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Abstract

Through a case study of the long, extra-parliamentary political career of James Acland this article demonstrates how the spoken word remained the primary form of political communication despite the challenges posed by a burgeoning print culture. Acland was politically active from the eighteen-twenties to the late eighteen-sixties in campaigns spanning the battle of the unstamped press to free trade, temperance, poor relief and electoral reform: in the run up to the Great Reform Act his scurrilous journalism and incendiary speeches whipped up mobs in Bristol and later Hull and during the turbulent eighteen-forties he travelled the length and breadth of the country as an itinerant political lecturer. His peripatetic oratory bridged local and national culture, fomenting discussions and uniting dispersed audiences in national struggles for reform. His public life underlines the enduring importance of the spoken address and the pivotal role of the orator in political mobilization and persuasion during the middle decades of the nineteenth century. This article contributes to current debates on democratization and offers a challenge to James Vernon's claim that the public political sphere began to close during this period. The author contends that the vibrancy of grass-roots political culture (as exemplified by lectures and indoor chaired meetings) represented a democratic gain rather than loss.