The Strange Genius of Mr. O

Books & Literature  •  Fellowships  •  History

By Trey Mitchell

Portrait of James Ogilvie posing as Don Quixote.

While researching early American identity, VFH Fellow Carolyn Eastman stumbled on a fascinating character who had a hand in the birth of the 19th-century American oratorical tradition.

In the early 19th century, James Ogilvie left his home outside present-day Charlottesville, Virginia and traveled as far as Georgia, Tennessee, Massachusetts, Kentucky, and Quebec. He was an influential celebrity of his day with an eccentric personality.

Recently Eastman sat down with VFH’s Trey Mitchell to talk about her fellowship and what made Ogilvie such an influential individual.

TM: What is the focus of your fellowship at VFH?

CE: I am writing a book about an oratorical celebrity of the nineteenth century. James Ogilvie was a former schoolteacher who made his name by traveling around the United States, Canada, England, and Scotland giving lectures on important topics of the day. He combined education, entertainment, and ideas in a way that was moving and exciting for people at the time.

TM: What made James Ogilvie so exciting?

CE: He was visually dramatic. When he appeared on stage he wore a toga–which to later commentators seemed ridiculous, but to his audiences at the time exemplified learning and erudition. He also had a lifelong addiction to opium which meant that sometimes he appeared on stage and forgot his lines, requiring him to return another night to repeat the performance. He told everyone that he was heir to an earldom in Scotland, and everyone believed it–including Thomas Jefferson, who was one of his patrons.

People were excited by Ogilvie because he was so dramatically different from every other speaker they had heard. He combined ideas and dramatic performance with literature and politics in a way that seemed riveting to the people who heard him. At that time, the people of the United States were desperate to find a kind of public speaker who exemplified the erudition that they’d heard was central to the republic of Greece and classical democracies of the past.

TM: Why were they so desperate for good oratory?

CE: During the first thirty or forty years after the Revolution, the American republic felt quite fragile. It felt as if the United States was something that might not make it. It felt like a huge, impossibly big country. The only example of a republic they could look to was in the classical world: a kind of politics that united people through webs of persuasion and oriented them to a common purpose. In a lot of ways they looked to the ideal of a great orator as someone who could tie the nation together. Yet the United States’ earliest political leaders were terrible public speakers. So Ogilvie modeled a kind of eloquence they had never seen.

TM: What kind of impact did Ogilvie’s oratory have?

CE: Ogilvie would appear in a city like Baltimore or Philadelphia and stay for a month or two delivering lectures. He would leave and almost immediately advertisements would pop up in the local papers for “schools of eloquence” where people could learn public speaking, or an imitator would pop up saying he would deliver dramatic recitations or eloquent oratory. And this continues over time until you start to see debating societies popping up, lyceums for public speaking, and by the mid-1810s a number of publications appear dedicated to cultivating more of an appreciation for American oratory. What you see in Ogilvie’s wake is an overall emphasis on oratory as an important aspect of the American political and cultural scene such that by the 1830s, oratory became a major medium for communication of ideas and entertainment.

TM: How did you discover Ogilvie?

CE: I was writing a book called A Nation of Speechifiers, which is about how Americans learned to think of themselves as Americans after the Revolution. I was interested in how the media helped to cultivate this new sense of Americanness. Ogilvie was a footnote along the way. But I kept running into mentions of him in diaries and letters. Then I discovered a major archive of material focused on him, and the more research I did, the more I realized how exemplary he is of this new focus on oratory in the nineteenth century.

TM: What have you been able to do while here at VFH?

CE: I am writing like a demon! I’m hoping by the end of this fellowship in December to have as many as five chapters of my book complete and should finish the full draft of the book by the summer. And I have to say, the best thing about this fellowship is that this is a perfect place for me to work. When it comes to writing, this fellowship has been heaven. There are a number of other Fellows working on biographical projects, so being able to talk to them about how to do a project like this has been fruitful and exciting.

Carolyn Eastman

Carolyn EastmanCarolyn Eastman is a writer, historian, and associate professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University.

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