LINGUIST List 26.3195

Tue Jul 07 2015

Review: Discourse; Socioling: Zarefsky (2014)

Editor for this issue: Sara Couture <>

Date: 09-Mar-2015
From: Martine van Driel <>
Subject: Political Argumentation in the United States
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: David Zarefsky
TITLE: Political Argumentation in the United States
SUBTITLE: Historical and contemporary studies. Selected essays by David Zarefsky
SERIES TITLE: Argumentation in Context 7
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2014

REVIEWER: Martine van Driel, University of Birmingham

Review's Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry



The book is a collection of essays by David Zarefsky, all focused on political rhetoric in the United States. It is part of a larger series entitled ‘Argumentation in Context’. The book is divided into four parts: (1) Early American political argumentation, (2) Abraham Lincoln’s political argumentation, (3) Argumentation and American foreign policy, and (4) American political argumentation since the 1960s. As can be deduced from the titles, the essays are organised by theme. Each essay is unchanged from its original publication, apart from a few subtitles and the inclusion of footnotes. Two essays are published in this book for the first time.

Part I ‘Early American political argumentation’

Chapter 1, ‘From “conflict” to “Constitutional question”’, discusses what could be considered the beginning of American rhetoric: the Constitution. Through three distinct case studies, Zarefsky argues that the Constitution “plays an inherently paradoxical role” (p 12). Where on one side, it is a grounding, almost ‘sacred’ document to the United States, on the other side it contains language that in itself is ambiguous and invites public discussion. After providing background on the development of the text, Zarefsky uses three political issues “the treatment of subversives, the tariff, and slavery” to illustrate the inherent ambiguity of the language of the Constitution.

Chapter 2, ‘John Tyler and the rhetoric of the accidental presidency’, is devoted to filling the lack of scholarly attention (Walker 2001, Monroe 2003, Crapol 2006) paid to the tenth president, John Tyler. Zarefsky focuses on Tyler’s presidential accomplishments while faced with a lack of support from his party as well as a lack of legitimacy. Tyler was vice-president to Harrison, who died after one month in office. Since at the time there was no precedent for this, Tyler had to assert himself more as president to make up for the lack of legitimacy he faced. Zarefsky notes several of Tyler’s accomplishments (such as his diplomatic efforts with Britain) to show how Tyler’s rhetoric helped him assert his office. Most notable was the annexation of Texas which Tyler brought about. As Zarefsky argues, Tyler should have received more recognition for his “rhetorical leadership” (p 48).

Chapter 3, ‘Debating slavery by proxy’, continues the history started in Chapter 2 on the annexation of Texas. Zarefsky illustrates throughout the chapter how the issue of slavery was used by both proponents and opponents of the annexation. Using two debates: ‘the annexation treaty debates, Spring 1844’ (p 52) and ‘the joint resolution debate, Winter 1844-45’, he shows a change in public opinion. Previously annexation and slavery had been considered two separate issues, but by the end of the winter debate they were slowly becoming intertwined. This reading, Zarefsky argues, could support historian Joel Silbey’s (2005) suggestion that these debates marked the beginning of “the path to civil war” (p 61).

Chapter 4, ‘Henry Clay and the election of 1844’ focuses solely on the rhetoric of Henry Clay, Whig-party leader for almost two decades, and is again concerned with the Texas annexation. After providing context to Clay’s leadership, Zarefsky uses the Raleigh letter, written by Clay to editors of the “Daily National Intelligencer”, and the Alabama letters, written by Clay to correspondents in Alabama, to argue that Clay’s compromising rhetoric limited him in his quest for presidency. In the Raleigh letter, Clay attempts to take the middle ground on the annexation of Texas. This position did not have the desired effect, as Southerners claimed that it “put Clay in bed with the abolitionists” (p 72). The Alabama letters then furnished a way for Clay to correct these misconceptions, but this time he alienated his Northern voters. Zarefsky’s sums up his argument well in his conclusion stating: “he should have written fewer letters!” (p 79).

Part II ‘Abraham Lincoln’s political argumentation’

Chapter 5, ‘Consistency and change in Lincoln’s rhetoric about equality’, analyses the seeming inconsistencies in Lincoln’s rhetoric on racial equality. As in previous chapters, Zarefsky provides the context as well as Lincoln’s earlier statement on the issues before using the Springfield speech (1857), the Lincoln-Douglas debates and the presidential campaign and election to analyse Lincoln’s rhetoric. This chapter moves more methodically through the speeches than previous chapters, which allows for a clearer focus on the rhetoric, as opposed to the political circumstances. Zarefsky is able to demonstrate that Lincoln did not contradict himself in his rhetoric on equality, but instead defined equality broadly enough to agree with some characteristics of the term and disagree with others. “He favoured economic equality, but not social and political equality, between the races” (p 106).

Chapter 6, ‘“Public sentiment is everything”’, focuses on Lincoln’s use of the idea that ‘public sentiment is everything’ to support himself in the race for the Illinois senate seat against Douglas, the incumbent. The race, as described in this chapter, focused on the issue of slavery, where Douglas took a “don’t care” position, whereas Lincoln supported the eventual abolition of slavery. Zarefsky uses a variety of quotes from Lincoln to demonstrate how he used the public sentiment statement both to magnify errors made by Douglas, as well as defending his own position, that eradicating slavery at that moment was impossible, but to turn the public sentiment against slavery would fulfill the same goal.

Chapter 7, ‘Lincoln and the House Divided’, is concerned with Lincoln’s House Divided speech and has three main aims: “(1) to explicate the characteristics of the political context that influenced the speech, (2) to identify in what ways the speech was a response to that context, and (3) to speculate about the relationship between the House Divided Speech and Lincoln’s subsequent political career” (p 126). By analysing excerpts of the speech and at the same time incorporating the context of the speech, Zarefsky is able to answer the question posed in the introduction. Perhaps most interestingly, he shows how the speech worked against Lincoln at the time, as the conspiracy argument in the speech was not convincing to all, while at the same time, in garnering national attention, the speech provided Lincoln with a speaking platform which helped him to launch his political career.

Chapter 8, ‘The Lincoln-Douglas debates revisited’, uses the debates between Lincoln and Douglas on Lincoln’s road to the presidency to demonstrate the development of public argument. Again rooting the analysis in its political context, Zarefsky analyses “four patterns of argument (…): conspiratorial, legal, historical, and moral” (p 160). In each section, he provides examples from each candidate to explain how public argument began (before these debates, candidates sent letters to state their positions). He shows how public argument is more than “linear moves” (p 182) but instead a complex net of statements and responses, which seem best expressed through “a good story” (p 182; MacIntyre, 1984; Fisher 1984, 1985).

Chapter 9, ‘Philosophy and rhetoric in Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address’, analyses the rhetoric in the “largely passed over” First Inaugural address (p 186). Following the structure of previous chapters, Zarefsky provides historical and political context before moving to a close rhetorical analysis of the text. Lincoln uses this Address to establish his own position on the crisis of secession of Southern states. Zarefsky shows how Lincoln, with editing help from fellow Republicans, avoids positioning himself as the aggressor. This helps him gain the support of the Northerners as Lincoln states that he will not attack the South in any way unless they do harm first. As Zarefsky shows, once the Civil War begins, the Northern States support Lincoln fully (p 204).

Part III Argumentation and American foreign policy

Chapter 10, ‘The self-sealing rhetoric of John Foster Dulles’, was written together with Frank E. Tutzauer and Carol Miller-Tutzauer. John Foster Dulles was Secretary of State in the cabinet of president Eisenhower, who had stated that America would “welcome every honest act of peace” (Eisenhower, 1960a) from Russia (p 209). The chapter’s thesis is that Dulles then used a self-sealing rhetoric, which cannot be disputed as it is self-evidently true, to prevent Russia from ever being able to ‘honestly act in peace’. By using attribution theory and three case studies, Zarefsky, Tutzauer and Miller-Tutzauer show how Dulles self-sealing rhetoric eventually limited the public policy options of the United States.

Chapter 11, ‘Foreign policy as persuasion’, focuses on president Johnson’s rhetoric during the Vietnam War. Zarefsky’s thesis is that the Vietnam war “was in large measure an exercise in rhetoric, and the goal was to persuade an audience rather than to score a military victory” (p 222). Using the theory of ‘limited war’ (Osgood 1957; Schelling 1960) focused the warfare on bargaining through “sending signals of our intentions” (p 222). Zarefsky shows there were two messages. The primary message was that any way for liberation is doomed to fail. The secondary message was that “America keeps her word” (p 224). Johnson used bombings not only as military action but at the same time as a symbol of America’s power and their willingness to use that power, making the bombings a rhetorical tool for Johnson’s ‘limited war’. Zarefksy concludes that this strategy clearly failed; yet is interesting to consider as Johnson was convinced of the power of persuasion. Nowadays it rarely happens that governments assume their actions display this symbolic power.

Chapter 12, ‘George W. Bush discovers rhetoric’, focuses on a speech given by George W. Bush to a joint session of Congress on 20 September 2001, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Immediately after the attacks, Bush’s speeches had not employed very effective rhetoric, and his early remarks had “failed to inspire confidence” (p 236). His first big rhetorical move was his war metaphor, comparing the fight against terrorism to a global war where countries would have to choose sides. Zarefsky discusses this metaphor thoroughly before moving to the 20 September speech, where the metaphor continued. After analysing the speech in detail, Zarefsky discusses some of the unintended consequences the speech had, like the war metaphor leading to a limitation in civil liberties. He finishes with a discussion on the ethos of Bush’s rhetoric and how it ties in to rhetoric as a field.

Chapter 13, ‘Making the case for war’, concentrates on George W. Bush’s Secretary of State, Colin Powell and his speech to the United Nations in March 2003. After explaining the context of the speech, including previous speeches made on the topic as well as resolutions that were adopted by the United Nations, Zarefsky first analyses the structure of Powell’s speech. He points out interesting placements of arguments (two of the main grounds for war are only discussed in the last minutes of the speech) and moves on to further analyse Powell’s reasoning. This chapter is especially interesting as we are now aware that the evidence provided during the speech was unreliable. As Zarefsky concludes, this evidence was what Powell’s rhetoric relied on.

Chapter 14, ‘The U.S. and the world’, is the first chapter on president Obama’s rhetoric, and focuses specifically on his use of rhetoric in foreign policy. As he came into office, America’s exceptionalism was still alive domestically but had to change for the global audience. Zarefsky uses his analysis to explore how Obama managed to negotiate this difference in a series of speeches made in 2008 and 2009. His argument has four parts: (1) the background of American exceptionalism, (2) the context of the analysed speeches, (3) analysis of the speeches, and (4) discussion of other options Obama could have used. By linking together the rhetoric of speeches made across the globe, Zarefsky shows how Obama attempted to mitigate America’s exceptionalism abroad; yet this mitigation was not enough to bring together the domestic and the international audience.

Part IV American political argumentation since the 1960s

Chapter 15, ‘The Great Society as a rhetorical proposition’, takes a step back in time from Chapter 15, to Johnson’s presidency and his Great Society programs. The Great Society consisted of a wide variety of different programs, all of which Zarefsky says can be joined together by a common core. This chapter sets out to explain and analyse how Johnson’s rhetoric helped identify that core, while at the same time trying to solve the rhetorical problem of “argument selection” (p 309). Zarefsky explains the rhetoric Johnson used to sell the Great Society. Some of the key problems that Johnson faced were the lack of public support, the lack of Congressional support and lack of enthusiasm due to previously failed measures. Zarefsky then moves on to discuss three rhetorical strategies Johnson employed to address these problems: (1) focusing on conservative themes, (2) using a moral imperative, stating that his programs were the ‘right thing to do’, and (3) making a distinction between his program and previous, failed, programs. Johnson’s rhetoric here could be used as an example of modern ‘rhetorical practitioners’, who focus not on the limits of policies, but on the possibilities.

Chapter 16, ‘Lyndon Johnson redefines “equal opportunity”’, focuses on Johnson’s Howard University address delivered in 1965. In this speech, Johnson uses disassociation to separate ‘equality’ into parts, indicating which parts were being implemented and which were not. This rhetoric redefined equal opportunity, replacing the meaning of “the government not doing anything to oppose any group”, with “the government actively supporting protected groups”. Zarefsky moves on to discuss other examples of dissociation in Johnson’s rhetoric and finishes with discussing its impact: a hostile response. Zarefsky argues that studying dissociation is needed even today in analysing public rhetoric, and Johnson’s speech can be an example of that.

Chapter 17, ‘Civil rights and civil conflict’, concentrates on the summers between 1964 and 1967, when race riots broke out during Johnson’s presidency. This chapter analyses how Johnson balanced his rhetoric between condemning the riots and at the same time sympathising with the cause. Zarefsky identifies four values that Johnson displays in his public rhetoric: (1) an appeal for order, (2) an appeal for balance, (3) “riot prevention and control lay primarily with local government” (p 340), and (4) the need for better information about the cause of the riots. Using a variety of speeches given by Johnson during the three years, Zarefsky shows how Johnson balances these four values, but how he ultimately fails in his appeal to stop the riots. As each value had to balanced, none in the end were persuasive enough.

Chapter 18, ‘Martin Luther King, the American Dream, and Vietnam’, was written together with George N. Dionisopoulos, Victoria J. Gallagher, and Steven R. Goldzwig. This chapter sets out to investigate if and how rhetorical trajectories can influence moral vision, and how moral discourse might be constrained or limited “in the context of a social movement” (p 349). The authors start with a focus on the theoretical side of the argument, and analyse the term ‘rhetorical trajectory’. After identifying three characteristics of the term, they move on to apply them to King’s “A Time to Break Silence” speech from 1967. As always, they give the context and then analyse the speech in detail. They focus on how King’s different rhetorical trajectories (mainly his opposition to the Vietnam war and his role as a civil rights leader), showing how these visions can converge, but more often will collide, leading to rhetorical fragmentation.

Chapter 19, ‘Reagan’s safety net for the truly needy’, was written together with Carol Miller-Tutzauer and Frank E. Tutzauer. Like Chapter 16, this chapter focuses on dissociation and how Reagan used it to redefine the ‘needy’. The authors discuss both the use of ‘truly needy’ and then move to “the redefinitions of the phrases “social safety net” and “truly needy” during 1981” (p 366). Working from the initial dissociation of the ‘needy’, the authors use four separate public communications (one report, one act, and two speeches) to show how Reagan further redefined the phrases. They conclude that Reagan’s success in the dissociation relied on four factors: (1) the redefinition happened gradually, (2) the lack of clear definition of the programmes in the Net meant everyone could relate, (3) the adaption of the phrase ‘truly needy’ helped his audiences understand and support the measures, and (4) he did not discuss any exact cuts to be made.

Chapter 20, ‘Obama’s Lincoln’, focuses on the comparison between Obama and Lincoln as used by Obama himself as basis for his arguments. Zarefsky discusses some non-rhetorical similarities between Obama and Lincoln (“both took office in the midst of serious national crises” (p 376)) before he moves to discuss how historical analogies are generally used. He offers four uses: (1) direct comparison, (2) “as templates for thinking about the present” (p 377), (3) “to suggest teleology” (p 377), and (4) “to set up an ‘a fortiori’ argument” (p 378). This last use is the use that Zarefsky discusses in detail.


Zarefsky’s writing style and essay structure is consistent throughout the book, making it easy to follow each chapter. His style makes the book fun to read and provides insight into his personal opinions as well as providing clear evidence for arguments throughout. The book is part of the series ‘Argumentation in Context’, treating how argumentation and rhetoric was and is used in the United States, a country that is well known for its rhetorical history.

Structuring the book around four themes rather than using a chronological division allows chapters to build on and complete each other. For example in the second part, each chapter gives a bit more information about the Lincoln-Douglas rivalry, which deepens the analysis of the rhetoric used by both speakers. At times, however, it can be confusing. For example in chapter seven, the creation of the Republican party is discussed, whereas the party has already been mentioned in previous chapters. If the book is read as a whole, it is important to keep in mind that it is not chronologically ordered.

Though it is interesting to read the original form of each essay, with their references to their context, some chapters could have benefited from slight editing. Chapter 2, ‘John Tyler and the rhetoric of the accidental presidency’ and Chapter 3, ‘Debating slavery by proxy: the Texas annexation controversy’ overlap in context and in some of the texts analysed. Because of their placement, Chapter 3 did not need a full explanation of its context. However, this book will most likely be read as individual chapters, not as a whole; thus it is important that Chapter 3 does have its own context ready for readers only reading this chapter.

Lastly, the book is written from an American perspective (there are multiple uses of ‘we’ referring to the American public) and requires its audience to have at least a basic understanding of American politics. For example the fact that the Republican party when it was first founded had more in common with what is known today as the Democratic party, is something that is important to know when reading analyses of the party’s rhetoric. This is, however, not explained in the book. If the audience were American only, explanation is unnecessary, but when targeting a more international audience, as well as scholars of rhetoric rather than politics, explanation could have aided the analyses.

Overall though, this book is a great collection of Zarefsky’s work on American political argumentation. It gives detailed analyses of several overlooked texts and figures throughout American history, especially President Tyler and President Johnson.


Crapol, E.P. 2006. John Tyler: The accidental president. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

Eisenhower, D.D. 1960. The chance for peace. Public papers of the Presidents: Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1953. (p 184). Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Fisher, W.R. 1984. Narration as a human communication paradigm: The case of public moral argument. Communication monographs, 51: 1-22.

Fisher, W.R. 1985. The narrative paradigm: An elaboration. Communication monographs, 52: 347-367.

MacIntyre, A. 1984. After virtue: A study in moral theory. 2nd ed. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

Monroe, D. 2003. The republican vision of John Tyler. College Station: Texas A and M University Press.

Osgood, R. 1957. Limited War. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Schelling, T. 1960. The strategy of conflict. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Silbey, J. 2005. Storm over Texas: The annexation controversy and the road to Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press.

Walker, J.C. 2001. John Tyler: A president of many firsts. Blacksburg, VA: McDonald and Woodward.


Martine van Driel is a PhD student at the University of Birmingham, where she studies news media and social media. Her research interests also include political discourse as well as gender and identity.

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