This essay claims that antebellum theatrical star Edwin Forrest registered the era’s investment in oratorical eloquence and anxiety concerning the potentially incendiary nature of free expression in a democracy marked by economic and racial inequality. Forrest’s July 4, 1838, speech in New York’s Broadway Temple has often been cited as evidence of his Jacksonian commitments and, by extension, of the political conservatism of his most famous dramatic roles. Close analysis of the speech and its treatment in the press, however, suggests that Forrest delivered his vision of the peaceable transformation of society in order to recuperate the reputation of the radical Equal Rights Democrats, or “Locofocos,” after the 1837 New York Flour Riot. At the same time, however, Forrest’s performance was “ghosted” by the blood-stained rebels he had portrayed on stage, especially Spartacus of Robert Montgomery Bird’s The Gladiator (1831), and thus it contained an implicit threat of collective violence should working-class speech be curtailed. Moreover, Forrest’s close friendship with abolitionist William Leggett and quotation of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Queen Mab and Revolt of Islam (among other literary works) indicate that Forrest’s oratorical and theatrical performances could not be wholly dissociated from antislavery discourse and working-class radicalism. This critical restaging of Forrest’s 1838 speech concludes with the suggestion that Forrest’s star power arose in part from the availability of his performances to several political causes.
Laura L. Mielke; Edwin Forrest’s July 4th Oration and the Specters of Provocative Eloquence. American Literature 1 March 2014; 86 (1): 1–30. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00029831-2395429
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