The Columbian Orator

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
A copy of The Columbian Orator at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee.

The Columbian Orator is a collection of political essays, poems, and dialogues collected and written by Caleb Bingham. Published in 1797, it includes speeches by George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and some imagined speeches by historical figures such as Socrates and Cato.[1] It was popularly used for recitation in American schoolrooms from 1790 to 1820 to teach pupils reading and speaking. Typical of many readers of that period, the anthology celebrated "republican virtues," promoting patriotism and questioning the ethics of slavery. The Columbian Orator is an example of progymnasmata, containing examples for students to copy and imitate.

It is significant for inspiring a generation of American abolitionists, including orator and former slave Frederick Douglass; essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson; and author Harriet Beecher Stowe, best known for her novel Uncle Tom's Cabin.[2]

In his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, self-taught writer and abolitionist Douglass praises the book as his first introduction to human history and eloquence. When he was 12 years old and still enslaved, he bought a copy using 50 cents which he had saved from shining shoes,[1] and he "read [the essays] over and over again with unabated interest ... What [he] got from Sheridan was a bold denunciation of slavery, and a powerful vindication of human rights."[3]

Douglass was particularly inspired by a dialogue between an enslaved person and his master in The Columbian Orator that demonstrated the intelligence of the slave. In this passage, the master presented the slave with justifications of slavery, each of which the slave rebutted, until the master was convinced that the bondage was in fact unethical. The passage ended with the slave winning the argument and, therefore, his freedom. It can be assumed that the book's guidelines of oratory also contributed to Douglass's success as a public speaker; William Lloyd Garrison praised Douglass in the introduction of his autobiography, claiming, "Patrick Henry, of revolutionary fame, never made a speech more eloquent in the cause of liberty."[3][1]

The Columbian Orator became symbolic not only of human rights but also of the power of eloquence and articulation.


  • Full title: The Columbian Orator: Containing a Variety of Original and Selected Pieces Together With Rules, Which Are Calculated to Improve Youth and Others, in the Ornamental and Useful Art of Eloquence.
  • Caleb Bingham (Editor), 1797.
  • David W. Blight (Editor), Bicentennial edition 1998, (ISBN 0-8147-1323-8).
  • Selected speakers include: Joseph Perkins,[4] George Washington, Paulus Emilius, Hugh Blair, Philo, Thomas Muir, James Hervey, Benjamin Franklin, Jonathan Mason, and Cato the Younger.


"I well remember, when I was a boy, how ardently I longed for the opportunity of reading, but had no access to a library", Caleb Bingham, 1803.

"Every opportunity I got, I used to read this book", Frederick Douglass, 1845.


  1. ^ a b c "A Frederick Douglass Reading List | Jaime Fuller". Lapham’s Quarterly. Retrieved 2021-03-21.
  2. ^ Granville, Ganter (September 1997). "The Active Virtue of The Columbian Orator". The New England Quarterly. 70 (3): 463–476. doi:10.2307/366763. JSTOR 366763 – via JSTOR.
  3. ^ a b Douglass, Frederick (1845). Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American slave. ISBN 978-0-14-310730-9. OCLC 850209991.
  4. ^ An Oration on Eloquence

External links[edit]