Idealism and Early-American Rhetoric

Idealism and Early-American Rhetoric

Longaker, Mark Garrett

17th- and 18th-century philosophical separation of the reflecting mind from reality often resulted in a hostility towards rhetoric. However, this article demonstrates that American idealism yielded a rich conversation about rhetoric’s place in the search for divine knowledge. Using Kenneth Burke’s theory of attitudes’ linguistic dialectical constitution, this article closely analyzes two 18th-century idealist philosophies (those of Jonathan Edwards and Samuel Johnson of Connecticut) and their related rhetorical theories. Seeing the interaction between the American idealist philosophical and rhetorical traditions leads us to reconsider the impact of idealist philosophy on the entire tradition of American rhetorical practice and theory.


As the story goes, during the 17th and 18th centuries, philosophy and rhetoric went separate ways. The western philosophical tradition began to depict the world as an object distinct from people’s mental and verbal representations. For Richard Rorty this division happened because of the 17th-century theoretical creation of our “glassy essence,” the invention of the mind as a reflecting substance set against the reflected world (42-5). For Stanley Fish this division resulted from a belief that language “faithfully reflects or reports on matters of fact” (474). Doubtless, in these two centuries, people developed numerous epistemologies that separated the knowable world from the knowing mind: empiricism and common-sense realism, for instance. Doubtless, these epistemologies tended to accompany, if not account for, a skepticism towards rhetoric. For reasons that Rorty and Fish point out, a belief in language as representation tends to undercut any sense that language constructs people’s worlds. One has to wonder what promise there is for an essay proposing to discuss one such 18th-century philosophy-idealism-and its relationship with rhetoric. Judging by the pattern of division between philosophy and rhetoric, by the privileging of the former over the latter, by the prevailing assumption that philosophical inquiry locates truth while rhetoric presents it, one might conclude that early-American idealism was in many ways hostile to any rhetorical theory or practice that did not carefully reflect a truth acquired without language’s meddling interferences. And there would be good reason for this conclusion. Such an essay might be very short.

A close examination of idealist philosophy in the American tradition demonstrates, however, that the relationship between this epistemology and rhetorical theory is far more developed than the previous reflections allow. In 18th-century American idealism, there is more than hostility and skepticism towards rhetoric. Taking up many of the same assumptions that led others to a suspicion or even denigration of rhetoric, American idealism consistently held to the belief that there is a representable verity in the divine intellect. American idealism also posited that these divine mental forms could be recreated in the human mind and then represented, however imperfectly, in language. Among other things, this supposition led to the Puritan insistence on the plain style, an emphasis grounded on the assumption that simple, unadorned language would not interfere with the discursive reflection of God’s order. American idealism also led to concerns about how language and rhetoric participate in the process of acquiring and then transmitting knowledge of divine revelation. God communicates both through the word and the world. Ministers rely almost entirely on the former medium. As a result, rhetorical presentation must have some epistemological function. And so we arrive at the first contribution that American idealism made to rhetorical theory in the 18th century: a developed discussion about how language functions as an epistemic device for acquiring and communicating the divine mind among limited human intellects in a fallen world. As I will illustrate in my analyses that follow, this discussion afforded rhetoric much more than a mere representative function. Rhetoric was often imagined as a manner of locating, not just revealing, truth. In some cases, rhetoric was cast as a way to get near truth by building inferentially on contingent propositions. In some cases, certain rhetorical contrivances appeared to invoke or to indicate the presence of some divine light shining through a discursive performance. In some cases, certain rhetorical appeals seemed necessary for bridging the gap between a fallen human psyche and the majesty of God’s intellect.

While early-American idealism certainly contributed to theories about how rhetoric works epistemically, this philosophy also had another distinctly rhetorical dimension. Early-American idealism did rhetorical work in specific circumstances by encouraging people to inhabit certain dispositions. To discuss this latter contribution, I turn to Kenneth Burke’s analysis of various philosophies, idealism included. Burke discussed philosophies as the rhetorical “‘critical moment[s]’ at which human motives take form” (318). Idealisms, for instance, propose that the knower (in Burke’s terms, the “agent”) can apprehend spirit, the oversoul, or any ideal (“justice,” “truth,” “virtue,” etc.) existing in an unchanging realm beyond the contingent and fallen space of human affairs. Idealisms focus on the knower’s efforts to apprehend truth rather than on the truth itself. This privileging of agent makes idealism a particularly enabling philosophy. By knowing the ideal, one arrives at “good action.” In this regard, idealisms foreground epistemology in order to arrive at morality (172-3). In Immanuel Kant’s philosophy, for instance, “moral action is rooted in the ideas of God, freedom, and immortality” (196). Though idealist philosophies tend to emphasize epistemology, in that emphasis, they construct an attitudinal syntax that favors the knowing subject with access to a knowable and unchanging good. In the end, the search for truth is really about the construction of motive. As my analyses will demonstrate, Burke’s observations about idealism can easily be extended to address the American tradition, where idealism rhetorically emphasized agent and morality.

Burke also observed that “human motives are not confined to the realm of verbal action” (33). Historical circumstances, such as the existence of political parties or the development of economic trends, also play a part. Idealism, from this perspective, looks like an interesting moment when the rhetorical appropriation of a philosophical discourse constructed human motives in response to extra-discursive circumstances. Early-American idealism was important to the rhetorical tradition insofar as it changed the way people thought about rhetoric and insofar as it rhetorically constructed people’s attitudes in a specific environment. Early-American idealism’s importance to and endurance in the philosophical tradition has already been explored as one of the most sustained and influential intellectual traditions in the United States.1 Early-American idealism’s impact on rhetorical theory and practice also makes it an important object of inquiry among rhetoricians. In this regard, by exploring the theoretical and political contributions of early-American idealism to rhetorical theory and practice, this article performs a certain recovery work.

Though the analysis and the frame that I am proposing are theoretical, surely, and though I will spend the better part of this article rhetorically analyzing philosophical discourses, the upshot of this inquiry is historical. Just as Burke used rhetorical theory to make claims about the historical importance and effects of philosophical discourses, I will use Burke’s dramatistic frame to analyze idealist philosophies, demonstrating that they contributed to rhetorical theory and that they had important historical effects. This article makes no pretensions to completely cover the variety of American philosophical idealisms or their connections to rhetorical theories. Though the tradition deserves greater attention and though I hope this article will touch off similar studies, I will focus on two representative figures. My principle of selection is largely comparative. By examining two contemporary but differing idealist rhetoricians, this study argues that, though there were common intellectual roots to American idealism in both philosophical and rhetorical inquiry, this tradition branched in a variety of directions, both intellectual and socio-political. Looking at two contemporary thinkers in a common intellectual tradition demonstrates that early-American idealism yielded a robust conversation about rhetoric while it also supported various political programs in colonial American society. Jonathan Edwards tied his idealism to a pathetic rhetorical theory and to a defense of Congregationalist theocratic communalism. Samuel Johnson of Connecticut tied his idealism to a rational rhetorical theory and to a defense of British imperialism. These two case studies demonstrate that American idealism did considerably more than subordinate rhetoric to truth. The comparison of Johnson and Edwards demonstrates that, from the outset, American idealism has been a variegated tradition, deserving the same attention allotted other American philosophical/rhetorical schools, such as pragmatism. Since both Johnson and Edwards built complex rhetorical theories on a common philosophical base, we can conclude that American idealism has not cast rhetoric as an anathema. Since both Johnson and Edwards built differing rhetorical theories on a common philosophical base, we can conclude that American idealism, even at its beginnings, has yielded a variety of rhetorical theories, each with interesting historical effects.

Though Jonathan Edwards is most often discussed as a theologian, his work merits rhetoricians’ attention because, for nearly two centuries, Edwards’s writings affected how people imagined rhetoric’s relationship to revelation and persuasion. Particularly, as I argue in the analysis below, Edwards developed a rhetorical theory that emphasized pathetic appeal as a necessary conduit to divine knowledge. This theory grew out of Edwards’s revision of Amesian Calvinism, and it lit the rhetorical fires of several religious awakenings in 18th- and 19th-century America. Edwards’s contributions to rhetorical theory indicate that American idealist philosophy led to a complicated pathetic rhetorical theory with numerous adherents. But Edwards’s idealism is also rhetorically interesting as an effort to construct attitudes in support of the communal social structure that he found and appreciated in colonial Northampton. The analysis I present demonstrates that Edwardsean idealism not only contributed to a rhetorical theory, but it also rhetorically effected an historical attitude complicit with the deferential social order common among New-England rural communities.

To get to Edwards’s rhetorical theory, we should begin with a brief intellectual biography in order to establish the philosophical traditions to which he was responding and from which he was borrowing. At age 14, Jonathan Edwards entered the Saybrook Collegiate School (1716), which would become Yale. During the controversy over the college’s eventual relocation (1717), Edwards went to study with a fundamentalist branch at Wethersfield. He, along with a number of Wethersfield students, returned to Yale when the controversy ended, and New Haven was chosen as the college’s official location. There, Samuel Johnson, working as a tutor, exposed Edwards to standard Ramistic-Calvinist authors like William Ames and also to facets of the new philosophy with which Johnson himself wrestled, among them John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690).

Edwards’s encounters with and revisions of Calvinist and Lockean philosophies demonstrate that these discourses were received and revised according to their internal consistencies and according to their imbrications in political systems that Edwards either supported or opposed. This is to say that Edwards engaged these philosophies not just as intellectual problems but as rhetorically constructed attitudes with decided political consequences. Though Edwards would say otherwise, he was not pursuing a universal truth but instead a contingent historical attitude and action by interacting with philosophical systems left to him by previous thinkers. Edwards encountered a set of discursive institutions, one iteration of Puritan Calvinism among them, and he wrestled with the attitudes made available by these institutions in specific historical circumstances. His encounters with these philosophies demonstrate the dialectical interaction that occurs between language and historical agent. Burke showed that a discursive iteration arises as an “enactment in history” but it survives, as a fencer immortalized without her opponent, “in its memorialization, after the role of the opponent whose thrust called forth this parry has been removed” (365). In his dialectical interaction with Amesian Calvinism, Edwards rhetorically made something very different and specific to the extra-discursive historical circumstances that he inhabited.

But Edwards was not only responding to Amesian Calvinism. He was also responding to Lockean empiricism, which he found objectionable. (Locke influenced both Edwards and Johnson; see Miller Jonathan Edwards 53-68; Ellis 38-45.) Locke’s philosophy was initially tied to a politics that the young Edwards found threatening. Locke’s representationalism and his faith in clear language suited contractualism and free-market liberalism often rallied against absolute authority (as held by the monarch or the church). He wrote in the circumstances after the English civil war. As a Whig, he approved of the Roundhead challenge to the divine right of kings, and he championed the emerging British commercial economy. It should not surprise us to learn that his philosophy makes available attitudes complicit with such efforts. Locke constructed an elaborate representational theory of mind, which he extended into a representational theory of language as well. If the mind represents real objects and their interactions with ideas, then language represents ideas with words. Late in book two of the Essay, Locke argued that words are only ever ectypes, copies of ideas (which are copies of things). Archetypes include the things themselves and complex ideas of modes and relations (because these ideas have no relation to anything real) (1:511-15). Human error occurs when verbal ectypes fail to accurately represent ideas and when complex ideas of substances (themselves ectypes of the relationships among real substances) fail to represent composition in nature. Locke’s epistemology aims at the same target approached by other Enlightenment thinkers: separation of subject and object to facilitate control of nature by representation through universal linguistic equivalents. This model allows public trust in the individual’s ability to contract her time for money, to exchange goods and services for prices that adequately represent value, and to make political decisions based on discussion that adequately depicts current affairs. Locke therefore constructed a philosophy that enabled attitudes in support of commercial society and liberal democracy.

Locke’s faith in language appears in books one and two of the Essay. In book three, this faith falters. In words, he found a useful but troubled representational medium. Book three tries to clear away the meddling influence of bad discursive habits. Most of this advice, including the expressed hatred for all rhetorical contrivances, aims at cleaning the linguistic lens or admitting to and working around its necessary distortions. H. Lewis Ulman says Locke attempted “to clear the smoke of abused words from the air of philosophical inquiry” (44). Locke’s rhetorical theory, in effect, struggled to rescue liberal capitalism and consensual democracy from the instability of rhetorical equivalence. Young Jonathan Edwards recognized these political implications, recognized the attitudes made available by Locke’s philosophy, and he rejected the Essay in favor of another philosophy.

Locke lived in a developing commercial society and was surrounded by people like his employer, the first Earl of Shaftesbury, who supported free trade and political liberalism in the late 17th century. Jonathan Edwards inhabited radically different historical circumstances. The son of a Congregationalist minister, Edwards grew up in a largely authoritative culture whose superintendents made decisions about social mores, land distribution, taxes, and local trade policy based on their desire to approach an ideal Christian civilization. Locke promoted a society of freely acting, contracting, and exchanging individuals governed by their own reason, itself guided by an adequate representation of the world. In contrast, late 17th- and early 18th-century Congregationalist communities in Massachusetts and Connecticut fought free-market commercialism and contractualism for fear that such developments would erode their city on a hill (Bushman). This reactionary effort was reflected and in part supported by the Amesian Calvinism taught at Harvard and Yale. Edwards and his classmates studied thinkers like William Ames and Alexander Richardson, for whom the end of human action, investigation, and communication is “art,” an amalgam of knowing and therefore following the divine will. Art appears as archetype in God’s mind, entype in the world, and ectype in the human intellect (Flower and Murphy 1:23).2 Richardson’s Logicians School-Master (1629), an English commentary on Peter Ramus’s logic, was taught at Harvard throughout the 17th and well into the 18th centuries. It defines art as “[tjhe wisdome of God, but yet as it is energetick in the thing [ . . . ] the Law of God, whereunto he created things, whereby he gouerneth them, and whereunto they yeeld obedience” (15). William Ames borrowed Aristotle’s term for good action (eupraxia), attaching it to divine truth. Ames defined art as “the idea of eupraxia or good action, methodically delineated by universal rules.” Art exists as one divine idea with many perceptible earthly manifestations (Technometry 93, 95). Richardson and Ames both conceptualized the whole of human knowledge and practice as an effort to bring the human will into obedience with the divine. They divided the disciplines into component parts of this overall effort. Logic (dialectic) uncovers divine principles, while grammar and rhetoric transmit them among people. Richardson and Ames could not leave rhetoric behind, for they believed that a saved soul can only communicate the glory of transcendent understanding through lively and passionate delivery, arrangement sensitive to the audience’s interests and desires, and proper use of tropes. In this regard, Ames and Richardson preserved a limited though important epistemic function for rhetorical performance.

The British Ramists placed language at the center of any epistemological effort by arguing that, through words, people perceive the divine will, what Richardson called, ens a primo, or being from the first. According to Richardson, Ramistic logical investigation “teels us first of the simples, and then of disposing them [. . .] So wee know that Logicke caries from the thing to man, and speech from man to man” (7-8). Grammar and rhetoric, the second two general eupraxia after logic in Ames’s system, carry God’s will from regenerate soul to regenerate soul. Ames in fact allotted eupraxia a rhetorical function, saying it is “Cicero’s ‘discoursing well'” (Technometry 96). Ames also recognized that the minister must promote the will of God through powerful rhetorical delivery. Though he eventually claimed that the sermon must convince by “spirituall and powerful demonstration” not “perswading words,” Ames fully acknowledged the necessity of the latter and never attempted to avoid their use. He even pronounced the first act of religion a rhetorical performance: hearing the word of God to receive His will (Marrow 170, 180, 271). And Ames consciously put rhetoric to use, claiming at one point in the Marrow of Sacred Divinity (1642) to arrange his work in a “Rhetoricall way” (A5 verso). The British Ramists, therefore, placed rhetoric into a larger apparatus of theology pointing towards knowledge of and obedience to divine will.

Since Ames’s theology made available an attitudinal system tolerant of authoritarian order, in the New England colonies, it was often appropriated to support strict communal social hierarchies. It is common knowledge among historians of early-American ideas that Ames’s theology dominated education and rhetorical theory in the New-England colonies through the 17th century (Miller The New England Mind 111-206, 300-364). In the early 18th century, however, with the introduction of the new philosophy, especially John Locke’s works, and, with the rise of competitive capitalism and democratic republicanism, the nature of early-American idealism began to change. Intellectuals like Edwards altered Ames’s epistemology and his rhetorical theory to defend the hierarchical, authoritative politics of Congregationalist settlements. Edwards developed an idealist philosophy and complementary pathetic rhetorical theory that built on the epistemic function that Ames vouchsafed for rhetorical performance, and Edwards did so in the interest of conserving the Northampton social order.

Edwards contested Locke almost immediately. He was among the Wethersfield students, now notorious in Yale’s history for their resistance to the new learning. Samuel Johnson’s eventual resignation as their tutor is often accredited to these students’ recalcitrance and harassment. In his senior year, Edwards wrote his “Notes on the Mind,” an extended reflection that he preserved, referenced, and amended throughout his life. In all, Edwards’s “Notes on the Mind” amount to a rejection of Lockean empiricism and an assertion of idealism with obvious Amesian influences. For instance, Edwards posited that thought strives to comprehend God’s complete and ordered intellect. He used the term “Being” to reference the complete divine idea, the archetype in which existence begins and whose ectypes are human knowledge. He declined Locke’s separation of the mental and physical worlds by saying that “all existence is mental, that the existence of all exterior things is ideal” (50). Truth leads to comprehension of and obedience to the divine mind. Truth is the ordering of our ideas in accord with the ideas of “God’s stated order and law” (51). Like Ames’s technologia and Richardson’s encyclopedia, Edwards’s notions of “Being” and truth place all creation in God’s structured, hierarchical, and expansive mind. Like Ames and Richardson, Edwards located the ultimate political good and the ultimate expression of beauty in consent to God’s existence, or “Being’s consent to Being” (38).

Unlike Locke, who favored empiricism and who derided complex syllogistic reasoning, Edwards incorporated into his idealist philosophy a rationalist search for ideas. “Idealism,” in the present discussion, refers to the philosophy that posits the existence of knowable ideals beyond the contingent arena of human affairs. “Rationalism” references a belief that one can access valuable ideas through a specific deliberate process, in Edwards’s case, through syllogistic reasoning. One can be an idealist and not a rationalist, and likewise-if lacking a faith that syllogistic reasoning arrives at an ideal truth but still finding value in the method-one can be a rationalist and not an idealist. Edwards proposed to locate truth not in immediate recognition but rather in the labored location and comparison of ideas, in the “perception of the relations that are between ideas.” He advocated complicated thinking in abstract categories (the kind of exercise promoted by scholastic and-to a lesser extent-Ramistic logic) as a necessary way to “penetrate and come by the prime reality of the thing” (48, 50). Edwards even conceded an affinity for the “Old Logick” which helped him to “see my thoughts, that before lay in my mind jumbled without any distinction, ranged into order and distributed into classes and subdivisions, so that I could tell where they all belonged, and run them up to their general heads” (101). By incorporating a rationalist method into his philosophical idealism Edwards not only managed to reject Lockean empiricism but also to assert the epistemological validity of scholastic and Ramistic argumentation. His rational notion of truth defended what he learned at Yale and also preserved ministerial authority by claiming that only those trained in and capable of constructing complicated rational arguments have access to divine knowledge.

Edwards also amended the Calvinist Ramism that he inherited from Ames and Richardson. Unlike his predecessors, Edwards believed that both the understanding (through demonstration and logical comparison) and the passions (through apprehension of beauty) function epistemically. The British Ramists believed that the rational faculty accesses truth, while the passions and the will make this truth palatable in rhetorical presentation. Edwards held that while logical apprehension of truth requires traditional exercises, witnessing beauty through the passions requires sublime reverie in creation’s splendor-and beautiful language. Though Edwards was proposing that truth could bypass reason, he was still working within the confines of an idealist epistemology because he was still proposing that truth exists outside of the contingent realm of human affairs. Also, he was still proposing a philosophical system that privileges agent in the search for said truth. Whether guided by reason’s light or passion’s torch, this is still a quest for divine knowledge. By separating the mind into the understanding, the will, and the passions, Edwards followed a fairly standard Puritan faculty psychology. He added a belief that the mind has an inclination to see truth and beauty in the world through a “sense of the heart.” Since God’s words resonate with the saved soul, the Scripture resides in people’s hearts (66). Witnessing divine truth requires the passions, particularly the admiration of God’s glory (87). Assent to God’s will requires much more than simple rational apprehension through scholastic exercise or demonstration. Being’s consent to Being requires an exercise of the will as prompted by a general sense of beauty (95). Edwards’s belief in the rational and the passionate faculties led him to a theory of emotional appeal. In his senior year of college, he was already claiming that the preacher must light the listeners’ passions to kindle interest, to demonstrate divine beauty (112). Edwards’s idealism led him to a favorable evaluation of sensational and charismatic leadership among early 18th-century colonial preachers. This philosophy and its associated rhetorical sensationalism constructed an attitude amenable to the Great Awakening, which Edwards himself ignited along with other sensational preachers like George Whitefield.

In his later works, Edwards elaborated on the regenerate sense of the heart. He came to believe that truth is only available to those who possess such a renewed sensibility. He also continually located rhetorical performance as a central mechanism for inciting regenerate passions. Most notably, in his Treatise Concerning the Religious Affections (1746), Edwards separated the mind into two faculties, the understanding and the heart, claiming that zeal, compassion, and love (all provinces of the latter faculty) lead to God (97). Gracious affections arise in response only to spiritual, divine, and supernatural operations on the heart. While he allowed that all people, the regenerate and the “natural,” possess a sense for beauty, he carefully separated divine beauty available to the elect from natural beauty available to all, and he claimed that beautiful oratory, as often found in speeches and poems, might be noticeable by everyone with natural taste, but sublime performance, the kind found in Godly rites such as singing and preaching, will only ever be fully appreciated by the regenerate soul (259, 282-3). Perry Miller has called this emotive epistemic capacity “a sensuous apprehension of the total situation” (“Jonathan Edwards” 95-6; also see Miller’s “The Rhetoric of Sensation”).

For historians of rhetoric, Edwards’s idealism and the vital epistemological role allotted to the passions and to passionate rhetorical performance are all important philosophical developments because they provided an intellectual foundation on which Edwards and other revivalists could justify passionate, zealous oratory associated with the Great Awakening (ca. 1730-40). Eugene White has drawn a long rhetorical genealogy beginning with the hyper-rational and emotionally reserved performances of arch-Puritans like William Perkins and culminating with Edwards’s sensational sermons. Alongside the rational Puritan idealism that he had inherited, Edwards offered an emotive idealism. Nevertheless, though Edwards theorized a new rhetorical path to regenerate knowledge, he continued to work within the larger idealist framework because he continued to position knowledge beyond the fallen arena of human affairs, and he continued to focus on the individual agent’s epistemic journey. Edwards theorized the passions and the will as central and pervasive mechanisms for the regenerate apprehension of divine truth and beauty: “Out of his preaching and writings emerge an approachment to man [sic] as a unitary being in whom the emotions are primary and pervasive” (White 41). No longer compartmentalized and subordinate to the understanding, the sense of the heart pervades the human psyche, so the preacher, in an oratorical search to find and present divine beauty and truth, has little choice but to appeal to emotion.

In his most thorough reflection on Great-Awakening oratory, Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival of Religion in New England (1742), Edwards extended his idealism and its rhetorical implications into an evaluation of the rhetorical flourish practiced by Awakening preachers, offering advice about how properly to incite regenerate passion through oratorical performance. He said that informing the understanding vainly attempts to demonstrate God’s word unless accompanied by an effort to inform the heart (298). Written when the revival was under attack for the performative excesses of ministers like James Davenport and Gilbert Tennent, much of Some Thoughts is an apology for genuine efforts to incite regenerate zeal among worshippers. Edwards’s stated goal was to defend “a great deal of pathos, and manifestation of zeal and fervency in preaching the Word of God” (388). Some Thoughts not only defends the pathetic Awakening rhetoric that Edwards himself practiced. It also defends Edwards’s idealism and the important epistemic position allotted the affections. Edwards himself employed such pathetic rhetoric, calling forth powerfully descriptive language to exemplify and to describe the rhetoric that he advocated. He insisted, for instance, that ministers become “sons of thunder” (423). Edwards also peppered his sermons with emotional appeals and striking visual imagery, such as the famous passage in Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (1741) which depicts the Almighty as an indifferent ruler dangling human souls over Hell’s fires, just as a child dangles a spider by its own silk thread.

Edwards’s philosophy and rhetorical theory are remarkable in their own rights, particularly in their connection to one another and in their revision of Amesian Calvinism. But Edwards did more than revise related philosophic and rhetorical traditions. His idealism countered Lockean empiricism, asserted the authoritativeness of regenerate knowledge, and promoted popular obedience to divine will. His idealism contributed to a political reaction against the cosmopolitanism, democratic republicanism, and the liberal commercialism developing along the 18th-century British Atlantic. So far, my analysis has focused on Edwards’s contributions to rhetorical theory, but this should not go without recognizing that Edwards’s idealism also had distinct rhetorical-attitudinal effects in 18th-century New England.

The pathetic rhetoric that Edwards condoned and practiced became widespread throughout the colonies, developing into perhaps the most influential trend in rhetorical performance before the 1760s. However popular, this rhetoric was still a reactionary effort against emergent social forces. In Northampton, the town where Edwards was pastor, traditional hierarchical social forces, such as parental and church authority were weakening, as emergent commerce and a cosmopolitan culture developed in nearby Boston. The deferential disposition required to maintain Edwards’s beloved traditional Puritan community was eroding. Church membership was at a dramatic low when he ascended the pulpit. The local government no longer controlled the town’s economic resources because it ran out of land to distribute among younger citizens. At the same time, commercial centers like Boston beckoned young Congregationalists. Northampton’s last largescale land grants were made in 1730. Further distribution would come thereafter only through inheritance. Many stayed in Northampton and pursued the subsistence agriculture that had defined this community since the mid-17th century. But they had little hope for moving beyond the economic ranks into which they were born. Northampton’s young adults in the 1720s and 30s married later, lived with their parents longer, despaired for their futures more, and attended church less than any other generation before them. They turned away from religion and other authority-based social structures such as parental control. They carried on in forbidden late-night frolics. Even more disturbing for traditionalists like Edwards, many younger people turned to the cosmopolitanism circulating in Massachusetts’s trade centers (Tracy 91-102).

Edwards fought this trend vigorously by trying to convert young parishioners. His particularly sensational idealism and its complementary emotional rhetoric guaranteed that anyone, even those without particular training in scholastic/Ramistic logic, could perceive the divine splendor through a regenerate sense of the heart. Edwards’s idealist-sensationalist rhetoric provided the kind of open promise that appealed to younger people despairing of their economic circumstances. It also personally empowered a generation of parishioners already skeptical of official authorities. While his philosophical system and rhetorical performances brought many converts, they also tried to reinforce the Congregationalist Church’s traditional social structure. His rhetoric promised all who were emotionally moved a chance at saving grace provided that they consent to God’s Being, a splendid totality sparkling through the minister’s affective performance. Edwards focused on the agent’s ability to know the good, to perceive beauty in sermonic delivery. In Kenneth Burke’s terms, Edwards empowered his audience by emphasizing agent. But Edwards’s idealism also flirted with mysticism in its emphasis on the agent’s responsibility to follow divine truth once apprehended. The purpose of inquiry, divine truth, begins to look more important than the agent’s epistemic capacity. Burke has noticed that mysticism and idealism often bleed into and “enforce each other,” especially as truth begins to look less like an epistemic end and more like a moral purpose. The “purpose [of an effort to obtain ideal truth] becomes transformed into necessity” (300). The agent can know truth, but once that knowing happens the emphasis shifts to purpose, to a being’s consent to Being. This flirtation with mysticism made Edwards’s idealism all the more authoritative despite its focus on agent. In the end, the empowered, knowing agent must consent to God’s truth because her epistemic journey arrives at the realization that deference to God’s order is “good.” The knowing agent’s consent is made possible by an attitudinal complex that Edwards rhetorically constructed in his idealism, a philosophical reconstitution of what he inherited from the British Ramists, and a motivational syntax in support of the specific historical/political institutions to which he was allied.

Edwards’s eventual emphasis on purpose rather than agent encouraged those convinced by this philosophical/rhetorical system to obey the dominant moral establishment in their community. Many of his parishioners doubted traditional authority figures such as church elders and parents. These young attendees were personally empowered and guided to their own emotively driven search for divine truth, but at the end of this epistemic quest they found themselves having to consent to the same moral order that they rejected when refusing to attend church in the first place. Their personal journey to sensational apprehension of God’s Being left them obeying a strict moral authority, this time an authority directly apprehended in the truth of God’s totality. A being’s consent to Being, in Edwards’s philosophical system, not only required epistemological assent. It also required behavioral consent. Though converts arrived at regeneration more directly through sensuous apprehension, their behavior would not differ from the deferential patterns exhibited by generations before them. Converts still attended church, still obeyed the minister, still behaved deferentially, and still rejected the worldly refinements of Godless Boston.

Edwards’s epistemology and his rhetorical theory influenced a generation of American preachers, and his theology was among the first iterations of a homegrown American idealism. Later idealisms would be folded into other political projects. For instance, Edwards’s grandson, Timothy Dwight, in his Dissertation on the History, Eloquence, and Poetry of the Bible (1772), argued that language conveys divine majesty to the human soul. Dwight even repeated Edwards’s vocabulary of the “sense of the heart,” saying that Biblical rhetoric “finds the shortest passage to the human heart” (4). Dwight’s idealism was also woven into an authoritarian politics-the conservative-Congregationalist wing of the Federalist Party in Connecticut, which promoted obedience to the Federal government. Dwight’s rhetorical idealism suited a federal authority removed from the hierarchical quasi-medieval communities that his grandfather defended. Even among Edwards’s contemporaries, idealism was woven into varying political projects. The various political effects of American idealism demonstrate that this philosophy, like many rhetorical devices, was open to different appropriations.

While Edwards’s idealism led him to a pathetic rhetorical theory and to a defense of Northampton’s church-led communalism, other early-American idealists developed differing rhetorical theories and differing political purposes out of a similar philosophical disposition. Samuel Johnson, for instance, developed a rationalist rhetorical theory out of his idealism, proposing that logical appeals can lead one to proper apprehension and demonstration of divine truth. Johnson not only theorized the syllogism as a useful path to divine knowledge, but he also proposed that, in the absence of a syllogistically airtight progression, one can appeal to contingent propositions and loose, enthymematic reasoning to approximate God’s moral order. Like Edwards, Johnson preserved an epistemic function for rhetoric, but unlike Edwards he did not valorize the emotional apprehension of verity. Rather, Johnson more closely stayed with his Amesian influences, emphasizing and expanding the epistemic function of logical appeal. Johnson also blended this appreciation for logical demonstration with a version of Lockean empiricism. His rhetorical theory, in the end, preserved value for both appeals to empirical observation and appeals to logical demonstration. Johnson not only differed from Edwards in his rhetorical theory, but he also differed in the attitude that he rhetorically constructed through his idealist philosophy. While Edwards’s idealism constructed attitudes complicit with Northampton’s Congregationalist community, Johnson’s idealism constructed attitudes complicit with British imperialism and Anglican authority.

A brief intellectual biography will help us to understand how Johnson encountered and responded to the same intellectual inheritances as Edwards. These common intellectual resources point to a traceable philosophical tradition, a noticeable fountain where various American idealist streams began. Samuel Johnson studied at Saybrook for three years, leaving in 1713, his senior year, to become a master at the Guilford School. In 1714, he engaged in an exercise typical of Yale’s graduates. In imitation of William Ames, he wrote a manuscript version of his own technologia, his own effort at describing and dividing divine art. Johnson dialectically engaged Ames’s theology just as Edwards would do a few years later, but Johnson’s political allegiances contributed to a very different philosophy and rhetorical theory. Like Ames, Johnson collected rhetoric, along with grammar and logic, into the general eupraxia. Ramistic logic employs topics (universal categories) and their division to invent the principles of God’s order. Grammar and rhetoric serve logic. Johnson’s preface parrots Ames: “art has reflected its rays into the intellect of intelligent creatures ever since the most ancient times.” He even speculated that before the fall, Adam had available to him “illustrious wisdom” (2:59).

In 1714, Samuel Johnson was a loyal Congregationalist, a believer in hierarchical social order, an Amesian Calvinist, and a Ramistic rhetorician. He and Edwards shared a great deal, philosophically, rhetorically, and politically. Over the next eight years, a number of things would lead him to question these beliefs and to reformulate his politics. In 1714, Jeremy Dummer gave Yale over 800 books, many of them written by new-philosophy mavens like John Locke and Francis Bacon. Johnson, along with many other early-American intellectuals including Jonathan Edwards, devoured these books. Like Edwards, Johnson was disturbed by the Lockean empirical alternative to Amesian Calvinism. He also began to question the Congregationalist Church, which he believed was abandoning its political foundations. During the late 17th and early 18th centuries Congregationalist policies, such as the Half-Way Covenant (1662) and Solomon Stoddard’s open-door policy (1677), ceded power to nonmembers. In 1722, Johnson left the Congregationalist Church, saying it was too democratic (1:12). He took Anglican orders and began a long political career as a supporter of Britain’s power, particularly its imperial control over the colonies, its national church, and its mercantilist restrictions on colonial trade.

In the middle of this conversionary period, Johnson wrote a logic manuscript, whose unresolved philosophical contradictions reveal his political transition. Johnson’s 1720 logic espouses many of Locke’s empirical assumptions, a willingness to doubt Ames’s theology, and an unwillingness to abandon the rationalist method that he learned at Yale. Politically caught between colonial Congregationalism and imperial Anglicanism, Johnson was also epistemologically caught between Amesian Calvinism and the Lockean empirical method. He imagined the world and the mind as separate. The mind represents the world with sensations and complex ideas that map the interactions of simple objects in nature (2:221-4). Johnson even took to the Lockean use of the term “archetype,” referring to ideational archetypes as the “real” objects in the world (2:227). He also abandoned the topical system of invention, regarding reason as the search “for unknown truth by the intervention of ideas” a process driven by empirical investigation.3 But Johnson’s 1720 logic is not entirely Lockean. He stuck to several Ramistic elements, most notably method. He insisted that discourse should move from simple to compound and that the whole subject first be divided into its parts. In these sections, he leaned towards Ames’s belief that truth exists in the whole technologia of divine knowledge, which must be divided appropriately for human comprehension (2:239).

Johnson’s logic also demonstrates another influence: the Port Royal logic (The Art of Thinking [1662] by Antoine Arnauld and Pierre Nicole), which he studied at Yale. His 1720 logic dithers between a Cartesian method of recognizing truth (consistency among propositions, syllogisms, arguments) and a Lockean method (verifiable representation of the world). He learned the former from Arnauld and Nicole who advocated Descartes’s method of analysis, itself based on rational consistency. Arnauld and Nicole also repeated a great deal of Aristotelian advice about how to construct valid syllogisms (135-225, 232-8). They even doubted sensual knowledge, claiming that rational consistency is more reliable.4 Johnson covered the basics of rational proof while warning that, though a useful tool, the syllogism received too much attention from Aristotelians who follow it slavishly (2:234). In his skepticism towards the rationalist method, Johnson differed from Edwards who expressed a much stronger faith that rational procedures would reveal ideal truths. Yet his flirtation with empiricism moved him away from the authoritarian philosophy that he found in Ames and Richardson. Johnson’s discussion of method repeats much of the Cartesian rationalism that he learned from the Port Royal logic. He also displayed Lockean allegiances when classifying all human knowledge into four categories: sensation, intuition, demonstration, and faith. According to Johnson (and Locke) sensation (knowledge learned directly through perception of the world) is the most reliable, and intuition (immediate recognition of the agreement among ideas) is nearly so (Johnson 2:230-1; Locke 2:176-89).

In all, the young Samuel Johnson approached two contradictory and unresolved methods of apprehending truth, one empirical the other rational. His insistence on checking assertions against the world leans towards Locke’s empirical belief in truth as accurate representation of real causal systems-truth principally lies in sensation. But his faith in the syllogism leans towards a rationalistic (Cartesian) method of consistent argument along prescripted lines of thought. His ambivalence indicates the political tension that he experienced. Rationalism in the early 18th century was often tied to the idealism and the conservatism that he learned at Yale (as evidenced above in the discussion of Jonathan Edwards), while empiricism was often associated with liberal cosmopolitanism which challenged not only Congregational but all authoritative social structures. Empirical investigation puts truth within everyone’s grasp. To apprehend knowledge, one only needs senses, not the elaborate and artificial tasks taught by schoolmen. Rational methods preserve epistemic (and therefore moral) authority among the properly trained, while empirical methods distribute this authority universally. Johnson’s dialectical interaction with these methods of investigation was also a dialectical interaction with non-discursive history, and his efforts to constitute his own philosophy were rhetorical efforts to construct a suitable attitude. Like Edwards, he was living in an era when democratic and commercial institutions threatened authoritative social structures like British monarchical control based on the divine rights of kings. Wrestling with two epistemic methods was also an effort indirectly to wrestle with these conflicting political trajectories.

From the Port Royal logic and from Locke’s essay, Johnson developed a conception of the world as entity separate from, though representable in, human consciousness. (Representation may occur through empirical method-demonstration of sensational knowledge-or through a rational method-syllogistic demonstration.) From these sources, Johnson also developed a skepticism that would trouble Amesian theology and authoritarian political leanings. This is most reflected in the concerns that Johnson expressed about language. His 1720 logic contains worried passages about language’s inability to represent the world accurately and gives advice, not unlike Locke, Arnauld, and Nicole, about avoiding rhetoric altogether. Johnson’s exposure and attraction to the new philosophy left him in a philosophical knot that tangled his understanding of language. He wanted to preserve an idealism so as not to threaten his political conservatism, but at the same time he found merit in threateningly skeptical works. Also, he wanted to maintain a faith in language’s ability to reveal God’s truths to people. In his logic manuscript, he asserted that faith in God’s Scriptural testimony is as trustworthy as sense perception. Yet he entertained a philosophy that questioned all discursive efforts and positioned all rhetorical exercise as inimical to bare empirical investigation. Intellectually, he resolved this trouble by turning to George Berkeley’s idealism, which allowed him to preserve his political allegiances by offering an idealist solution to Locke’s empirical challenges while also questioning and at the same time reaffirming the utility of the rationalist search for truth.

Berkeley’s response to Locke was both philosophically and politically motivated. Berkeley was himself a political conservative in England, a staunch supporter of (and bishop in) the Anglican Church. He proposed that the world exists only in perception. Berkeley argued that there is no material world, only souls receiving and transmitting ideas. This emphasis on the knowing subject embodies the idealist privileging of agent (Burke 179). Berkeley’s classic formulation of this idealism is “esse est percipi” (54). Instead of a material world, he claimed that there is only a divine mind communicating ideas to other spirits who can transmit copies of these ideas among themselves. In his Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous (1713), an effort to clarify the arguments originally sketched in the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710), Berkeley repeated the vocabulary of archetype and ectype, positioning archetypal knowledge in the divine intellect (not in the material world as Locke believed) and ectypal knowledge in the human copy of divine ideas (200). He proposed a method of obtaining truth very similar to Locke’s empirical method: observation. But the crucial difference is this-Lockean empirical observation posited that one was looking at a material world, while Berkeleyan observation posited that one was looking at ideas in the mind of God or in the minds of other thinking subjects. Since Berkeley’s method of obtaining divine truths mimicked Locke’s empirical observation, it allowed Johnson to continue his questioning of Amesian rationalist method while preserving the idealist philosophical grammar to which he was committed.

In the introduction to his Principles of Human Knowledge, Berkeley vowed to avoid all rhetorical effect so that he could “take [ideas… ] bare and naked into […] view” (49). Language distorts ectypal knowledge. Berkeley’s idealism, though politically removed from liberal contractualism, accepts a rhetorical theory not unlike Locke’s. For both thinkers, rhetoric is a sugaring of truths. Berkeley said as much in the introduction to the Principles. He recognized that language communicates thoughts, raises the passions, and fires the imagination, and he openly conceded to using many rhetorical devices in his own writing, but he also promised to use such rhetorical flourishes only in the service of knowledge divined without rhetorical interference.5 Berkeley and Locke, therefore, shared a skepticism towards rhetoric, which has led many to group them into a common camp of empirical philosophers of language (Walmsley 10; Ulman 52, 55). But Berkeley was not an empiricist, for this would run counter to his paternalist and theocratic inclinations. Berkeley was an idealist, in part because this philosophy allowed him to circumvent troubles in Lockean empiricism, and in part because it allowed him to protect Anglican theocratic tenets. He said at the end of his Principles that the upshot of his idealism is “to fill our hearts with an awful circumspection and holy fear, which is the strongest incentive to virtue.” The first object of concern is “the consideration of God, and our duty” leading people away from vain, secular philosophy and towards “the salutary truths of the Gospel, which to know and to practice is the highest perfection of human nature” (112-13). This eleventh-hour shift away from agent and towards a focus on purpose has Berkeley flirting with mysticism to construct a deferential attitude, not unlike what one finds in Edwards’s eventual emphasis on a “being’s consent to Being.” But Berkeley’s philosophy, constituted in the historical circumstances of early 18th-century England did not promote the same Congregationalist hierarchy that Edwards favored. Rather, Berkeley’s idealism (and its mystical components) supported the British crown (the divine right of kings) and the interventionist subordination of unfettered commerce to national welfare, institutions that threatened parliamentary authority and laissez-faire capitalism.6

Johnson maintained an active correspondence with Berkeley and adopted, wholesale, much of his philosophy, but Johnson did not regard rhetoric as an epistemic impediment. Rather, following his Amesian influences, Johnson held that language can-in many regards does and must-lead to knowledge. In a more developed though still conflicted work, Elementa Philosophica (1752), Johnson continued to search for manners of rhetorically achieving epistemic certainty. Like Edwards, Johnson constituted an idealist philosophy and rhetorical theory partly because of his historical moment and his political allegiances. His own idealism and the attitudes made available thereby dialectically managed these encountered discursive constructions and extradiscursive historical circumstances. By constructing this philosophy and its complementary rhetorical theory, Johnson also constructed an attitude suited to 18th-century colonial partisan allegiances.

Johnson vehemently argued for Anglican control over King’s College in the 1750s, and, during the Stamp Act crisis, he defended British mercantilist policies that crippled American commerce. It would be unfair to call him a loyalist because Johnson died in 1772 before such a term really carried political weight, but we can safely conjecture that he would have opposed the Revolution if he had lived another four years. Within the context of early-American society, Johnson’s efforts constituted a reaction against two related developments: the rise of bourgeois democracy and the appearance of laissez-faire capitalism as an alternative to British mercantilism. In New York, during his tenure as president of King’s College, Johnson’s efforts constituted a reaction against a majority of Whig merchants fighting a small coterie of powerful, patrician, mercantilist leaders, allied with the Anglican Church and supporting the governor, James Delancey. This elite group of British sympathizers saw their position severely threatened and eventually overthrown by Whig Livingstonites allied with small merchants, manufacturers, and shopkeepers-the Sons of Liberty-all feeling the crunch of British mercantilist policies and all demanding greater democratic participation in government. The Delancey party eventually lost, and bourgeois democracy along with laissez-faire capitalism took hold in New York after the Revolution. The Elementa Philosophica, seen in this context, appears to be an effort philosophically and rhetorically to justify Johnson’s political allegiances, particularly his claim that people should concede to moral (British) authority. Just as Berkeley’s philosophical idealism constituted attitudes in opposition to Locke’s liberal Whiggish sympathies in Great Britain, Johnson’s philosophical idealism constituted attitudes in opposition to the Whiggish Livingstonites in New York. A closer look at Johnson’s philosophical magnum opus demonstrates its political implications.

The second part of Johnson’s Elementa Philosophica is a system of morals built upon his philosophical idealism, and the conclusion of this entire system (moral, philosophical, and rhetorical) is that all human endeavor aims towards happiness, a condition realized when one fully understands and obeys God’s will. Such a perception is available only to those with critical and rhetorical acumen as learned in philological study. Norman Fiering has noticed that in his later work, Samuel Johnson placed moral philosophy at the center of his encyclopedia, thereby revising the dialectic-centric technologia that he learned from William Ames (232). By theorizing and then teaching this system, Johnson encouraged colonials generally and King’s College students particularly to be obedient to the crown and scepter. Like Edwards and Berkeley, Johnson flirted with mysticism by, at times, privileging purpose. He thereby engaged and promoted an attitude compliant with authority. Thus, in the second part of the Elementa Philosophica, we find mystic inclinations with important moral and political implications. But in the first part, Johnson privileged the manners of acquiring knowledge, thereby favoring agent and setting his philosophy squarely in the idealist tradition.

The first part of the Elementa Philosophica is a metaphysics and epistemology. It opens with a declared allegiance to a Berkeley an idealism, claiming: that there is no substance outside the mind, nothing beyond perception; that all human ideas are ectypes of celestial archetypes; and that, by way of a divinely awarded intellectual light, people have the capacity to see the universal principles (archetypes) in their many particular ideas (ectypes) (2:372-80). Johnson still professed a representational notion of truth, which he located in sensation of God’s ideas, and this emphasis on sensation allowed him to continue accepting Locke’s empirical method without importing its politically dangerous skepticism. Though he followed Berkeley slavishly in the above regards, Johnson veered sharply from any skepticism about rhetoric. In fact, he defended the rhetorical capacity in the search for and transmission of knowledge. He said the effort to achieve happiness requires two principal studies: philology (including grammar and rhetoric) and philosophy (including logic). While the Elementa Philosophica offers no treatment of rhetoric, Johnson’s treatment of philology reveals that, in his system, language helps one to perceive and demonstrate truth. Johnson was not a terribly thorough or complicated thinker, so philology’s encroachment into philosophy’s berth should not surprise. However curious and sloppy it might appear, this encroachment is important because it preserves an epistemic and moral value for rhetoric. Also important is the location of rhetoric and grammar in Johnson’s encyclopedia. Like history, poetry, and oratory, rhetoric and grammar become paths to moral philosophy, manners of knowing and doing the good. Fiering has called them all “propaedeutic studies” (227).

Although he clung to the Berkeleyan notion of divine archetypes and though he also maintained that language should strive to accurately represent these archetypes, Johnson did not hold so strictly to representationalism. He admitted that some “truths” are known not by directly witnessing (not by induction of any stripe) but through rational demonstration or a preponderance of convincing evidence. Following Port-Royal notions about mental functions and Locke’s beliefs that rigorous rational demonstration can produce reasonable understanding of the material world, Johnson acceded to sense perceptions and, at the same time, discussed judgment and reasoning, processes that involve forming propositions and using syllogisms. Again, he flirted with both empirical and rationalist methods of investigation.

He also claimed that, when perceptive or inherent certainty is unavailable, people can achieve assurance through rhetorical demonstration. When sensation fails, rational demonstration rides to the rescue. By accepting that people cannot perfectly know some propositions’ certainty and must string probable propositions together into coherent, however contestable arguments, Johnson allowed rational mapping of divine moral archetypes without the possibility of ever completely achieving cartographic accuracy. Moral “truths” lie on contingent propositions and therefore pursue rhetorical rather than empirical certainty. Johnson effectively drew a line in the field of discourse between claims about things that can be known with certainty and claims about things that can only be known contingently, a line drawn by ancient thinkers, particularly Aristotle, between dialectic and rhetoric.

For Johnson, science is the province of things known absolutely. Though he never used the term “rhetoric” to describe the contingent realm, he certainly imagined the non-scientific landscape as a rhetorical topography:

And when any proposition is supported with all the reasons it is, in the nature of it, capable of, and there remains no sufficient reason to doubt of the truth of it, we are then said to have a moral certainty, and our assent to it is called persuasion, which implies a settled acquiescence of the mind in the truth of it […] If the reasons for the probability or moral certainty of any proposition are taken for the nature of the things considered in themselves, our assent to it is called opinion. (2:409-10)

Johnson allotted to discourse a distinctly epistemic function and permitted the use of argument to establish understanding of the world so that people can manage moral issues. The end of rhetorical persuasion reflects the moral ideal, thereby establishing a space for rhetorical arrival at moral certainty. If these moral arguments can be trusted as representations of archetypes, then they can form the basis for an authoritarian politics. By defending a rationalist method of obtaining truth, Johnson also defended the exclusive claim that Anglican ministers made about epistemic access-only those properly trained in argumentation can cut a path to divine wisdom. The congregation, lacking philological acumen, should passively listen.

His epistemology and his rhetorical theory in the Elementa Philosophica reassert a faith in moral certainty, a hope for language’s ability to represent divine archetypes, this time moral archetypes. His faith in argument’s moral utility appears throughout his works in a repeated appreciation for forensic disputation in English over syllogistic argument in Latin. Though he condoned the use of syllogism in reasoning and advocated its application in the Elementa Philosophica, he also thought it inapplicable in certain discursive arenas. In the early 18th-century Anglo academy, syllogistic and forensic disputation contended for dominance, and Johnson often spoke disparagingly of curricular syllogistic exercises, calling them the efforts of “schoolmen,” useless in real argument.7 In pedagogical practice, he celebrated the rise of forensic disputation at early-American colleges, but not in pursuit of the democratic republicanism often attributed to student exercises at Princeton under John Witherspoon. Rather than encouraging widespread democratic participation by teaching forensic disputation, Johnson hoped to get his students closer to divine archetypes. As models of good disputation, he adulated Plato’s dialogues, which he described as dialectical efforts to arrive at an ideal truth, (2:243). His rhetorical pedagogy, therefore, promoted the political quiescence that he justified through his philosophy and his rhetorical theory. His rhetorical pedagogy also valorized the loose enthymematic reasoning common in forensic disputation over the tighter logical forms employed in syllogistic disputation. Johnson’s idealist rhetorical theory allowed him to imagine that contingent moral reasoning can lead one to an approximation of divine truth when syllogistic and empirical certainty are unavailable.

Johnson’s faith in language as a necessary epistemic tool extends beyond his discussion of effective argument and into treatments of style. Twice in the Elementa Philosophica, he described stylistic form as indication of verity. He discussed beauty and harmony in all of nature as the marks of divine influence. Harmony, an assemblage of language to please the ear, appears in artistic expression and is most appreciated by those with proper critical training, a philological art (2:392-3). Criticism, far from being a handmaiden to philosophical truth, becomes its divining rod capable of pointing to the harmonious verbal fountains that flow from godly ideas. Johnson also described two stylistic figures, metaphor and analogy, as necessary epistemic devices for understanding spirits. Since spirits are not ideas, they cannot be apprehended through sense perception, but Johnson held, like Berkeley, that people have experience of spirits nonetheless. (Without this experience, we would have no apprehension of God or of other people.) In order to discuss this experience, said Johnson, we must resort to the language of ideas, talking of spirits as if they were ideas, putting “spiritual things” into “material terms” (2:403). Like the art of criticism, the study of rhetorical figures, a philological pursuit, becomes epistemologically necessary.

Jonathan Edwards promoted and practiced an emotionally evocative rhetoric in the hopes that discursive sublimity would convey to the listener divine truth through a sense of the heart. In contrast, Johnson promoted and practiced a dry illustration of empirical/logical proof in the hopes that this construction would lead the listener to a rational understanding of divine order. Edwards wanted to incite zealous revival and to return to Congregationalist piety, order, and social hierarchy. Johnson wanted rationally to guide imperial subjects to the reasonable and beneficent mandates of the Anglican Church and the British crown. These differing rhetorical theories and decidedly different political agendas share a common idealist philosophy that starts with Ames, is troubled by Locke, and seeks some epistemic-discursive capacity through a third position. Together, they demonstrate that early-American idealism was a variable construction, leading to different rhetorical theories and to different attitudes in service of different, though contemporary, political institutions. From the comparison of these two thinkers, we can conclude that American idealism(s) lend(s) to appropriation for a variety of rhetorical theories and political efforts at dialectical interaction with non-discursive history.

Johnson and Edwards are the roots of the American idealist tradition, and their appropriations of a common philosophy demonstrate how rich and productive the interaction between idealism and rhetorical theory has been in American history. Certainly, as Richard Rorty and Stanley Fish point out, a great many Enlightenment thinkers moved from a belief in a our “glassy essence” to a suspicion of rhetoric. Locke and Berkeley did so. But it would appear that American idealists did something remarkable different. Edwards and Johnson believed in a world separate from the reflecting mind, but neither moved from this belief in a representable world to a denigration of rhetoric. In fact, both began with a belief in a representable divine truth but ended with complicated and divergent theories about how rhetoric assists in that search and how it also allows the knowing agent to follow and to transmit the good. Early-American idealism offered more to rhetorical theory than did many of its contemporary epistemologies.

Both Johnson and Edwards were quite influential in the 18th century, the former through his theological writings and his religious leadership and the latter through his philosophical musings and his pedagogical efforts at King’s College. The American idealist tradition continued as others found new rhetorical-political possibilities in the same set of philosophical assumptions. Other idealist thinkers come to mind, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Lyman Beecher, and Timothy Dwight. Other studies of other idealists can trace the long history of interaction between this philosophy and its allied rhetorical theory and practice. If these later thinkers engaged in the same generous consideration of rhetorical theory that I have located in Edwards and Johnson, then the vein of American idealist philosophy is paralleled by a rich and complementary channel of American idealist rhetorical theory. Both should be mined historical resources.

In each case, as we sketch the history of interaction between idealism and American rhetoric, we should proceed without losing track of the various rhetorical uses made of a common intellectual tradition. While we notice the contributions to rhetorical theory, we should also keep our sights on the various rhetorical-political efforts made by constituting idealist philosophy in particular historical circumstances. For the latter purpose, Burke’s dramatism appears useful because this terministic screen encourages critical attention to and serious consideration of every discourse as a rhetorical-dialectical production of an attitude in an historical moment. Burke’s dramatism leads us to a “linguistic skepticism […] an attitude of methodical quizzicality towards language [which] may best equip us to perceive the full scope of its resourcefulness” (442). The linguistically skeptical viewer will recognize indeed how resourceful American idealist rhetor(ician)s have been. Dramatism reveals how rhetorically rich this tradition is, its many variations and its variable effects. The previous study of intellectual contributions made by Jonathan Edwards and Samuel Johnson of Connecticut demonstrates the productive and interesting interaction between idealism and American rhetoric. Other studies of later idealist rhetoricians may help us to find what philosophers have found in the idealist philosophical tradition: a great deal of theoretical and political possibility.


1 Elizabeth Flower and Murray Murphy locate three principal epistemological traditions in early-American thought: pragmatism (a la Benjamin Franklin), common-sense realism (a la John Witherspoon), and idealism. See volume one of their History of Philosophy in America (1977). Bruce Kuklick likewise argues that idealism and pragmatism are the principal and most sustained contributions to philosophy begun in early-American society and developed through the 19th and 20th centuries. See his Churchman and Philosophers (1985).

2 Flower and Murphy contend that the American Puritan faith in the accuracy of ectypal knowledge in part stemmed from Ramistic confidence in the representational powers of language (1:41).

3 Johnson’s rejection of the topical system of invention and his flirtation with empirical method is best encapsulated in this quote from his logic manuscript: “[T]his exercise […] consists in a diligent and attentive survey of the subject or matter of examination and consideration of the various respects and relations it bears to other things, and this the mind generally does without having recourse to several topics of invention” (Johnson 2:233-4).

4 Arnauld and Nicole argued that while the senses may deceive people, rational demonstration is a sure test of truth and useful even when checking empirically derived assertions (228).

5 Peter Walmsley offers the most thorough description of this dually representational and rhetorical perception of language. Walmsley argues that Berkeley entertained both rhetorical and empirical philosophies of language, and that these dueling philosophies create an interesting tension in works that employ elaborate rhetorical tropes such as metaphor, elenchus dialogue, irony, and analogy while simultaneously worrying over the distorting effects of such efforts. See The Rhetoric of Berkeley’s Philosophy, particularly chapter one.

6 Locke opposed interventionist economic policies like raising the value of specie or setting the interest rate below the market rate. By flirting with mysticism, Berkeley’s idealism constructed an attitude that encouraged deference to divine authority, and, by privileging agent, Berkeley’s idealism encouraged human intervention in economic affairs. Locke’s empiricism constructed an attitude that was skeptical of these policies and that favored “scene,” scientific principles observable in human nature and guiding economic action if left alone. Locke’s emphasis on scene has made him a favorite among economists today who praise his willingness to strip people of their agency and to thereby unshackle the free market from “human meddling.” See Karen Iverson Vaughn’s John Locke: Economist and Social Scientist, especially chapters five and six.

7 Johnson particularly asserted the superiority of forensic disputation at the end of his 1720 logic (2:242-3). He even gave direction for pursuing such disputation properly.


Special thanks are due to Gregory Clark, the RSQ reviewers, and the University of Texas Burke reading group (including Janice Fernheimer, Douglas Eskew, Rodney Herring, Patricia Roberts-Miller, and Shawn Fanning) for their advice at various stages in this article’s composition.


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Mark Garrett Longaker

Division of Rhetoric and Writing, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, Texas, USA

Address correspondence to Mark Longaker, Division of Rhetoric and Writing, Parlin 3, Mail code B5500, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX 78717, USA. E-mail:

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