Complete Story


Spring 2002, pages 5-26

John Quincy Adams's Amistad Argument: The Problem of Outrage; Or, The Constraint of Decorum

Abstract: John Quincy Adams's speech on behalf of the kidnapped Africans aboard the slave ship Amistad points to a troubling dilemma in rhetoric: that the power of rhetoric is limited by the audience's perception of what is plausible, and that can, as in the case of the Amistad argument, mean that outrageously unjust but intransigent and powerful interests set the limits of discourse. If rhetorical theory promotes decorum, what is the place of principled dissent and sincere outrage?

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