John Thelwall: Critical Reassessments
John Thelwall and Association
University of Northern Colorado
1. In the early Romantic period, John Thelwall was infamous for both his defiant volubility and subsequent silencing. According to E. P. Thompson, “the story of the silencing of Thelwall” (95) begins in 1795 with the passage of the Treasonable Practices Act and the Seditious Meetings Act and culminates with Thelwall’s decision to become a teacher of elocution—a decision signaling that “nothing survived of the Patriot except his fading notoriety” (123). Perhaps no portrait better captures the drastic turn in Thelwall’s career than George Crabbe’s caricature of Thelwall as the radical lecturer Hammond in the verse tale The Dumb Orators; or, the Benefit of Society (1812). In The Dumb Orators, Hammond first stupefies a Church-and-State orator using “Deist’s scorn” and “rebel’s wit,” but later gets his just deserts when the political tide turns (192). Hammond, who ironically earlier used “licentious words” to prove “that liberty of speech was gone,” ultimately devolves into a stuttering isolate (223-24). Under the critical eyes of loyalists, Hammond loses the liberty of speech that he prematurely lamented:
2. As Thompson’s account suggests, Thelwall’s elocutionary career has frequently been understood as a renunciation of his revolutionary politics. Thelwall himself encouraged this view, claiming that his “New Profession” returned him to the “calmness of physiological disquisition” he had experienced as an auditor of medical lectures at Guy’s Hospital before he was “hurried . . . away” by the “excentric fire of youth” into politics (Henry Cline 2). Thelwall scholars such as Judith Thompson, however, have questioned this account and argued that Thelwall’s “speech theory emerges as part of a total system to reform the body politic” (“Re-sounding Romanticism” 24). Though a number of scholars have drawn connections between the scientific materialism that informs Thelwall’s speech theory and the political materialism that informs his revolutionary opinions, there has not yet been a thorough explanation of how Thelwall thought an “enfranchisement of fettered organs” would manifestly contribute to an expansion of the franchise (Henry Cline 9). In other words, how did Thelwall see his work as an elocutionist as a continuation of his work as a political activist? In this essay I begin to answer this question by uncovering the model of mind that guides both Thelwall’s elocutionary work and his political philosophy. First, I establish the model of the mind Thelwall develops in elocutionary texts such as A Letter to Henry Cline (1810). Then, I turn to Thelwall’s An Essay Towards a Definition of Animal Vitality (1793), an early “physiological disquisition” that provides the scientific basis for his model of mind and speech theory. Finally, I look at the rhetoric of Thelwall’s arguments in support of free association to show that Thelwall’s scientific interests inform both his political philosophy and his elocutionary theory.
3. In a recent article, Judith Thompson compares Coleridge’s conversation poems to Thelwall’s and concludes that Thelwall is “more concerned with modulations of voice than associations of the mind, and with building a co-responding society than with correspondent breezes” (“Why Kendal?” 18). I agree with Thompson’s assessment that Thelwall, unlike Coleridge, maintained his political ideals even in retirement. However, as I will show, Thelwall also maintained a commitment to associationist psychology. In fact, I argue that it is precisely because of his continued commitment to associationism that Thelwall was able to continue his reformist agenda after he became an elocutionist. As we will see, for Thelwall modulations of voice are not opposed to associations of the mind but rather depend on them. Likewise, strong corresponding societies depend on strong correspondences in the brain.
4. Thelwall explicitly attests to the power of mental associations in “On the Influence of the Scenery of Nature on the Intellectual and Moral Character, as well as the Taste and Imagination” (1820), an essay first published in his newspaper The Champion. Here, many years after Coleridge rejected Hartleian thought, Thelwall continues to appeal to associationist theory. In his essay, Thelwall refutes two anonymous writers who deny that our natural environment has any influence on our intellectual or emotional identity. Thelwall rejects their claims, saying that if we did not immediately see their denials as “Affectation” we would pronounce them to be “the verbiage of idiotism” (74). Neglecting the importance of scenery to our internal state is “idiotism” according to Thelwall because it denies “the whole doctrine of associations” and turns a human being into
5. It is fitting that Thelwall, who sought to explain vitality itself according to “the simple principle of materialism,” would imagine the mind as a tangible object and, moreover, as an object of commerce (Animal Vitality 13). By taking the “necessary luxury” of tea as his image, Thelwall universalizes what would normally be a private possession. Thelwall suggests that though the mind, like tea, is a material object, it is not a commodity and does not gain value when locked against external influence. On the contrary, he suggests that intellectual perfectibility is only possible when there is associative communication between the permeable borders of mind and world.
6. In his elocutionary treatises, Thelwall similarly represents the minds of those with speech defects as imperfect because of their impermeability. In both cases, mental associations are “ministers to . . . intellectual perfectibility” and, as such, can either create or inhibit a relationship between the body of the individual and the body politic (“On the Influence” 74). A speech defect occurs, Thelwall posits, when the mind cannot associate the intention to speak with the physical organs that produce speech. Those who want to talk simply cannot. Unlike many physicians of the time, Thelwall vehemently denies that “defects of organization have any thing to do with any of the various descriptions of Impediment” in speech (Henry Cline 54). Rather, Thelwall blames speech impediments on a “diseased association” of ideas brought on by miseducation or emotional trauma (Henry Cline 59). By proposing that speech pathology originates in the space between ideas, or in the mental action connecting ideas, Thelwall can also propose that such pathology requires educational, rather than medical, intervention. While this theory helped Thelwall market his services as a teacher of elocution, it also helped him to suggest that impediments to speech were also impediments to sociability, and ultimately, to participation in the public sphere.
7. The gravest consequence of speech impediments, for Thelwall, was the enforced antisociality that they caused. In his case study of a young woman with a severe speech defect, Thelwall’s goal was not to teach her to speak properly but to “rescue her from the misery of being in eternal solitude, even in the midst of society” (64). According to Thelwall, speech impediments were necessarily restrictive to sociality for two reasons. Not only did they keep a person from being able to speak, but they also impaired a person’s willingness to speak. Both prevented individuals from developing bonds with society. Thelwall went so far as to call speech impediment a kind of idiocy, a term used in the period for a variety of mental disorders that interfered with sociality. In his letter to Cline, Thelwall exclaimed: “What, but a species of idiotcy [sic], is it, to be ignorant of the means by which the will is to influence the simplest organs of volition, and (without excuse of palsy, stricture, or organic privation) to be unable to move a lip, a tongue, or a jaw?” (68). It is telling that Thelwall chose to call all individuals with speech defects “idiots” (Gk. “private person”), as the private, or isolated, “idiot” was necessarily excluded from the public sphere. As Avital Ronell explains, from Plutarch through the nineteenth century, “the term ‘idiot’ expresses social and political inferiority; it is not a certificate of citizenship—the idiot is the one who is not a citizen (politēs)” (41). Without the ability to associate the will to speak with the organs of speech, individuals with speech defects could not exercise their natural right of participatory citizenship. This right, Thelwall declared, “constitutes the essential attribute of our species” (Henry Cline 17). One of the major tenets of Thelwall’s political philosophy was that “man is, by his very nature, social and communicative” and “whatever presses men together . . . is favorable to the diffusion of knowledge and ultimately promotive of human liberty” (Rights of Nature 400). For Thelwall, individuals who could not communicate with others were unnaturally denied social freedom. To put it simply, impediments to speech were also impediments to liberty.
8. Thelwall described the process by which the teacher of elocution could cure the antisociality of his pupils and encourage them to rejoin society as follows:
9. In attempting to strengthen the power of mental associations in his pupils, Thelwall was in a sense continuing his earlier efforts to strengthen the power of reformist associations. In Animal Vitality, Thelwall revealed the physiological basis of his associationist philosophy. Most notably, he established a materialist model of the mind that made it synonymous with the brain. As Alan Richardson has shown, the 1790s, like the 1990s, were “a decade of the brain,” in which models of the mind were revised in response to materialist advances in medicine and philosophy (2). The 1790s saw Joseph Priestley popularize David Hartley’s physiological associationism (1790), Erasmus Darwin theorize the embodied mind in Zoonomia (1794‑96), and Luigi Galvani publish his initial theory of animal electricity (1791). Thelwall was well aware of these major developments in brain‑mind science and evidenced this awareness in his writings.
10. One of Thelwall’s central goals in Animal Vitality was to disprove John Hunter’s theory that blood is the source of life. Instead, Thelwall asked his colleagues to consider that the “life of the animal is in the brain, rather than in the blood” (15). Although Thelwall indicated the primacy of the brain as an organ that registered vitality, he made it clear he did not want to “rob the blood of its vital honours, to bestow them on the Brain and Nerves” (29). Rather, Thelwall contended, vitality issued from integrated bodily organization motivated by a stimulus and identified the stimulus as the “electric fluid” (41). In suggesting that the electric fluid stimulated life, but was not itself living, Thelwall likely followed Erasmus Darwin, of whose work he was clearly aware. In his medical treatise Zoonomia, Darwin claimed that “the electric fluid may act only as a more potent stimulus exciting the muscular fibres into action, and not supplying them with a new quantity of the spirit of life” (1.12.83). For Darwin, the word “stimulus” referred not only to the “application of external bodies to our organs of sense and muscular fibres . . . [but also to] desire or aversion when they excite into action the power of volition; and lastly, the fibrous contractions which precede association” (1.2.13). The electric fluid induced both muscular contraction and mental association. As Darwin put it, just as successive muscular contractions are associated with one another, ideas “are associated with many other trains and tribes of ideas” through excitation of the fibrous tissue in the body induced by the electric fluid (1.9.60). Thelwall seems to have agreed that the electric fluid was responsible for super-inducing absent associations or repairing broken ones. In his elocutionary texts, he stressed “the phenomena of the action and re‑action of the physical and mental causes—and the operation, in particular, of mental, moral, and educational stimuli upon the frame and fibre—the senses and the organic function” (Results of Experience 172). For the most part, the educational stimuli chosen by Thelwall was his own speech. Like the electric fluid, his speech was meant to excite the body of his listener into creating new associations. Because Thelwall claimed that “the individual body and the social body do exactly agree,” it is reasonable to conclude that he understood the speech of the political activist, like the speech of the elocutionary master, as a vital stimulus (Tribune 114).
11. Indeed, much the same model of mind surfaces in Thelwall’s political rhetoric. Just as the voice of the teacher of elocution re-formed associations in the minds of his listeners, the voice of the political orator reformed how his listeners associated with one another. As Nicholas Roe, Michael Scrivener, and others have noted, Thelwall used his medical knowledge to create particularly effective Jacobin analogies between a vital, organized human body and a vital, organized body politic. To this I would add that it is the logic of associationist psychology that informs these analogies and makes them viable. In The Natural and Constitutional Right of Britons to Annual Parliaments, Universal Suffrage, and Freedom of Association (1795) Thelwall takes up the question of social association itself. Here, Thelwall argues for free association between citizens as the only means by which the power of the body politic can fairly counter the power of the king. Thelwall explains:
12. The cure for the diseased associations of society, as for the diseased associations of the individual, was the intervention of a political teacher who could communicate the electric stimulus to his listeners. Noel Jackson persuasively suggests that, for Thelwall, the stimulus or electric spark that animates the state and keeps it vital is the printed press. As evidence, Jackson cites Thelwall’s development of Burke’s metaphor of the press as an electrical conductor. Burke regretted that the press encouraged middle-class ambition by carrying “electrick communication” throughout pre-revolutionary France (186). But Thelwall esteemed “that prompt conductor and disseminator of intellect, the press,” for the same reason (Rights of Nature 426). Moreover, Thelwall represented himself, and the press, as the instruments through which “electrick communication” traveled. Although Thelwall thought the printed word was important for associating people, he also made it clear that the press had limited efficacy when people were “scattered” throughout Britain and not allowed to gather in the same space (Natural Right 46). Thelwall cautioned that without the ability to publicly associate and, as a group, determine a course of action, people would be driven to form factions and exchange violent crime for peaceful protest. Without “public association,” Thelwall warned, there would be “private cabals” (Natural Right 46). Without the ability to speak with a collective voice, individuals would brood “over thoughts they dare not utter” (Natural Right 46). When Thelwall used his lectures to rouse “a sluggish and insensate people” from a “drowsy stupor, creeping over the frozen nerve of misery,” then, he did not so much suggest that the materiality of the printed word educated people by acting on their bodies, but rather that the spoken word carried a material current that allowed electricity to move freely from body to body (Rights of Nature 391). As in his account of a 1795 political lecture where “every sentence darted from breast to breast with electric contagion” (qtd. in C. Thelwall 367), Thelwall represented his sentences as electric because they associated word to thought and speaker to listener. Like the electric fluid acting on the animal body, the electric word sustained vitality by catalyzing associations in the body politic. This vital transmission was only possible when people were allowed to come together in the same space to speak and to hear others speak.
13. As an orator, Thelwall intervened between his listeners’ perceptions and their wills in order to reform the associations of the state’s diseased body. As a teacher of elocution, he extended his reformist associationism. Far from being the dumb orator Crabbe mocked, Thelwall instead continued to encourage free speech and defeat antisociality. Antisociality, which could stem from “regret, repining melancholy, and dissatisfaction,” impeded reform because the “man who considers himself as an isolated individual . . . [becomes] barren to himself and injurious, or at least unproductive, to society” (Tribune 224-5). This antisociality, Thelwall claimed, was a by-product of “the selfish system” of an increasingly capitalist economy and was only exacerbated by the prohibition against public meetings (Tribune 224). Like those restricted from speaking because of governmental legislation, those with speech impediments suffered from “diseased associations” that hindered them from contributing to public discourse (Henry Cline 59). As Michael Scrivener has shown, for Thelwall, “mind is not individualistic but a product of ‘associated intellect’ within the public sphere” (181). Thus, once we understand Thelwall’s material model of mind, we see that ministering to the speech defects of others was a political act. As a teacher of elocution and as a political activist, Thelwall was pursuing a common end: strengthening the associations of the minds that inhabited, and created, the public sphere.
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 In the 1790s Coleridge had praised Hartley’s work (and even named his son Hartley). But on March 16, 1801, he exclaimed that he had “overthrown the doctrine of associationism, as taught by Hartley, and with it all the irreligious metaphysics of modern infidels” (Letters 2: 706). Later, in his notebooks, Coleridge definitively rejected “modern Hartleio-Locklean Metaphysics, with its Impressions, Ideas, and Sensations, and its Jack of all Trades, Association” (qtd. in Ford 16). BACK