Unless otherwise indicated, all OI books are distributed by The University of North Carolina Press.

Eloquence Is Power

Oratory & Performance in Early America

Sandra Gustafson

Paper: 978-0-8078-4888-3 ($28.95)

Copyright 2000
University of North Carolina Press

Oratory emerged as the first major form of verbal art in early America because, as John Quincy Adams observed in 1805, "eloquence was POWER." In this book, Sandra Gustafson examines the multiple traditions of sacred, diplomatic, and political speech that flourished in British America and the early republic from colonization through 1800. She demonstrates that, in the American crucible of cultures, contact and conflict among Europeans, native Americans, and Africans gave particular significance and complexity to the uses of the spoken word.

Gustafson develops what she calls the performance semiotic of speech and text as a tool for comprehending the rich traditions of early American oratory. Embodied in the delivery of speeches, she argues, were complex projections of power and authenticity that were rooted in or challenged text-based claims of authority. Examining oratorical performances as varied as treaty negotiations between native and British Americans, the eloquence of evangelical women during the Great Awakening, and the founding fathers' debates over the Constitution, Gustafson explores how orators employed the shifting symbolism of speech and text to imbue their voices with power.

About the Author

Sandra M. Gustafson is associate professor of English at the University of Notre Dame.


Gustafson’s dramatic work convincingly and brilliantly shows how black, white, and Native American figures used the spoken word to challenge social hierarchies built on textual discipline. This is a major book on the dialogue of the semiotics of speech and that of text or print culture. It will be used constantly by scholars in multiple disciplines.

--Jay Fliegelman

Gustafson not only provides a new context for thinking about the verbal performances of prominent patriarchs like Cotton, Edwards, and Adams, but beautifully realizes the subversive potential of oral performance for outsiders like Sarah Edwards and Samson Occom.

--Janice Knight

Sandra Gustafson’s Eloquence Is Power is a remarkable achievement. Her learned, closely observed analyses of oratorical performances... invite scholars to reassess the emphasis we have placed on written texts in early American civic culture.

--Richard D. Brown

An innovative contribution to the history of the book in early America. . . . [An] original and provocative conception of early American literature.

--William and Mary Quarterly

Gustafson's contribution is lively, imaginative, and informed. . . . The novelty of her work lies in her inclusive vision, for she visits not only those whom we might expect . . . but also long silenced voices. . . . Rich and provocative.

--Journal of American History

[Gustafson] provides an intensive examination of the Colonial speech. . . . [and] brings readers to the brink of other scholarly inquiry not yet begun.


In this careful and intelligent work, Gustafson returns oratory to its important political and cultural role in early America .

--American Studies

[This book] makes an innovative contribution to the history of the book in early America.

--William and Mary Quarterly