James Ogilvie (1773–1820)


James Ogilvie was a schoolteacher who became a celebrity orator, ultimately spending twelve years traveling throughout the United States, England, and Scotland advocating for oratory as a primary medium of communication. Born and educated in Scotland, he came to Virginia in 1793 to teach at the Fredericksburg Academy. There his avowed atheism and radical republicanism made him a controversial figure, but over fifteen years traveling throughout central Virginia he proved both an effective and successful teacher. After delivering two dozen lectures in the State Capitol from 1803 to 1804, Ogilvie abandoned teaching for oratory in 1808. He traveled up and down the East Coast selling tickets to a series of eloquent, educational lectures on “moral and philosophical subjects.” He quickly became one of the most famous men in America, renowned for his speaking skills. In 1813 he announced a plan to create temporary schools of oratory, an effort that had some success in South Carolina but few other places. Then in 1816 he published a collection of essays and autobiography, Philosophical Essays, that was a critical failure and he left the United States for the British Isles. He died in 1820, likely by his own hand.

Early Years

James Ogilvie was born on March 22, 1773, in Midmar, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, the second of the eleven children of Margaret Reid Ogilvie and the Reverend John Ogilvie, a Church of Scotland clergyman, literary critic, and poet. His uncle, also named James Ogilvie, had served as a clergyman in the colony of Virginia. A Loyalist, he returned to England prior to the American Revolution (1775–1783).

With the help of the Redhyth Bursary, a scholarship established by the earl of Findlater and benefiting poor boys named Ogilvie, he entered nearby Fordyce School in 1781. Five years later Ogilvie matriculated at King’s College in Aberdeen under the same bursary. He and a rival student published The Ogilviad, a Heroic Poem, with its Answers; Being a Dispute between Two Gentlemen at King’s College (1789), a semi-comic attack-and-reply poem that, the authors claimed, resolved a fistfight between them. He graduated with a master of arts in 1790.

Teaching Career

Mr. Tho' Paine.

By 1793, Ogilvie had immigrated to the United States and taken a job as Professor of Humanity and the Belles Lettres at the prestigious Fredericksburg Academy in Virginia. He proved a controversial figure. Inspired by the radical republicanism forwarded throughout the Atlantic world by figures such as Thomas Paine, Ogilvie drew strong criticism in Fredericksburg for his avowed atheism and his advocacy of William Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, a work that advocated both for Enlightenment principles and an early form of anarchism. Both were considered dangerous in a Virginia made jittery by news of the chaos and violence arising from the French Revolution. During his earliest years of teaching, he made determined enemies and at some point left the Fredericksburg Academy, although the time and circumstances are unclear.

He ultimately proved an effective and successful teacher. Over the course of the next fifteen years he moved throughout the central part of the state, opening schools in Tappahannock (1798), Culpeper (ca. 1800), Richmond (1803), and outside Charlottesville (1807). His students included many men who rose to prominent positions in government, the military, and the law, including Senator William S. Archer, Representative John S. Barbour, Brigadier General George Mercer Brooke, Governor William Pope Duval, Francis Walker Gilmer, Commander Thomas ap Catesby Jones, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, and Lieutenant-General Winfield Scott. Several remembered their education under Ogilvie as transformative, inspiring them with ambition to enter public service. In his short story “Mountjoy; or, Some Passages Out of the Life of a Castle-Builder” (1839), Washington Irving created a fictional character based on Ogilvie: an inspiring, enthusiastic tutor.

A Speech against the Alien and Sedition Acts

Like all schoolteachers of the day, Ogilvie emphasized the centrality of public speech and rhetoric via semi-annual exhibitions for his students—and during the course of his career, he developed a facility for oratory. He delivered occasional political speeches, including one in 1798 that called on the General Assembly to seek the repeal of the Alien and Sedition Acts “on account of their manifest unconstitutionality, their manifold inexpediency and injustice” and an 1804 speech commemorating the anniversary of Thomas Jefferson‘s election. In 1803 and early 1804, he offered twenty-four bimonthly lectures in the State Capitol on an array of subjects. By the time he decided to abandon teaching in favor of itinerant performing in 1808, he had a strong local reputation and the support of many Virginia elites, including Jefferson.

On December 20, 1803 he married Sally Wilkinson of New Kent County; she died on February 18, 1805, childless. According to letters circulated the following year, Ogilvie’s friends sought to pay off a deep debt of approximately $1,200 that he had accrued during his wife’s illness. Those letters suggest that his wife’s family had disapproved of the marriage.

Celebrity Orator

Unlike the traveling orators of the antebellum lyceum, Ogilvie made all arrangements for speaking on his own, without the assistance of the booking agencies that flourished several decades later. Having the responsibility for finding a venue and lodging, advertising the talks, arranging the stage, and cultivating an audience took time, such that he often spent a month or more in each locale. In small towns he spoke in taverns and schoolhouses; in larger cities he rented Masonic halls or hotel ballrooms.

Set of Dueling Pistols

Ogilvie usually arranged to deliver five or six talks in each town, spread out over the course of two or three weeks, charging at first 50 cents per ticket, then $1. He spoke on what he called “moral and philosophical” subjects that promised to edify his audiences. He advocated for education, probed the subjects of dueling and suicide, and celebrated the “progress and prospects of society.” In addition, at the conclusion of each talk he performed dramatic recitations of popular poetry.

Although his earliest lectures during the spring and summer of 1808 in the smaller towns and cities of the Chesapeake region were thinly attended, Ogilvie hit his stride in October in Philadelphia, the nation’s most important cultural and intellectual hub and its second largest city. There he gained the support of influential figures, including Benjamin Rush and Charles Brockden Brown, who helped advertise his talks. Within a month, his orations were so successful that he repeated the series, delivering some of the most popular talks three times. A similar pattern unfolded in New York during the winter of 1808–1809. There, he befriended Washington Irving and a wide circle of literary elites, whose support helped him remain three months. Ogilvie received enthusiastic reviews and enjoyed large audiences. News of his success circulated widely as newspapers throughout the country reprinted those notices.

Due to the rapid circulation and reprinting of flattering newspaper notices, Ogilvie quickly became famous, celebrated for his eloquence. Reviewers did not hold back in offering effusive praise. Portland’s Eastern Argus called him “a consummate orator,” while Baltimore’s Federal Republican claimed “he has restored eloquence to the fullness of its antient splendour.” The Albany Register called him a “modern Cicero.” No one else in America, politicians or otherwise, enjoyed such a gratuitous swirl of attention in the press. And because of the anticipation of his appearances in the papers, his lectures regularly sold out. In Boston, John Quincy Adams attended some of his talks, but was turned away at the door of one sold-out performance.

Washington Irving

His appearances were at times controversial, related to his youthful advocacy of radical republicanism and atheism. In New York in 1809, a lawyer named John Rodman published, anonymously, a satirical pamphlet, entitled Fragment of a Journal of a Sentimental Philosopher, that purported to be Ogilvie’s secret diary. Although it never mentioned Ogilvie by name, it charged him with exaggerating his eccentricities for theatrical effect and plagiarizing his ideas. The pamphlet ultimately painted a picture of a narcissist motivated to make easy money by tricking well-meaning men and women into trusting ideas undergirded by dangerously radical philosophies. In 1809, Ogilvie’s friend Washington Irving penned a vicious response in the New-York Review, or Critical Journal that mocked Rodman as a self-important nobody with nothing to say. Although newspaper debates occasionally sprang up in response to Ogilvie’s lectures—debates that disputed Ogilvie’s talent as an orator or the value of his discussions of public affairs—the Rodman pamphlet proved the most public.

After three years of constant lecturing across eleven states as well as in the cities of Washington, D.C., Montreal, and Quebec, Ogilvie announced in 1811 that he would move to Kentucky to rest and write a series of new lectures. But upon arrival, he continued to lecture in the region, delivering talks throughout the Lexington-Louisville region, and as far afield as Chillicothe, Ohio, and Nashville, Tennessee. He also found himself caught up in the martial spirit of the region. In 1812 he joined the Kentucky militia and served for months in a campaign against the Indians near Detroit. He also delivered talks to rouse the troops.

In early 1813 he announced his determination to return to lecturing up and down the East Coast, and ratcheted up the ambitiousness of his goals. Ogilvie said that in addition to his regular series of talks, he would offer temporary schools, instructing youth in rhetoric, philosophical criticism, and elocution. Moreover, he proclaimed the central aim of his talks now to be the advancement of eloquence itself, in part via the creation of professorships of oratory in the nation’s colleges. As New York’s National Advocate put it in November 1813, “In a free, civilized, and polished country, his is an art that should, that must flourish. An attempt to revive the Republican eloquence of the ancient rostrum cannot fail of success in this, the only Republic now remaining in the world.” Ogilvie also began to advocate for the erection of public halls for the purpose of encouraging oratory. His triumph, in 1814, was the presentation of a new lecture on oratory in the U.S. Capitol before both houses of Congress and President James Madison.

His plan to educate youth succeeded primarily in South Carolina in 1815–1816. There, he spent several months teaching students at the South Carolina College (later the University of South Carolina) in Columbia, news of which circulated in newspapers throughout the country. In early 1816, he taught a group of young women in Charleston, and in May and June a second group of girls in Columbia; each intensive school was followed by a public exhibition of those young women’s attainments.

His advocacy for oratory proved far more successful than his educational plan. Increasingly, his appearances in American towns were followed by a flurry of interest in public speaking. Locals offered schools of elocution and oratory. Mutual-education organizations calling themselves “The Forum” or “The Lyceum” were formed, providing local youth with weekly opportunities to practice self-presentation. Several colleges created professorships dedicated to rhetoric, oratory, or, at theological schools, “pulpit eloquence.” Ogilvie also saw imitators seek to establish public speaking careers, often offering lectures on identical subjects that were described in local newspapers as being “of the Ogilvie school.”

Later Years

In the autumn of 1816 Ogilvie’s celebrity took its hardest hit when he published a volume entitled Philosophical Essays; To which are Subjoined, Copious Notes, Critical and Explanatory, and a Supplementary Narrative with an Appendix. The book was intended to cement his public reputation as not only an orator but, as he explained, “a philosophical writer.” It contained an autobiographical narrative and three essays—on the importance of mathematics for good oratory, the extent and limits of human knowledge, and the abuse of “moral fiction.” The book was ill-advised in several respects. Ogilvie’s bellicose writing style lacked on the page the evocative panache that it might have had when spoken on stage. More problematic, according to the critics, were his derivative, unoriginal ideas, logical contradictions, and self-important tone. Strangest of all was the autobiography, which critics found embarrassingly vainglorious. The publication was a critical failure and led many to question whether the American preoccupation with his oratory had likewise been a mistake.

William Godwin

In the spring of 1817, still in the midst of the critical furor over Philosophical Essays and decreased interest in his lectures, Ogilvie left the United States for a long-intended extension of his lecturing career in England, Scotland, and Ireland. He immediately forged a friendship in London with William Godwin, whose radical political philosophy Ogilvie had long trumpeted, and thereby became friendly with a large group of British writers, journalists, and poets. He also sat as a model of the character of Don Quixote for the artists Charles Robert Leslie and Gilbert Stuart Newton.

For years he had suggested to his American friends that he was the heir of James Ogilvie, the seventh earl of Findlater, and that his return to Scotland would involve receiving his title. It is not clear, however, that he seriously applied for that earldom, which had been rendered dormant upon the earl’s death in 1811. In 1818, Ogilvie inherited a share of a small family estate called Dunnydeer, which he sold to a cousin.

His talks, which he began in London during the summer of 1817, regularly earned flattering reviews in the papers. Critics found his advocacy of oratory original, his ideas invigorating, and his performances impressive. During the winter of 1817–1818 he made the biggest splash in Aberdeen, where his four remaining siblings lived. But whereas in the United States he had found circles of elites eager to help him and newspapers enthusiastic to fan the flames of his celebrity, he garnered no such excitement in England or Scotland. He continued to lecture and tour, with only middling success, until the summer of 1820.

According to an Edinburgh friend, Ogilvie’s behavior became increasingly erratic during the summer of 1820, perhaps the result of a lifelong problem with what he called melancholy, as well as a longstanding heavy use of the opiate laudanum. On September 12, 1820, he shot himself in the wood at Kinnoull Hill just outside of Perth, Scotland. Officials ruled his death “sudden” rather than suicide, perhaps due to the intervention of Ogilvie’s brother, an Aberdeen lawyer. He was buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard in Perth.

Major Works

  • A Speech Delivered in Essex County in Support of a Memorial, Presented to the Citizens of the County and Now Laid Before the Assembly, on the Subject of the Alien and Sedition Acts (1798)
  • Cursory Reflexions on Government, Philosophy and Education (1802)
  • Philosophical Essays; To which are Subjoined, Copious Notes, Critical and Explanatory, and a Supplementary Narrative with an Appendix (1816)

March 22, 1773
James Ogilvie is born in Midmar, Aberdeenshire, Scotland.
James Ogilvie attends school in Fordyce, Scotland, with the help of the Redhyth Bursary, a scholarship for members of the Ogilvie family.
James Ogilvie attends King's College in Aberdeen, Scotland.
1792 or 1793
James Ogilvie immigrates to Virginia from Scotland, taking a position as a teacher at the Fredericksburg Academy.
James Ogilvie delivers a speech in Richmond denouncing the Alien and Sedition Acts, and subsequently has the speech published as a pamphlet by a Richmond press.
James Ogilvie and Thomas Ritchie establish the Essex Academy in Tappahannock.
ca. 1800
James Ogilvie establishes the Stevensburg Academy in Culpeper.
James Ogilvie publishes Cursory Reflexions on Government, Philosophy and Education in Alexandria.
January 1803
James Ogilvie announces the opening of a new academy in Richmond.
March 9, 1803
James Ogilvie announces the commencement of a series of twenty-four orations, delivered every two weeks on Saturday afternoons at the State Capitol.
July 4, 1803
James Ogilvie delivers a Fourth of July oration in Richmond, subsequently published in the Richmond Examiner.
December 20, 1803
James Ogilvie and Sally Wilkinson, of New Kent County, marry in Richmond.
March 9, 1804
James Ogilvie delivers an oration in Richmond commemorating the anniversary of Thomas Jefferson's election as president.
August—October 1804
With a group of other literati in Richmond calling themselves "The Rainbow," James Ogilvie publishes pseudonymous essays in the Richmond Enquirer.
February 18, 1805
Sally Wilkinson Ogilvie, the wife of James Ogilvie, dies.
June 1806
After sinking into a deep debt of about $1,200, in part due to his wife's illness, James Ogilvie finds that his wealthy friends seek to pay it off on his behalf.
January 1807
James Ogilvie opens a school in Milton and begins tutoring Thomas Jefferson's grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph.
March—December 1808
James Ogilvie gives up teaching and undertakes a new career of public speaking. He lectures in Virginia, Maryland, Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania, and New York.
James Ogilvie presents lectures up and down the East Coast to large audiences and critical acclaim.
James Ogilvie joins the Kentucky militia and serves in an unsuccessful campaign against Indians near Detroit.
James Ogilvie returns to the lecture circuit, appearing in Ohio, Kentucky, and Virginia, Washington, D.C., and up the East Coast.
James Ogilvie delivers lectures in South Carolina and teaches a course on oratory at the South Carolina College.
Philosophical Essays by James Ogilvie is published in Philadelphia. It is not received well by American critics.
March 1817
James Ogilvie sails from New York for London.
James Ogilvie inherits a small family estate in Scotland called Dunnydeer, which he sells to a cousin.
September 12, 1820
James Ogilvie kills himself in Kinnoul Wood outside of Perth, Scotland. He is buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard, Perth.
  • Davis, Richard Beale. Francis Walker Gilmer: Life and Learning in Jefferson’s Virginia. Richmond: Dietz Press, 1939.
  • Eastman, Carolyn. “The Transatlantic Celebrity of Mr. O: Oratory and the Networks of Reputation in Early Nineteenth-Century Britain and America.” Comparative American Studies 14, 1 (2016): 7–20.
  • Hellman, G. S., ed. Letters of Washington Irving to Henry Brevoort. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Son/ The Knickerbocker Press, 1918.
  • Oberg, Barbara, and J. Jefferson Looney, eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda.
APA Citation:
Eastman, Carolyn. James Ogilvie (1773–1820). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/ogilvie-james-1773-1820.
MLA Citation:
Eastman, Carolyn. "James Ogilvie (1773–1820)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 19 Jun. 2024
Last updated: 2021, December 22
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