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Provocative Words: the Significance of Rhetoric

In: Historical Events

Submitted By ameeraj
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Provocative Words People often take for granted the power that words can yield. Many people believe that we simply use words to communicate and to express thoughts and ideas. Is this an accurate estimation, or do words hold a greater significance? How often do we reflect on the gravity that our words carry? How often are we influenced by the words of others? How often do we make decisions based on what other people say? The use of words can indeed have a tremendous impact on our beliefs, attitudes, and worldviews. This has certainly been the case throughout history. In the United States, a few texts have been particularly effective in dramatically reshaping public opinion. Among these are Common Sense by Thomas Paine and Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Texts like these drastically changed the hearts and minds of many Americans, demonstrating the incredible impact that words can have on a group of people. Although Paine was born to a poor family, and although he received limited schooling, in 1776 he abruptly rose from obscurity to become one of the crucial figures of the American Revolution. After immigrating to America in 1774, Paine settled in Philadelphia, where he began a career as a journalist. Soon, America was engaged in a revolution with Great Britain. Although there was significant anti-British sentiment in America at the time, there was hesitation among colonists as to whether they should go to war with Great Britain. Although Paine was relatively unknown, his enormously influential Common Sense ignited the colonies, helping jumpstart the American Revolution. Paine’s purpose in writing Common Sense was to motivate the uncommitted colonists into fighting the war against Great Britain. He achieved this purpose in a number of ways. In what may have been his most effective argument, Paine used religious views and Biblical references to support his case of overthrowing British rule. Among his arguments was that monarchical rule was inherently evil. “Government by kings,” Paine said, “was first introduced into the world by the Heathens…It was the most prosperous invention the Devil ever set on foot for the promotion of idolatry” (Paine 12). Paine went on to say that
As the exalting one man so greatly above the rest cannot be justified on the equal rights of nature, so neither can it be defended on the authority of scripture; for the will of the Almighty, as declared by Gideon and the prophet Samuel, expressly disapproves of government by kings.
This was an especially forceful point because it persuaded colonists that overthrowing the king was a righteous act, that they would indeed be fulfilling “the will of the Almighty” by doing so. Providing Biblical support for his argument was significant given the overall religious attitude of the American colonists. Many of the colonists or their ancestors were Christians who had come to America because of a desire to practice their religion freely, so it can be said that religion played a dominant role in many of the colonists’ lives at the time.
Paine also argued that being subject to British rule could pull the colonists into European wars and foreign commitments: any submission to, or dependence on Great-Britain, tends directly to involve this continent in European wars and quarrels; and sets us at variance with nations, who would otherwise seek our friendship, and against whom, we have neither anger nor complaint.
At the time, Europe had been known as a place of frequent and deadly wars. Conflicts between Great Britain, France, Spain, and Austria among others were not unusual. The colonists knew this, and Paine used it powerfully in his argument, instilling elements of fear and anger in the hearts and minds of colonists.
In addition, Paine argued that America could support itself and have a strong navy of its own: “No country on the globe is so happily situated, or so internally capable of raising a fleet as America. Tar, timber, iron, and cordage are her natural produce. We need go abroad for nothing” (Paine 43). Paine went on to say, “Ship-building is America’s greatest pride, and in which she will in time excel the whole world…no power in Europe hath either such an extent of coast, or such an internal supply of materials” (Paine 43). This was also significant because Great Britain was well-known for having one of the strongest navies in the world. This argument helped persuade Americans that they could put up a fight against the British, despite their perceived military prowess.
Despite Paine’s humble beginnings, his words inflamed the colonies. He appealed to the colonists’ emotion and logic, convincing them to stand up and fight for their freedom. He did as much as any writer could to encourage resistance and to inspire faith in the Continental Army. Given Great Britain’s military and naval strength, this was quite an accomplishment. Paine’s Common Sense changed the worldviews of colonists and helped stimulate the American Revolution, ultimately changing the world.
Another American text that had a significant impact on people’s worldviews was Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Published in 1851, the novel changed forever how Americans viewed slavery. It demanded that the United States deliver on the promise of freedom and equality, galvanized the abolition movement and contributed to the outbreak of the Civil War. Uncle Tom's Cabin was a runaway best-seller, selling 10,000 copies in the United States in its first week; 300,000 in the first year; and in Great Britain, 1.5 million copies in one year. Indeed, the novel had enormous success in changing the core beliefs Americans had towards blacks and slaves.
Stowe clearly stated her purpose of writing the novel in the preface:
The object of these sketches is to awaken sympathy and feeling for the African race, as they exist among us; to show their wrongs and sorrows, under a system so necessarily cruel and unjust as to defeat and do away the good effects of all that can be attempted for them, by their best friends, under it.
Stowe attempted to achieve this purpose almost immediately in the first chapter, when Mr. Shelby (a slave owner) described Tom (his slave) as “steady, honest, capable” as well as a “good, steady, sensible, pious fellow” (Stowe 4). Tom is also described as reliable, and Mr. Shelby says that he’s trusted him with his money, house, and horses since “he got religion at a camp-meeting” four years earlier (Stowe 4). Almost certainly these characteristics were seen as commendable to the mid-19th century Christian reader, and it helped persuade people that blacks can indeed be decent people.
A key strategy Stowe used in Uncle Tom’s Cabin was pathos, or argument by emotion. This was the case when Eliza (a slave) became distraught at the thought of her master selling her little son Harry: “Still she thought she heard the trader make an offer for her boy; - could she be mistaken? Her heart swelled and throbbed, and she involuntarily strained him so tight that the little fellow looked up into her face in astonishment” (Stowe 10). Stowe made the audience have sympathy for Eliza, making her appear as a warm, loving mother, devastated at the thought of being separated from her son. Afterwards, when Eliza found out that her master was indeed planning to sell Harry, she makes a dramatic escape:
Her husband’s suffering and dangers, and the danger of her child, all blended in her mind, with a confused and stunning sense of the risk she was running, in leaving the only home she had ever known, and cutting loose from the protection of a friend whom she loved and revered. Then there was the parting from every familiar object, - the place where she had grown up, the trees under which she had played, the groves where she had walked many an evening in happier days, by the side of her young husband, - everything…seemed to speak reproachfully to her, and ask her whither could she go from a home like that?
In this passage Stowe depicted the struggle that the runaway slave Eliza is going through. Stowe made it clear that Eliza was sacrificing a lot by escaping, but then Stowe described why she is doing so:
But stronger than all was maternal love, wrought into a paroxysm of frenzy by the near approach of a fearful danger. Her boy was old enough to have walked by her side, and, in an indifferent case, she would only have led him by the hand; but now the bare thought of putting him out of her arms made her shudder, and she strained him to her bosom with a convulsive grasp, as she went rapidly forward.
Despite all the hardship that Eliza is going through, the love she had for her son was stronger. Her son’s endangerment in that situation brought out a heightened sense of love and care for him, as she “shuddered” at the thought of releasing him from her grasp. Stowe uses this description to characterize Eliza in a truly positive way. The audience sees her now as a mother who has a remarkable love for her son, not just as a slave. She’s willing to give up the comfortable life she’s always lived and put herself through a dire situation to protect her son. Later, Eliza’s encounter with the Bird family is another significant passage. Mr. Bird, a Congressman, had gotten home from work and was arguing with his wife, Mrs. Bird, about a law he supported in which people were forbidden from helping runaway slaves. The argument angered a normally mild Mrs. Bird; however, she was unable to change her husband’s mind. Yet when Eliza arrives at their home, and Mr. Bird sees Eliza “with garments torn and frozen, with one shoe gone, and the stocking torn away from the cut and bleeding foot” (Stowe 69) his attitude changes. His heart softens and he has sympathy for the slave and her child. “There was the impress of the despised race on her face, yet none could help feeling its mournful and pathetic beauty, while its stony sharpness, its cold, fixed, deathly aspect, struck a solemn chill over him” (Stowe 70). This was significant because it showed that even a well-off, influential person can have sympathy for a slave in need, even to the point of breaking the law! Uncle Tom’s Cabin had a tremendous impact on the worldviews of Americans as well as the worldviews of people around the world. People increasingly viewed slavery in American as cruel, unjust, and oppressive. They started seeing blacks as people who deserved a greater deal of freedom, respect, and kindness. This novel is often attributed to helping bring about the American Civil War. Both Common Sense and Uncle Tom’s Cabin showed how the effective use of language can be used to influence the masses. By using logic and by manipulating people’s emotions, people can be persuaded into changing their worldviews and taking action as a result. It can be said that these two texts not only had a major impact on America, but the entire world as well.

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