriminatory immigration laws, directed in that era primarily against people from Asia and southern and eastern Europe but echoed in immigration debates about Muslims and Latino/a people today
  • defend the rights of Native Americans, still under siege today
  • protest unfair and even dangerous working conditions, still a serious concern today

This enriched understanding can enable students to reflect more deeply on today’s issues and to place them in larger contexts of American history from the early nineteenth century into the twentieth century and the modern era. While the scholars included in our book all demonstrate acute awareness of these connections, the concluding section comprises four essays that make these connections explicit.

Second, students can learn to act as engaged citizens themselves. The nineteenth-century activists studied in this volume were all accomplished rhetoricians, adept at using verbal and visual means of persuasion, and students may discern rhetorical strategies that they can adapt to support their own social and political causes.

MLA: How will this volume help teachers?

PB and LZ: This volume presents cutting-edge research on a variety of nineteenth-century reform causes, providing a wide selection to engage students’ interests, especially given the many modern-day connections.

Also, while some teachers may not be familiar with some of these causes, the chapters provide historical information and interpretive frames that teachers can use confidently to shape assignments. Students can try out rhetorical strategies analyzed in book chapters to advance causes they care about. For advanced undergraduate and graduate students, each chapter provides a jumping-off place for independent research.

Finally, teachers can use the chapters that revisit received opinion on renowned figures, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Booker T. Washington, and well-known organizations, such as the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and the Daughters of the American Revolution, to encourage critical thinking. These nuanced readings can help to forestall simplistic political divisions that can polarize classroom and seminar discussions.

Moreover, teachers may wish to point out that some of today’s important reform issues receive little to no attention in this volume. It was difficult to include chapters on these issues because they had less prominence in nineteenth-century America than the issues that do appear in the book. However, teachers can help students think about how causes remain in obscurity or emerge by noting that civil rights for LGBTQ+ people are treated in only one chapter, in which the main focus is labor organizing, and differently abled people do not appear at all, to give just two examples.

Photo of Patricia Bizzell

Patricia Bizzell

Patricia Bizzell is distinguished professor of English, emerita, at the College of the Holy Cross, in Worcester, Massachusetts. She won the Conference on College Composition and Communication Exemplar Award in 2008. She is also a fellow of the Rhetoric Society of America and its past president. Among her publications are Academic Discourse and Critical Consciousness, on composition theory (1992), and The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present, a critical anthology coauthored and edited with Bruce Herzberg, and with Robin Reames in the third edition (2020); the first edition won the Conference on College Composition and Communication Outstanding Book Award in 1992.

Photo of Lisa Zimmerelli

Lisa Zimmerelli

Lisa Zimmerelli is associate professor and chair in the writing department and director of the writing center at Loyola University Maryland. She won the Rhetoric Society Quarterly Charles Kneupper Award for best essay in 2013. For her work in community engagement, she won the Loyola University Maryland Faculty Award for Excellence in Engaged Scholarship in 2015, and her essay, coauthored with her community partner, was selected for inclusion in Best of Journals in Rhetoric and Composition 2017. Among her publications are The Bedford Guide for Writing Tutors and essays in Rhetoric Society Quarterly, Rhetoric Review, WLN: A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship, Writing Center Journal, as well as in edited collections.