Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres

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by Hugh Blair

In 1767 Blair published Heads of the Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, in the University of Edinburgh, which was reissued in 1771 and 1777. By the early 1780s he was considering publishing the lectures themselves, allegedly because he was worried about the wide circulation of corrupt manuscript copies, but perhaps also because he was then contemplating his retirement from the classroom. Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres appeared in two quarto volumes on 7 June 1783 in London, and on 5 July in Edinburgh. The publishers were once again Strahan, Cadell, and Creech, who paid Blair a handsome fee of £1500. As the author explained to his publishers on 21 June 1783, the work was based ‘on plain common sense, so as to be intelligible to all, without any abstruse metaphysics’ (NL Scot., MS 3813, fols. 17–18). It also benefited from Blair's comprehensive approach to his subject, which included discussions of the principles of taste and criticism, the rise and development of language, style, and various types of eloquence, both written and oral. Blair's book immediately became the new standard for the study of rhetoric and literary criticism, and was particularly popular and influential in the United States, where the Sermons also enjoyed great fame during the first half of the nineteenth century. In July 1784 Blair officially became joint holder of the rhetoric and belles-lettres chair with his disciple William Greenfield, who had already begun lecturing and collecting the class fees, while Blair continued to receive the £70 annual salary for life. [1]

Bibliographic Information

Author: Hugh Blair.

Title: Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres.

Published: Philadelphia: Printed and sold by Robert Aitken, 1784.

Edition: First American edition; viii, 454, [12] pages.

Evidence for Inclusion in Wythe's Library

Wythe definitely owned this title—a copy at the College of William & Mary includes the inscription on the front free endpaper: "For the Honorable George Wythe Esquire from his most affectionate friend and obliged humble servant. Thomas Lee Shippen." Signed "George W" below this. Listed in the Jefferson Inventory of Wythe's Library as Blair's lectures. 1st. vol. 4to. and given by Thomas Jefferson to his grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph. Both Brown's Bibliography[2] and George Wythe's Library[3] on LibraryThing list this title.

Description of the Wolf Law Library's copy

On permanent loan from the Earl Gregg Swem Library at the College of William & Mary. Bound in the original paper boards. A presentation copy, it is inscribed, "For the Honorable George Wythe Esquire from his most affectionate friend and obliged humble servant. Thomas Lee Shippen." Includes signatures of "George W." (on the front free end paper, below the inscription) and "T. J. Randolph" on the title page. The bookplate of W. K. Bixby is on the front pastedown.

View this book in William & Mary's online catalog.382045


  1. Richard B. Sher, ‘Blair, Hugh (1718–1800)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2009 accessed 11 June 2013
  2. Bennie Brown, "The Library of George Wythe of Williamsburg and Richmond," (unpublished manuscript, May, 2012) Microsoft Word file. Earlier edition available at: https://digitalarchive.wm.edu/handle/10288/13433
  3. LibraryThing, s. v. "Member: George Wythe," accessed on June 28, 2013, http://www.librarything.com/profile/GeorgeWythe