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Brycchan Carey: PhD Thesis Outline

The Rhetoric of Sensibility: Argument, Sentiment and Slavery in the Late-Eighteenth Century

University of London, 2000

My doctoral thesis demonstrates that a distinct sentimental rhetoric can be observed at work in texts relating to the anti-slavery debate in the late eighteenth century, and that this rhetoric transcended form to the extent that sentimental rhetoric could be found in texts ranging from sonnets written as the effusion of the moment by young people to speeches delivered to Parliament by elder statesmen.

This dissertation is comprised of two parts. Part One examines eighteenth-century notions of rhetoric and investigates them as the site of a debate between politics and the sentimental. It locates the rhetoric of sensibility amongst the ‘new rhetorics’ and discusses the workings of this rhetoric.

Chapter One looks at traditional (‘neo-classical’ or ‘Ciceronian’) rhetoric and contrasts this with some of the many varieties of the ‘new rhetoric’. In particular it looks at the philosophers John Locke, David Hume and Adam Smith, as well as Edmund Burke and Hugh Blair, and considers them as practitioners of the ‘new rhetoric’. It suggests that what these writers (Locke excepted) had in common as rhetoricians was a belief in the persuasive power of sympathy and this belief caused them to propound a sentimental notion of rhetoric.

Chapter Two looks at particular rhetorical strategies employed during the sentimental period and identifies the main characteristics of the rhetoric of sensibility. Terms for several proofs and tropes of this rhetoric are introduced and explored in readings of a broad range of late-eighteenth-century writing.

Part Two is comprised of three chapters. It explores the working of the rhetoric of sensibility in the late-eighteenth-century debate over the slave trade.

Chapter Three examines the relationship between slavery and literary sentimentalism, looking at the way in which imaginative writers used sentimental rhetoric to advance the idea of anti-slavery. It considers the extent to which abolitionist poems, plays and novels contributed to the development both of a sentimental rhetoric and a popular discourse of anti-slavery. Novels by Sarah Scott, Henry Mackenzie, and Laurence Sterne, poems by Thomas Day, Hannah More, and William Roscoe, and plays by Thomas Bellamy and August Ferdinand von Kotzebue are amongst those considered.

Chapter Four examines the use of sentiment in non-fictional slavery-related texts. It explores the ways in which the sentimental rhetorical strategies outlined in Chapter Two were adopted by both pro and anti-slavery writers of the 1780s including James Ramsay, Thomas Clarkson, James Tobin, and Gordon Turnbull before looking at the contribution to the debate made by three Afro-British writers: Ignatius Sancho, Quobna Ottobah Cugoano, and Olaudah Equiano. It concludes that writers on both sides of the abolition debate found it necessary to make an appeal to the feelings of their audience, in sentimental terms, in order to attract the support of the readers of sentimental novels and poetry.

Chapter Five looks at the way in which William Wilberforce, the main parliamentary advocate for abolition, used sentimental rhetoric in his parliamentary speeches. This chapter also looks closely at the conditions of publication and readership of parliamentary speeches by examining the way in which newspapers and periodicals were, for the first time, allowed to print parliamentary debates after the 1770s. It notes that for this period definitive versions of parliamentary speeches were not available and it examines sentimental rhetoric and reportage by comparing different versions of the same speeches by Wilberforce. It concludes that sentimental writing in parliamentary reports does not necessarily reflect language actually used by the Member of Parliament, but that a sentimental rhetoric can clearly be discerned in the reports of Wilberforce’s speeches.

A short conclusion examines in general terms the fate of anti-slavery literature after the revolutions in France and Haiti. It argues that the rhetoric of sensibility was central to the anti-slavery debate in the 1780s and early 1790s but after this time anti-slavery writers increasingly turned away from sentimentalism and towards a rhetoric more akin to the Gothic and, later, to one more closely allied with Romanticism. However, the sentimental rhetoric identified in this dissertation never completely disappeared from the anti-slavery debate. Instead it continued to evolve into forms which existed alongside and complemented these emerging genres. It is with this observation that the conclusion points the way for further study.

The thesis is available in the Queen Mary and Westfield College Library, at the University of London Library, and from the British Library Document Supply Centre. It is also available in the normal way through inter-library loan.

My book, British Abolitionism and the Rhetoric of Sensibility: Writing, Sentiment, and Slavery, 1760-1807, which is partially based on my PhD thesis, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2005. Click Here for more information.

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