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. 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.
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, 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 . 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.
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‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
- 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)