When we imagine the early decades of the United States, we often assume that the nation emerged from the aftermath of the Revolution fully formed, like an adult Athena springing out of the skull of Zeus. We imagine a country knitted together by its triumph over Great Britain’s seemingly indomitable military.
But the nation’s origins were far messier and more fractious than that.
In fact, the new United States shared similarities with the nation today: a country starkly divided, with Americans disagreeing about politics, religion, culture, race and society. Americans in different parts of the country disliked and distrusted those who lived elsewhere; rich and poor viewed each other with distaste. Citizens feared that the federal government might show more favor to one state or region than another.
At the time, those divisions grew so profound that many worried that the United States might not survive. Surely, they believed, a democratic republic could not thrive amid such vicious internal discord.
But it did, of course. And one powerful voice played a key role during this period: a traveling public speaker named James Ogilvie.
Ogilvie was a colorful figure. Dynamic on stage and eccentric in person, he proved a lightning rod for public attention, quickly becoming so famous that newspapers often referred to him simply as Mr. O. His dramatic oratory and outsize persona gave the public a shared topic of conversation, leading many to debate his talents and his central message that the United States required vibrant oratory to tie the nation together. His astounding eloquence and dynamic stage presence inspired feelings of national pride and hopeful visions of the future.
To be sure, not all were entranced by his charisma. To some, his ability to move his audiences with the spoken word appeared dangerous. Yet even when Americans failed to agree about whether he was talented or admirable, women and men came together to talk about this early celebrity.
The fact that he was a public speaker, rather than an actor, scientist or artist, is crucial to understanding Ogilvie’s appeal. The public’s appreciation for his magical, explosive performances reveals how important the spoken word was to the new United States and how profoundly this form of communication altered Americans’ self-perceptions, particularly during an era of such internal strife.
During this era, oratory was not merely a form of communication: Americans invested public speech with great meaning for their nation. They knew from even rudimentary education that the only other republics in human history had existed in classical Greece and Rome, where oratory had helped democracy thrive. Girls and boys learned in school that powerful speeches by Cicero and Demosthenes, among others, had galvanized their listeners, articulating the challenges and opportunities of their societies. Studying those classical speeches and classical ideas about the spoken word remained fundamental aspects of school lessons throughout the 19th century.
Ogilvie had firsthand experience learning and teaching those lessons. He had immigrated to the United States from Scotland at the age of 20 and taught school for 15 years in Virginia — first in Fredericksburg and later in schools he opened in Richmond and just outside Charlottesville, among other locations — earning a reputation as an exceptional educator. In addition to instructing his students in public speaking, he also demonstrated those skills — first to his students and soon to local audiences. President Thomas Jefferson especially enjoyed Ogilvie’s talents as both educator and speaker: he hired Ogilvie to tutor his grandson and namesake, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, and hosted his talks at Monticello. Ogilvie’s success inspired him to embark on a new career: an orator who advocated for the greater prominence of oratory in America.
His timing was perfect. Americans were well aware that most of their elected leaders lacked public-speaking skills that could overcome national discord. As much as they admired George Washington, they knew he was no Cicero. In 1789, when he read a prepared speech for his inauguration from notes, many in the audience bemoaned his clumsy attempts to gesture while awkwardly shifting the pages from hand to hand. Jefferson was no better, delivering his State of the Union address in such a low voice that few could hear it. James Madison mumbled his words. The problem, one writer pronounced sternly in 1811, was that these leaders had displayed “indolence with regard to the requisite labour, and inattention to the high value of eloquence.”
The perceived need for skilled oratory in the early American republic grew so pronounced that in his 1796 portrait of Washington, Gilbert Stuart positioned his subject in an oratorical pose, gesturing gracefully and meaningfully with his right hand. It was a posture that often appeared in schoolbooks and manuals designed to teach the art of public speaking.
When one young law clerk viewed Stuart’s Lansdowne Portrait on display at New York City’s Tontine City Tavern, he was so moved by it that he paid to see it twice. “G.W. is represented as giving his last address,” the clerk noted appreciatively in his diary, referring to Washington’s eloquent Farewell Address upon retiring from the presidency.
Ironically, Washington never delivered his Farewell Address orally: perhaps recognizing his limitations as an orator, he had simply handed the text to a Philadelphia newspaper printer.
In contrast, Ogilvie advertised his ambitions as a cultural leader by donning a toga while onstage. Far from raising eyebrows or eliciting mockery, his costume undergirded his message about enhancing democracy through engagement with public speaking. The toga had been the dress of the Roman orators who had championed civic and moral virtue, men who exemplified self-controlled, public-minded manliness.
A wide range of actors during this era likewise wore the toga in classically themed plays, from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar to lesser-known plays like Timon of Athens, Cato and Virginius. One young William & Mary graduate named Samuel Myers appeared in a circa 1810 portrait wearing a toga after having excelled in oratory as a student.
When Ogilvie wore the toga, reviewers compared him to great classical orators. “Whatever we have conceived of the genius of Tully [another name for Cicero] or [the] fierce fire of Demosthenes,” a Connecticut newspaper commented, “we find verified in this modern Orator.” The Albany Register put it even more succinctly, calling him a “modern Cicero.”
Ogilvie’s eloquence as a speaker seemed to answer a public need. He soon began to argue that his performances were most of all designed to increase the quality and prevalence of oratory in the American democracy. But there were other reasons why his talks had terrific appeal (and generated concerns) during the early 19th century and why oratory mattered so much at this stage of American history.
During his career as a traveling public speaker, James Ogilvie visited 17 of the United States’ 19 states, as well as two territories, and parts of Lower Canada, England and Scotland. He visited New York and Philadelphia each five times, but he also spoke in the hamlets of Chillicothe, Ohio; Exeter, New Hampshire; Staunton, Virginia; and Edenton, North Carolina, each with populations smaller than 2,500. Being so well traveled enhanced his reputation. To many, he appeared not just remarkably talented and educated but glamorously cosmopolitan, especially during an era when most Americans had never been more than 100 miles from home.
Still, he refrained from using his fame to advocate for any particular cause. Nor did he expect his attendees to agree after his talks. Each of his lectures addressed a specific civic concern, from the problems of dueling and suicide to whether to educate girls in the same way as boys — issues that provoked deep debate at the time. When he spoke about suicide, for example, he urged his listeners to empathize with those haunted by suicidal thoughts, but he also spoke sympathetically about those who felt that suicide was immoral. In offering a range of perspectives on each subject, and by quoting relevant poetry, philosophy and religious views, he urged his listeners to think broadly, perhaps seeing each topic as more complex than they might have otherwise.
In discussing these subjects in such wide-ranging, learned ways, Ogilvie wanted the women and men who attended his talks to think together about matters important to the nation’s future. Those gatherings were not inclusive since his ticket prices meant that his lectures were accessible only to middling and wealthy people, which seldom included people of color. But he worked hard to ensure that women “of intelligence and taste” made up an equal part of his audiences, for, as he explained, they granted “dignity” to the evening’s event. To encourage women to come, he often spent long afternoons in private parlors conversing with the hostesses and their friends in ways that drew them to his performances.
Within a year of starting his lecture tour, he had become a household name.
“If you hear any particulars respecting him, pray give them to me in detail,” one woman wrote to her sister in January 1809 from New York, “for you must know he has become so great a man here, that the smallest anecdote relating to him, will claim the attention of the most gay and fashionable circles. It is astonishing, what a rage of admiration, has possess’d our highest belles, for this stranger. His company is sought after with the greatest avidity, and every house he visits, is considered as honoured by his presence.”
Such enthusiasm resulted from Ogilvie’s combination of education, entertainment, discussion of civic issues and cosmopolitanism. He originated a form of high culture that would ultimately become far more widespread with the lyceum movement, Chautauqua Institution and even modern-day TED Talks or subscription services like The Great Courses. Buying a ticket to his performances could feel like a commitment to self-improvement, offering an evening guaranteed to be both instructive and glamorous.
His gift for eloquent speech and his popularity among “the most gay and fashionable circles” also generated concerns about his potential for demagoguery. Nor was he the only dynamic orator causing alarm at the turn of the 19th century. Exciting evangelical preachers in Tennessee and Kentucky had begun drawing crowds of thousands to religious camp meetings, a phenomenon that was beginning to emerge across the new nation by the time Ogilvie’s star began to rise.
To be sure, he was never directly compared to those exhorters, nor were his comparatively wealthy devotees likened to the emotional Christians made anxious about their salvation. But for some skeptics, Ogilvie’s oratorical powers potentially posed problems for a democracy. If such figures had the ability to woo so many thousands of Americans, could they also use their dynamic appeal to subvert the nation’s morals or stability? Would political demagogues follow in their wake, leading to an erosion of the republic? When some critics expressed fear that Ogilvie’s prodigious oratorical power might render him capable of talking gullible Americans into anything, they revealed a broader debate about the political legacy of the Revolution and the dangers of democracy.
In a diverse and divided nation, Ogilvie’s performances connected people and urged audiences to envision the states as united. Listeners as far afield as Georgia, Kentucky and New Hampshire experienced the same talks about matters of civic importance, resulting in a shared sense of pride and inclusion in his celebrity. His vision of eloquence tying the nation together would be echoed by such great 19th-century speakers as Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
James Ogilvie was an eccentric, sometimes difficult character who spurred scandal and intense debate. But his talents for public speech and performance were undeniable, and his example illuminates the power of the spoken word during the United States’ messy origins.
About the Author: Carolyn Eastman is a historian of early American history at Virginia Commonwealth University and the author of The Strange Genius of Mr. O: The United States’ First Forgotten Celebrity, published in 2021 by the Omohundro Institute and the University of North Carolina Press.