Caleb Bingham


Caleb Bingham was born April 15, 1757 in Salisbury, Connecticut. He was a private and public school teacher and a writer of popular textbooks on oratory. He also owned a successful bookstore in Boston. Bingham’s books The young lady’s accidence and the Columbian orator went through many editions.

In his early years Bingham was tutored by Rev. Dr. Salter, the minister at a nearby church. He went to college at Dartmouth in 1779, and, upon graduation in 1782 taught school at Moor’s Indian Charity School in Salisbury Connecticut, a school affiliated with Dartmouth. Both Dartmouth and Moor’s Charity School were founded by Eleazar Wheelock, a friend of Bingham’s family, and a Jeffersonian progressive. Many of Bingham’s students at Moor were Dartmouth Indians.

Following this, Bingham became a master teacher at a private girls’ school for several years. In 1789 Bingham left the school to become an administrator for three reading schools in the Boston public school system. He served in this capacity until 1796, when he retired from teaching and opened a bookstore in Boston. The store became a favorite gathering spot for teachers who were working to establish free public schools and Jeffersonian Republicans who were lobbying for progressive causes. Bingham spent the rest of his life writing, printing, and selling his own and other people’s textbooks.

Bingham’s his first textbook was published in 1785. He called it The young lady's accidence; or, A short and easy introduction to English grammar. It was intended for use in his private girls' school but had a much broader appeal. It went through 20 editions and sold 100,000 copies. It was the second English grammar published in the United States.

Bingham’s other books were: The American preceptor (1794), The Astronomical and Geographical Catechism (1795), The Hunters (1814) and The Columbian Orator (1797). In addition, he published his own translation of a book by François-René de Chateaubriand's called Atala (1802), about morality as exhibited in savage and civilized cultures.

The American preceptor was a reader aimed at teaching elocution. The selections also were designed to promote morality and democracy. The preface of The American preceptor states: "Convinced of the impropriety of instilling false notions into the minds of children, he has not given place to romantic fiction. Although moral essays have not been neglected; yet pleasing and interesting stories, exemplifying moral virtues, were judged best calculated to engage the attention and improve the heart. Tales of love have not gained admission…neither a word…would 'raise a blush on the cheek of modesty".

The Columbian orator, first published in 1797, sold 200,000 copies by 1832. In it Bingham provided advice or how to be a good orator along with recitation materials from speeches, poems, sermons, and dialogues. Bingham treated good oratory as an expression of virtue, treating spoken expressions as civic or religious deeds (Ganter, 1997).

Among those influenced by The Columbian orator were Frederick Douglass, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Harriet Beecher Stowe (Ganter, 1997). Frederick Douglass said that the book allowed him “to utter my thoughts and to meet the arguments brought forward to sustain slavery.”

Douglass was an influential African-American abolitionist. He purchased a copy of The Columbian Orator when he was around 12 years old and it with him when he escaped from slavery in 1838. Douglass reports that the two pieces of the recitation materials in the book that most influenced him was the master-slave dialogue (a selection by Aiken, pp. 240-242 in The Columbian orater) and the speech on behalf of Catholic Emancipation (by O’Conner, pp. 243-247 in The Columbian Orator).

Bingham promoted public libraries in many New England towns. He served for two years as the Boston librarian and for several years he was the director of the Massachusetts state prison.

Caleb Bingham died on April 6, 1817, in Boston, Massachusetts. His tombstone in the cemetery of Dartmouth College reads as follows:

By the gospel he subdues the ferocity of the savage;
And to the civilized he opened new paths of science.
Go, if you can, and deserve
The sublime reward of such merit.

Writings of Caleb Bingham, chronologically arranged

Bingham, Caleb (1794) The American preceptor: Being a new selection of lessons for reading and speaking. Designed for the use of schools. New York: Stereotyped by B. & J. Collins, for C. Bingham, Boston.

Bingham, Caleb (1797) The Columbian orator. Boston, Manning & Loring.

Bingham, Caleb (1832) The American preceptor improved; being a new selection of lessons for reading and speaking. Designed for the use of schools. 68th edition. Boston: J. H. A. Frost.

Writings about Caleb Bingham, alphabetically arranged

Douglass, Frederick (Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass. In Henry Louis Gates (Ed.) (1987). The classic slave narratives. (p. 279). NY: Mentor.

Fowle, W. B. (1858). Memoir of Caleb Bingham. Journal of Education, 10, 325-349.

Fowle, W. B. (1858). Caleb Bingham and the public school of Boston American Journal of Education, 5, 325-349.

Ganter, Granville (Sept. 1997). The active virtue of The Columbian Orator, The New England Quarterly, 70, 3, 463-476

Supplementary materials about Bingham:

Contents of Fowle’s memoir of Bingham:

Contents of Fowle's memoir of Bingham