Monday, February 3, 2014

What Happened To Princeton's Rhetoric Theory?

In reviewing Thomas Miller's edition of John Witherspoon writings Bryan Horner asked the question Why Was Hugh Blair's Rhetoric Theory More Widely Influential than Witherspoon's? To answer this question in a satisfactory way it's necessary to place John Witherspoon's rhetoric theory in the broader context of Princeton's educational aims.

A key trait of the international network that supported Princeton was the aim to democratize knowledge. In the book 'News from the Republic of Letters'  (and her thesis) Esther Mijers writes on this international network. Cotton Mather's praise for Petrus van Mastricht's book Theologica theoretico-practica, Jonathan Belcher's suggestion to name Princeton's main hall 'Nassau Hall', and Samuel Adams' 1774 signing of a Solemn League and covenant are illustrations of this context. Even respected scolars of the work of Jonathan Edwards such as Ridderbos, Gerstner and Lee, have overlooked this international exchange during the 17th and 18th century.

Keep in mind that Reverend William Carstares, the famous advisor of William III, advocated that a Presbyterian polity should replace the Scottish bishops. I also contend that democratization was a major concern for William Carstares when he reformed the University of Edinburgh where John Erskine, John Witherspoon and Francis Hutcheson had studied. Did William Carstares also have a hand in the 1696 Act for Settling Schools (in Scotland)? I could also point to John Erskine's effort to publish and distribute affordable literature. Or to Samuel Davies' literacy campaign among slaves in Virginia.

I tend to interpret Samuel Finley's emphasis on the study of English and English literature, both at his West Nottingham Academy and as Princeton President, in this same international framework. Apparently Francis Alison had done the same at the College of Philadelphia.  This was part of a trend that had started at the University of Edinburgh where both Hugh Blair and John Witherspoon (John Erskine and Francis Hutcheson) had studied under John Stevenson. Benjamin Rush, who had studied with Samuel Finley at both institutions, writes 'Why then should we spend years in teaching that (Latin) which is so rarely required in future life?'.

Samuel Stanhope Smith, Witherspoon's successor as Princeton President, moved away from this focus on democratization of knowledge. He ignored van Mastricht's book 'the best method of preaching', Jonathan Edwards' approach to preaching, Samuel Davies, George Withfield, Samuel Finley and John Witherspoon's focus. Instead he immitated the rhetoric of Hugh Blair and some French priest. There might be truth in the harsh words of his brother John Blair who once said 'Brother Sam, you don't preach Jesus Christ and him crucified, but Sam Smith and him dignified', but could it also have been caused by a lack of understanding of Princeton's rhetoric as such? He started his education at the (new light) log college of his father, Robert Smith, with a strong emphasis on Latin and Greek. Did Robert Smith ignore the trend towards emphasis on English?

The direction Samuel Stanhope Smith tried to take Princeton in clashed with the democratization project the founders had intended it to be. The inevitable ensuing tension eventually led to him being deposed. Charles Bradford Bow is therefore correct to point out how Samuel Stanhope Smith did not follow in the footsteps of John Witherspoon. This is true also concerning Rhetoric.

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