In 1830 and 1831, a 12-year-old Maryland slave and a 22-year-old backwoods store clerk picked up the same book – the Columbian Orator. Published by a New England school teacher, it taught Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln how to become two of the greatest speakers of their century.
Both Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln lived very different lives from Caleb Bingham, the Dartmouth-educated publisher of the Columbian Orator. However they shared his thirst for knowledge and adopted the ideals expressed in the book: liberty, freedom, anti-slavery, patriotism and religious faith. Those ideals got the book banned in the South during the 1850s.
The actor Ossie Davis, who recorded several of Douglass’s speeches, credits the Columbian Orator with more than teaching oratory.
“Frederick Douglass validated his manhood by giving Edward Covey, his surrogate slave master, a good whipping,” wrote Davis. “What inspired his fists was not only manly rage, but liberating knowledge–knowledge gained in part from his reading of the Columbian Orator. I read it now and the words still inspire and inflame.”
Caleb Bingham was born in Salisbury, Conn. on April 15, 1757, a descendant of Roger Conant, the Puritan leader who founded Salem, Mass. Salisbury was a primitive town, with a log cabin for a church and no real school. The local minister tutored young Caleb Bingham.
“I well remember, when I was a boy, how ardently I longed for the opportunity of reading, but had no access to a library,” Bingham wrote in 1803.
He attended Dartmouth College rather than Yale because he was related to its founder, Eleazar Wheelock. Bingham graduated as class valedictorian in 1782 and went to work as master of Moor’s Charity School for Native Americans, which Wheelock also ran. He moved to Boston in 1784 to start the town’s first school for girls, located on State Street. He and his wife had two daughters.
After Boston officials decided to reform its schools, Bingham ran a co-ed public school.
He was a ‘modest and sometimes even timid man but there were at least, two occasions on which he showed that there was no lack of moral courage, when his course was clearly indicated by duty,” wrote his friend and biographer, William Fowle. In one case, he stood up at a town meeting at Faneuil Hall and demanded the town pay his salary.
In the second, he faced down a mob attacking a constable who arrested people who ran whorehouses and gambling dens. Caleb Bingham let the frightened constable into his house and then opened the door to the angry rioters. He said, “Fellow citizens, you are breaking the laws, and I command you in the name of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to disperse. I am a magistrate.” The mob vanished.
He stood six feet tall, with light blue eyes and hair in the style of George Washington. Until his death he dressed in the style of the revolutionary generation: cocked hat, black coat, knee breeches and shoes with silver buckles.
Caleb Bingham published the first textbook of English grammar used in the Boston schools, the second in America. Bingham’s rival, Noah Webster, wrote the first. Bingham gave it the title, “The Young Lady’s Accidence, or a short and cozy Introduction to English Grammar; designed principally for the use of Young Learners, more especially those of the Fair Sex, though proper for either.”
Webster’s spelling book sold more than Bingham’s, but Bingham’s readers outsold Webster’s.
Fowle described Bingham as cheerful and lively, traits reflected in Columbian Orator and The American Preceptor. The Orator remained in print until late in the 20th century. It included essays, speeches, poems and dialogues that dealt with moral education and citizenship.
Bingham retired from teaching in 1796 and opened a one-room bookstore at 44 Cornhill Street.
Gov. Elbridge Gerry appointed him director o the state prison, and he ran for state senate a number of times. However, he affiliated with the Republican Party and never got elected, though his bookstore served as the headquarters for local Republicans.
He died on April 6, 1817 and was buried on Copp’s Hill in Boston’s North End.
Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln
Like Caleb Bingham, both Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln had scant access to books in their youth.
Frederick Douglass learned about the Columbian Orator when he worked in a Baltimore shipyard, turning over his earnings to Hugh and Sophia Auld. Sophia had tried to teach him to read and write, but Hugh told her to stop. “Knowledge unfits a child to be a slave,” Auld told his wife.
Douglass, then known as Frederick Bailey, wanted knowledge. Some white boys he knew on the Baltimore streets told him they were studying the Columbian Orator. Douglass saved up 50 cents from surreptitiously shining boots, and one day he walked into Mr. Knight’s bookstore and bought the book.
He then devoured its contents, calling it his “rich treasure.”
“Every opportunity I got, I used to read this book,” he wrote in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. He especially liked a dialogue between a master and a slave and one of Richard Sheridan’s speeches on Catholic emancipation.
“These were choice documents to me. I read them over and over again with unabated interest,” wrote Douglass. ”
They gave tongue to interesting thoughts of my own soul, which had frequently flashed through my mind, and died away for want of utterance.”
Abraham Lincoln read it in the winter of his 22nd year. He had little formal education, as his family lived far from schools and his father hired him out as a farmhand. He read what books he could.
Lincoln was working as a boatman and a general store clerk in New Salem, Ill., in 1831. But he had political ambitions and would run for the General Assembly the next year. Caleb Bingham, through the book, taught him how to speak. Not like a backwoods hick, but like a gentleman with ‘a proper attention to accent, emphasis and cadence.’
Lincoln lost that first bid for the General Assembly. Later, he would succeed, all the way to the presidency of the United States.
Both Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, despite their lack of formal schooling, delivered some of the greatest speeches in American history. Douglass’s best speech is remembered as “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” and Lincoln’s as the Gettysburg Address.
With thanks to Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln by John Stauffer and Caleb Bingham by William Fowle in Educational Biography: Memoirs of Teachers, Educators, and Promoters and Benefactors of Education, Literature, and Science ed. By Henry Barnard.
Image of Columbian Orator By Bjoertvedt – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=73782814. This story was updated in 2023.