Court Speech as Political Action: Isocrates' Rhetorical Ideal and the Legal Oratory of Daniel Webster

27 Pages Posted: 6 Feb 2008


American legal oratory can be statecraft: innovative speech which promotes political action, and creates or transforms the principles by which citizens are governed. In this essay, I examine this power of legal oratory to be political speech by analyzing select court speeches of Daniel Webster as political texts. As a model for this rhetorical analysis, I use the classical standard of logos politikos, speech in the interest of the state, posited by Isocrates, which I refer to as Isocrates' rhetorical ideal. In order to apply the analytical model of Isocrates' rhetorical ideal to Webster's court speech, I will first describe what Isocrates wrote about his ideal, gleaned from disparate sources, and state his guidelines for speech in the greater service of the polis. The greatest difficulty in applying a 2,500-year-old model to nineteenth century oratory is, of course, controlling for the political and legal differences of the two eras. Therefore, the second part of this essay will describe, briefly, those differences and show that even Isocrates might be surprised at how applicable his rhetorical ideal can be to speech before American appellate tribunals. With the rhetorical ideal established, and the institutional discrepancies explained, I will then turn to a consideration of three of Webster's most important Supreme Court arguments: the Dartmouth College case, Gibbons v. Ogden, and Thurlow v. Massachusetts.

Keywords: rhetoric, rhetorical ideal, rhetorical analysis, Isocrates, Daniel Webster, legal oratory

Suggested Citation

Lupo, James, Court Speech as Political Action: Isocrates' Rhetorical Ideal and the Legal Oratory of Daniel Webster. Journal of the Association of Legal Writing Directors, Vol. 3, 2008. Available at SSRN:

James Lupo (Contact Author)

Northwestern University School of Law ( email )

375 E. Chicago Ave
Chicago, IL 60611
United States

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