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Dr. Andrew Wood
Office: HGH 210; phone: (408) 924-5378

Notes on The American Jeremiad

Sacvan Bercovitch (1978) uses John Winthrop's Model of Christian Charity to describe the American Jeremiad - a sermon that seeks to unify a people by creating tension between ideal social life and its real manifestation. The "jeremiad" is named after the biblical lamentations of Jeremiah ("I had planted thee a noble vine, wholly a right seed: how then art thou turned into the degenerate plant of a strange vine unto me?" (chapter 2, verse 21). Of course, we don't seek to understand the jeremiad strictly for its religious significance. We seek to understand the jeremiad because of its role in the construction and critique of public life.

Bercovitch contrasts the American jeremiad with its European predecessor. The European jeremiad depicted a static society condemned to fall perpetually from its mythic roots; it wailed from the pulpit and unleashed a torrent of guilt upon its audience. In contrast, the American jeremiad added the dimension of progress - the hope that public life can improve. The invocation of the American jeremiad involves three steps:

(1) provide a biblical or spiritual standard for individual activity and public life
(2) outline the manners in which a people has fallen from that standard,
(3) envision an ideal public life - with its concurrent individual benefits - that follows a return to the religious standard.

With this ideal, the American jeremiad sustains a paradoxical rhetoric of hope and fear - a tension between the ideal and the real. This tension is designed to generate the requisite energy to improve public life: "It posits a movement from promise to experience - from the ideal of community to the shortcomings of community life - and thence forward, with prophetic assurance, toward the resolution that incorporates (as it transforms) both the promise and the condemnation" (Bercovitch, p. 16). The key to the American jeremiad is its blurring of individual and communal pursuits.

The jeremiad works when an audience recognizes the tension between the public ideal and their individual efforts - and seeks to purify themselves in order to improve the community. As many critics have noted, the irony of the American jeremiad is its conservatism. This rhetorical appeal that calls for its audience to build a new world demands that participants affirm rather than question the foundations of their present problems. John M. Murphy notes:

"The [American] jeremiad deflects attention away from the possible institutional or systemic flaws and toward considerations of individual sin. Redemption is achieved through the efforts of the American people, not through a change in the system itself . . . . The jeremiad, then, serves as a rhetoric of social control" (pp. 271, 283).

The direct relationship between self and society emerges in various rhetorical forms throughout history. John Winthrop spoke of "ligaments" that unite the body politic - as they connect the human body. After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy spoke of the "national fabric" that ties personal efforts to national character. And more recently, presidential candidates from both major U.S. parties have employed similar themes. Despite the many changes in technology, politics, and religion over the last four centuries, the American jeremiad remains a central component to the rhetoric of public life.


Bercovitch, S. (1978). The American jeremiad. Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press.

Murphy, J.M. (1990). "A time of shame and sorrow": Robert F. Kennedy and the American jeremiad. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 76 401-414. Reprinted in S. K. Foss' Rhetorical criticism: Exploration & Practice (pp. 269-290). Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press. [Citations are from the Foss reprint.]