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04/01/93

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DECLARING INDEPENDENCE: JEFFERSON AND THE ART OF PUBLIC SPEAKING

STANFORD - One of the surviving segments of Thomas Jefferson's rough draft of the Declaration of Independence contains a series of accent marks to help Jefferson read the document aloud, an important clue to the nature of public life in the nation's founding days, a Stanford University researcher says.

Jefferson, who disliked public speaking, may have gotten out of reading the Declaration to the Continental Congress - history does not record - but the fact that the document was marked for public reading is important, says Stanford English Professor Jay Fliegelman.

In his book Declaring Independence: Jefferson, Natural Language and the Culture of Performance, just published by Stanford University Press, Fliegelman focuses on declaration, rather than independence.

"My book is ultimately concerned less with the meaning of the words of the Declaration than with the larger significance of the fact that it was written to be performed," Fliegelman said.

"What interests me is that American independence coincides with a theatricalization and commercialization of private life in America, phenomena reflected in the very marks on the manuscript of the Declaration."

A lawyer, Jefferson owned a large number of books on the art of reading aloud and public speaking. In the mid-18th century, American acting manuals and public speaking manuals were indistinguishable from one another, Fliegelman said.

These manuals scripted the speaker's tone of voice, facial expressions and body movements, Fliegelman said.

"The presumption was that what was really true and significant about what was being said did not lie in the words but in the spectacle of the gesturing and expressive body," he said. "It's a kind of corollary to the modern idea of body language."

The expectations for a public speaker were changing in the 1760s and 1770s, Fliegelman said.

"There was much more emphasis on naturalness rather than artfulness, on what I call the spectacle of sincerity -- that is, the immediate credibility of the speaker, not the credibility of the argument."

This issue of the "spectacle of sincerity" is still part of American public life, Fliegelman said. For example, at last summer's Republican National Convention, President Bush brought out his grandson, who read a letter Bush had written to him.

"It's as if they were saying, 'We know you think this public discourse is kind of artificial, so here's the real voice of Bush, talking privately to his grandson.' "

In the mid-18th century, public speaking, once a decorous, rule-governed behavior, was reconceived as the occasion for the public revelation of the private self, Fliegelman said. "Private conversation - direct address to a friend - became the model for public speaking."

Jefferson resisted all this. He was "an ineffective and anxious speaker, a whisperer who on occasion feigned illness to avoid reading his speeches aloud," Fliegelman said.

In addition, Jefferson was uncomfortable "substituting sentimental externalization for stoical self-possession," Fliegelman said. Twenty pages into his autobiography, written when he was 77, Jefferson announces that he is already tired of talking about himself.

Modern readers think Jefferson must be hiding something, Fliegelman said, "but he's not. It's simply that he defines his identity fundamentally as a public figure."

Public opinion had become, by the mid-18th century, the source of political authority, Fliegelman said.

"Public opinion had to be courted and that courtship involved all the anxieties that attach to other courtships," he said. "In Jefferson's view, it involved, to some degree, a prostitution of the self."

Some of Jefferson's contemporaries, such as Patrick Henry, were adept at this "rhetorical courtship." Jefferson both admired Henry and "patronized him enormously," Fliegelman said.

"He saw Henry's ability to interact so efficaciously with the public as consistent with his charge that Henry had never read a book," Fliegelman said. Jefferson viewed oratorical abilities as being in opposition to the talents demanded of a writer.

Accompanying the view that all expression should be self- expression was a new emphasis on the importance of originality, Fliegelman said.

When, in the presidential election of 1800, Jefferson was attacked by his political opponents for having "plagiarized" the Declaration, for having taken it out of Locke and elsewhere, the charge made little sense to him, Fliegelman said.

"For Jefferson, the Declaration's rhetorical indebtedness to past historical formulations was what marked the document's authority, not its derivativeness," Fliegelman said. "Were it a unique product of one mind, it would have little or no value. It would be an instance of what he derisively called 'personality.'

"Jefferson was saying there are certain universal truths about the public good and political rights that are re-articulated over the length of history, from the classical period onward. To him, the point is to recover these truths rather than to invent something new."

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