Simon Schama: Out, Damned Tweet!Roundup: Historians' Take
Simon Schama is Columbia University professor and Newsweek columnist.
America was built by work, but it was created by words. A declaration, heady with classical eloquence, pitch perfect in the gravity of its steady polemical meter, brought the republic into the world. Knowing that one rebels in poetry but governs in prose, the Constitution gave the nation its institutions in more austerely workmanlike English. Where its language is sharp and clear, arguments are contained; where ambiguous and elastic, contention is invited, never more so than now. Along the way to the present, rhetoric of great passion and moral intelligence—that of Daniel Webster, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, William Jennings Bryan, and Franklin Roosevelt—reminded Americans of the highest purposes of the Union and of the terrible penalties of falling short. The greatest of their speeches—Gettysburg, “Cross of Gold,” “Four Freedoms”—endure through the generations when no one can remember a word of what British prime ministers other than Winston Churchill (who was, as he reminded Congress, half-American) had to say about anything.
America was once a nation of high-school and college rhetoricians schooled by oratory manuals like the one written by the Scottish clergyman Hugh Blair, a Cicero for modern times. Lawyers and clergymen aspired to be Hancocks and Clays. To be American was to sound off stylishly. Jefferson’s 1777 draft for the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom could be read as much for the blazing force of its diction as for the nobility of its principles. Mark Twain could growl tigerishly at the follies of American imperial overreach, but even those, like Teddy Roosevelt, who hated what he said were provoked by the cunning of his voice.
And now, as the gears of election time begin to crank and grind, and the tinny operetta of soundbites tunes up, where is this once mighty republic of words? In the pit of the tweet, that’s where...
comments powered by Disqus
- Rubio Surges Into Second In New Hampshire
- Branstad Says Cruz Ran ‘Unethical’ Campaign
- Christie Highlights Santorum’s Endorsement of Rubio
- Portman Comes Out Against Trade Deal
- Megyn Kelly Gets a Book Deal
- A Big List of the Bad Things Clinton Has Done
- An Unambiguous Sign Sanders Won Last Night’s Debate
- Still Friends at the End
- Quote of the Day
- Trump Still Leads as Clinton Slips
- Clinton Can’t Shake Image as Wall Street’s Friend
- Maddow Doesn’t See Sanders Winning
- Why Does the Media Still Shield Chelsea Clinton?
- Bush Jokes His Mother May Have Abused Him
- Rubio Closes the Gap in New Hampshire
- Tourism spot for Colonial Williamsburg shocks some New Yorkers during Super Bowl 50 for use of 9/11 attack footage
- We asked 6 political scientists if Bernie Sanders would have a shot in a general election
- The price of oil has plummeted and with it Russia’s finances
- Legal scholars at Harvard debate Cruz’s eligibility to serve as president
- Has one of Sally Hemings’s siblings been neglected by history unfairly?
- Retired historian George Dennison remains on the payroll at the U. of Montana while faculty are cut
- The Atlantic profiles exciting ways to teach history
- LDS Church has gone from 0 to 4 historians specializing in women’s history
- American Historical Association protests Turkey’s crackdown on historians and other academics who signed a a petition critical of the Turkish government
- Israeli historian Yair Auron lays out details of a massacre in 1948