Interview #1 Historian Jeremy C. Young

Billy Sunday in 1908
Billy Sunday. Source: https://www.shgape.org/experiencing-billy-sunday/

Dr. Jeremy C Young is an Assistant Professor at the Dixie State University. He is the Director of Dixie State University Institute of Politics and the author of The Age of Charisma: Leaders, Followers, and Emotions in American Society, 1870-1940.

The History Freebooter: How did you get to your theme of research? What caught your attention in this period of American history?

Jeremy C. Young: As someone interested in contemporary American politics, I’ve always felt drawn to the Gilded Age and Progressive Era as a time when politicians embraced the sort of inspiring emotional appeals that seemed absent from the Clinton-era 1990s. I wanted to understand why Americans of a hundred years ago found such inspiration in political figures such as William Jennings Bryan, Theodore Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson. Eventually, I discovered through my research that there were a number of factors at work in this period. A new style of public oratory, developed from a group of American elocution textbooks, taught politicians to speak in ways that played on the emotions of their listeners. A transcontinental railroad system enabled leaders for the first time to interact in person with their followers across the country. A professional system of lecture managers and organizers connected audiences with speakers and prepared listeners with prefatory musical performances. Perhaps most importantly, new ideas about the role of emotion in public discourse created a more positive outlook for leaders who made themselves more emotionally available to their followers.

The History Freebooter: You talk about these”new ideas about the role of emotion in public discourse”, what was this new role compared to the time before and what changes happened in the time after?

Jeremy C. Young: Before the 1870s, American political, social, and religious leaders were expected to be emotionally remote and distant from ordinary Americans. Politicians who appealed to popular emotions were branded as dangerous demagogues who manipulated voters and allowed public opinion to influence their impartial judgment. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, however, the upheavals of industrial capitalism led more Americans to seek emotional connections with their leaders. Newly aware of the potential of such connections to mobilize mass forces behind their platforms, politicians, ministers, and intellectuals across the political spectrum came to embrace the idea of emotional leader-follower relationships. While skepticism of emotional leadership eventually reasserted itself to some degree, the idea that voters are entitled to an emotional connection with their leaders has become a fundamental principle of American democracy. Today, leaders are expected to shake hands, kiss babies, give speeches, and make themselves accessible to their constituents. A leader who refused to do such things would lose popularity and be viewed as elitist.

The History Freebooter: For conducting this research what were your main sources and did you used any specific methodology you think was important in your work to analyze the sources?

Jeremy C. Young: I used a wide variety of sources for my research — the bibliography itself is forty pages long! Probably the most important sources I used were testimonials written by the followers of charismatic leaders. I found the largest number of these in the papers of evangelist Billy Sunday, Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, and Socialist presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs. Others appeared in published and unpublished collections, newspapers, dissertations, and even sociological surveys. My goal was to try to understand what it was like to listen to these charismatic figures speak and to be moved and changed by such interactions. Accordingly, I looked for similarities across the letters. I found that charismatic followers described their leaders in sacralized, quasi-religious language. They placed a great deal of importance on the music used to prepare the audience for the speaker’s message, and on the experience of shaking hands with the leader after the speech. They identified specific speech characteristics that were common among many of the charismatic leaders of the time. And they described themselves as radically transformed by the experience of interacting with these leaders — forming a charismatic relationship that was often lifelong.

The History Freebooter: You talk in your book about ‘personal magnetism’ and the book of Dr. James Rush, could you give us a brief intro into this theme and the role of Dr. James Rush?

Jeremy C. Young: In the late 1800s, people whom Americans today would describe as charismatic were said to possess “personal magnetism.” The term originated with Franz Anton Mesmer, but his magnetic fluid theory of personality was out of favor by the 1880s, though there were still occasional references to people “magnetizing” plants, fish, watches, or baseball games. Instead, people used the term to describe a particular style of speaking that originated with James Rush. Rush, a medical doctor and the son of Declaration of Independence signer Benjamin Rush, was a truly eccentric character. James Rush believed he could democratize public speaking by developing a set of universal vocal principles that connected specific sounds with corresponding emotions — ignoring, of course, that tastes in public speaking are historically and culturally specific. He advocated a speaking style with three distinctive features: an expanded pitch range, with high highs and low lows; a sing-song quality that he called “the melody of speech”; and something he called “the orotund voice,” which consisted of lowering the larynx while speaking in the way an opera singer does while singing, creating a rich, powerful tone. Rush’s book The Philosophy of the Human Voice (1827) was adapted by his friend Jonathan Barber into a series of elocution textbooks which paired Rush’s vocal principles with a gestural system borrowed from England. The resulting elocution style became the most commonly-taught speaking style at universities across the country. Figures as diverse as abolitionist Wendell Phillips, minister Henry Ward Beecher, politician William Jennings Bryan, and evangelist Billy Sunday all learned the style and made it the centerpiece of their public performances. While Rush’s style was not the universal technique he believed it was, it became wildly popular with American audiences by the late nineteenth century and helped fuel the growth of mass social, political, and religious movements in the American Gilded Age and Progressive Era.

Wanna know more about the work of Dr. Jeremy C. Young?

Here is his website: jeremycyoung.com

Here you can buy his book: The Age of Charisma: Leaders, Followers, and Emotions in American Society, 1870-1940

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