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The Oration

( Originally Published 1922 )

Just as there is no precise line that marks off the formal address from the informal, so we cannot say that there is any exact point at which the formal address takes wing to mount into the higher realm of oratory. There is, perhaps, common consent that what we call the oration is the highest and most eloquent form of spoken address. Indeed, do we not mean by the term oratory public speech that is pure eloquence? So easy is it to give the impression that the oration is something artificial that the author attempts to describe or define it only with caution and anxiety.

The term oration has been reserved to apply to public speech that is noble, dignified, and passionate. "Oratory pertains to large subjects, treated in a large manner." The true oration cannot grow out of what is petty or mean or insincere. Before there can be an oration some earnest heart must be aflame with a vital theme that touches the lives of men and women every-where. The oration does not seek merely to convince the reason. The oration has as its object action. The orator "is a speaker inspired by purpose and passion. He has a torrid fervor—energy, action—the power of seeing the essential parts of his subject, velocity and fitness of expression, presenting an impelling argument with a directness that cannot be mistaken, and a force that cannot be evaded. Sometimes a single burst of scorn is a speech, as when Henry Clay, in slavery abolition days, made the famous retort to the slave-owners who tried to drown his voice by hisses, by exclaiming, `That is the sound you hear when the waters of truth drop upon the fires of hell. "

Oratory must move, arouse, persuade. The only real test we can apply to the success of an oration is the result obtained. Did the orator achieve the end he set out to achieve? Was the vote secured? Did the audience subscribe? Did the mob disperse? Did the men enlist? Were the sore-hearted, oppressed people comforted and cheered? Were the disheartened soldiers inspired to make one more assault? Did the community rise up as one man to smite graft and immorality? Were the vicious, dishonest men driven out of office? Did sinners give up their wickedness and change their bad habits to good ones? If so, a "winning oration" was delivered. If not, there may have been perfection of manner, ravishing elocution, phrases that dripped with an exquisite sweetness like the dropping of costly pearls into a transparent pool of still water; there may have been wit and wisdom, laughter and tears; and, at the close, all this may have been greeted with a whirlwind of ecstatic applause : but there was no oration.'

These words from Webster's oration on Adams and Jefferson not only describe oratory, but constitute as well a perfect example of what oratory is:

When public bodies are to be addressed on momentous occasions, when great interests are at stake, and strong passions excited, nothing is valuable in speech farther than as it is connected with high intellectual and moral endowments. Clearness, force, and earnestness are the qualities which produce conviction. True eloquence, indeed, does not consist in speech. It cannot be brought from far. Labor and learning may toil for it, but they will toil in vain. Words and phrases may be marshaled in every way, but they cannot compass it. It must exist in the man, in the subject, and in the occasion. Affected passion, intense expression, the pomp of declamation, all may aspire to it; they cannot reach it. It comes, if it comes at all, like the out-breaking of a fountain from the earth, or the bursting forth of volcanic fires, with spontaneous, original, native force. The graces taught in the schools, the costly ornaments and studied contrivances of speech, shock and disgust men, when their lives, and the fate of their wives, their children, and their country, hang on the decision of the hour. Then words have lost their power, rhetoric is vain, and all elaborate oratory contemptible. Even genius itself then feels rebuked and subdued, as in the presence of higher qualities. Then patriotism is eloquent; then self-devotion is eloquent. The clear conception, out-running the deductions of logic, the high purpose, the firm resolve, the dauntless spirit, speaking on the tongue, beaming from the eye, informing every feature, and urging the whole man onward, right onward to his object,— this, this is eloquence; or rather, it is something greater and higher than eloquence,— it is action, noble, sublime, godlike action.

I. The Theme

A great oration must be based on a great theme. Oratory has to do with such things only as are worth while — things

that grip speaker and people alike. "It moves among the interests and motives that are common to all." It deals with homely as well as sublime things, for what touches one human soul touches all. Truth and passion are no respecters of persons.

There is, after all, a supreme democracy in this world. It is doubtful whether it was ever nailed into any party platform. Perhaps no government ever realized it fully. It has certainly never come to mature life in any treaty, or found itself at home in any supreme council, or been embodied in any league of nations. But there is, nevertheless, such a thing as democracy a something that touches all the people; a true level of humanity where there is neither exemption nor advantage; where, absolutely, what is good for one is good for all, and what is bad for one is bad for all. This democracy is to be found in pain and pleasure, in truth and passion, in joy and sorrow, in love and hope, in aspiration and despair, in doubt and faith. Now, in order to ring true, an oration must find its themes somewhere in these vast and profound seas that sigh, and moan, and tumble about the feet of universal humanity. The subjects of oratory are to be found in the practical and moral issues that concern all men. Such themes lie about us everywhere in our daily life in men's interest in home and country and education and religion, and in such passions as love and hate and ambition and courage and sacrifice.

II. The Occasion

There must be some great occasion before there can be a great oration. The crowd as well as the theme arouses the orator. There is something awe-inspiring, almost terrible, in the simple fact of a vast mass of humanity bent upon some common end, swayed by some contagious emotion. Excited crowds give us a sense of the elemental: they are in society what tempests and volcanoes and earthquakes are in nature; yes, and what warm showers are, and white moonlight, and summer dawns. Nearly every famous oration or sermon has been the outgrowth of some culminating hour in the life of the community or the nation. There are many people assembled; much is at stake; there is intense interest and expectation; popular sympathy is aroused (or, on the other hand, violent and widespread opposition is on foot). Some of the most dramatic incidents of history spring out of such occasions. If a boy or girl wants to read stories that are full of action and excitement let him turn to the lives of the famous orators. There is space in these pages for only a few condensed examples of these thrilling oratorical struggles and triumphs. The first is a scene from the life of James A. Garfield. The story is told by a distinguished man who was an eye-witness:

I shall never forget the first time I saw General Garfield. It was the morning after President Lincoln's assassination. The country was excited to its utmost tension, and New York City seemed ready for the scenes of the French Revolution. . . . "Vengeance," was the cry. On the right, suddenly the shout rose, "The World! the World!" "The office of the World!" "World!" "World!" "World!" and a movement of perhaps eight thousand or ten thousand turning their faces in the direction of that building began to be executed. It was a critical moment. What might come no one could tell, did that crowd get in front of that office. Police and military would have availed little or been too late. A telegram had just been read from Washington, "Seward is dying." Just then, at that juncture, a man stepped forward with a small flag in his hand, and beckoned to the crowd. "Another telegram from Washington!" And then, in the awful stillness of the crisis, taking advantage of the hesitation of the crowd, whose steps had been arrested a moment, a right arm was lifted sky-ward, and a voice, clear and steady, loud and distinct, spoke out, "Fellow-Citizens! Clouds and darkness are round about Him! His pavilion is dark waters, and thick clouds of the skies. Justice and judgment are the establishment of His throne! Mercy and truth shall go before His face! Fellow-citizens! God reigns, and the Govern-ment at Washington still lives!" The effect was tremendous. The crowd stood riveted to the ground with awe, gazing at the motion-less orator, and thinking of God and the security of the Government in that hour. . . . All took it as a divine omen. It was a triumph of eloquence, inspired by the moment. Such as falls to but one man's lot, and that but once in a century. The genius of Webster, Choate, Everett, Seward, never reached it. . . . The man for the crisis was on the spot, more potent than Napoleon's guns at Paris. I inquired what was his name. The answer came in a low whisper, "It is General Garfield, of Ohio." 1

Opposition often proves as sharp a spur to the orator as sympathy. Steel strikes flint and the sparks fly. Some men can never do their best until their fighting blood is up. They need to be put upon their mettle. It was so with Wendell Phillips. His career as an orator began when he was a young man of twenty-six (November, 1837), in one of the stormiest meetings in the history of America. Rev. Elijah Lovejoy had been murdered by a mob at Alton, Illinois. Noted anti-slavery people called a meeting in Faneuil Hall, Boston, to give public expression of their horror at the deed. There were, however, many in the audience who were in sympathy with Lovejoy's murderers, and who were ready to defend the bloody deed. The chief spokesman of this faction was James T. Austin, an able and prominent lawyer, at that time attorney-general of Massachusetts. With menace in his manner and scorn and insult in the words he uttered, he rose and said that Lovejoy had "died as the fool dieth." He "compared his murderers with the men who destroyed the tea in Boston Harbor."

Standing among the auditors was a young man, unknown to fame, his brow still wet with the dews of youth, with the best blood of Boston coursing in his veins, the best culture of Harvard in his brain, and with a tongue already set aflame with the righteous indignation that filled his breast. He was a mighty listener, and he had come into that meeting — only to listen.

The attorney-general of the Commonwealth had scarcely retired, when that young man mounted the rostrum. Loud rose the hostile protestations of the partisans of the attorney-general; but with unflinching attitude, calm manner, and serenity of voice, the speaker on the platform held his place. It was a trying, a bitter ordeal; but it was also an opportunity which comes but once in the lifetime of a man of genius and of mettle.

"Sir, when I heard the gentleman lay down principles which place the murderers of Alton side by side with Otis and Hancock, with Quincy and Adams, I thought those pictured lips (pointing to the portraits in the hall) would have broken into voice, to rebuke the recreant American,— the slanderer of the dead."

A storm of applause and counter-applause burst from the audience. For a few moments the voice of the speaker was hushed. At length he continued,

"The gentleman said that he should sink into insignificance if he dared to gainsay the principles of these resolutions. Sir, for the sentiments he has uttered, on soil consecrated by the prayers of Puritans and blood of patriots, the earth should have yawned, and swallowed him up."

At this point the uproar became furious: the speaker's voice was unheard. "Take that back!" "Take back the recreant!" were the cries on one side! "Go on!" "Go on!" was the cry on the other. For a moment it seemed as if violence would follow; and two friends of the speaker . . . came to his side at the front of the platform. They were met with the demands of "Phillips or nobody!" "Make him take back recreant: he shan't go on till he takes it back!"

Unmoved from his position, unabashed by the terrors of the hour, the young man whose voice had enkindled such mighty wrath, resumed his speaking.'

The speech was concluded in triumph. It was in such a baptism of fire that Wendell Phillips first took the name orator. Equal in excitement and historic interest with this dramatic appearance of young Phillips at Faneuil Hall is the tempestuous struggle of Henry Ward Beecher with a hostile English audience at Manchester, England, in the fall of 1863. The more influential classes in England at this time were very unfriendly to the American Government in its life and death struggle with the seceding states of the South. Mr. Beecher did not go to England with the intention of making speeches in defense of the Northern cause; but the North had many active friends in England, and they presented convincing reasons why he should explain and defend the course of the United States at this tragic juncture. He finally consented to address a number of meetings in England. The following is an extract from his own account of the first meeting.

As soon as I began to speak the great audience began to show its teeth, and I had not gone on fifteen minutes before an unparalleled scene of confusion and interruption occurred. No American that has not seen an English mob can form any conception of one. I have seen all sorts of camp-meetings and experienced all kinds of public speaking on the stump; I have seen the most disturbed meetings in New York City, and they were all of them as twilight to midnight compared with an English hostile audience. For in England the meeting does not belong to the parties that call it, but to whoever chooses to go, and if they can take it out of your hands it is considered fair play. This meeting had a very large multitude of men in it who came there for the purpose of destroying the meeting and carrying it the other way when it came to the vote. I took the measure of the audience, and said to myself, "About one-fourth of this audience are opposed to me, and about one-fourth will be rather in sympathy, and my business now is not to appeal to that portion that is opposed to me, nor to those that are already on my side, but to bring over the middle section." How to do this was a problem. The question was, who could hold out longest? There were five or six storm centers, boiling and whirling - at the same time; here some one pounding on a group with his umbrella and shouting, "Sit down there;" over yonder a row between two or three combatants; somewhere else a group all yelling together at the top of their voices. It was like talking to a storm at sea. But there were the newspaper reporters just in front, and I said to them, "Now, gentlemen, be kind enough to take down what I say. It will be in sections, but I will have it connected by-and-by." I threw my notes away, and entered on a discussion of the value of freedom as opposed to slavery in the manufacturing interest, arguing that freedom everywhere increases a man's necessities, and what he needs he buys, and that it was, therefore, to the interest of the manufacturing community to stand by the side of labor through the country. I never was more self-possessed and never in more perfect good temper; and I never was more determined that my hearers should feel the curb before I got through with them."'

As is well known, Beecher was fully triumphant in these speeches. Lyman Abbott has the following to say about Beecher's oratory:

As one turns to these speeches, and endeavors in imagination to reproduce the stormy scenes which accompanied them, he is impressed with the quickness of the speaker in turning every adverse incident to his own advantage, the emotional eloquence of certain evidently extemporaneous passages, the knowledge of history and of constitutional principles which underlies them, the philosophical unity which makes of them all . . . "a single speech . . . delivered piecemeal in different places," and the peculiar adaptation of each address to the special audience to which it was delivered.

III. The Man

The quality of the oration will depend upon the quality of the man who utters it. A stream can rise no higher than its source.

After all, the oration will be simply the man translated into speech. There are, to be sure, thousands of silent, solid people who are destitute of the power to voice what they think and feel. But no matter how glib a person may be he cannot draw out what never was there. He may dazzle and deceive; but in the long run it is substance that counts, not display. It little boots that the manner be brilliant, if the matter fall short; and the matter that weighs heaviest is personality itself.

A study of the history of public speaking reveals many failures. Not every speaker rises to the emergency as did Patrick Henry, and Clay, and Webster, and Prentiss, and Beecher, and Grady, and Garfield, and Booker T. Washington; and as Beveridge, Bryan, Henry Allen, and Brooks Fletcher do in our own day. In the last resolve, it is character that triumphs in an emergency, and it is lack of character that dooms the orator to defeat. If the only element lacking on a supreme occasion is lack of adequacy of manhood on the part of the speaker, the failure is the more tragic and embarrassing. The hour is fraught with destiny; the theme is a worthy one for a Demosthenes, a Burke, or a Webster; but, alas! the man who is put forward is unable to wield the theme or to voice the occasion, so there is defeat and dismay instead of victory and jubilation.

It is ungracious to point out in detail the failures of chosen spokesmen at times when much was at stake. Yet it is worth while to give examples to warn the student as well as to incite him. So the writer will set down one sad tale of oratorical disaster due to the speaker's inaptness and lack of capacity. One of the chief universities of the country was holding its annual commencement. The gathering was at night, in the city of Chicago, in the chief downtown auditorium. The hall was packed. Hundreds of distinguished men and women sat on the platform. The university was a denominational, but not a sectarian, institution; it prided itself upon being a pioneer coeducational college; many of its trustees and graduates were Civil War veterans, and there were, of course, both on the plat-form and throughout the audience, many party men — both Democrats and Republicans. The speaker, a former Governor of a state, had a nation-wide reputation. His theme had to do with civic responsibility — possibly it was Civil Service Reform. Hundreds of graduates were to receive their degrees at the close of the address. The audience was expectant, eager, friendly. But within an hour, all was changed. The speaker lacked voice; he lacked magnetism; he lacked tact; he lacked good judgment; he lacked common sense. He attempted to read from manuscript to that vast audience. His paper was very, very long. He set out by attacking denominational institutions. He criticized adversely the idea of coeducation. He denounced partisanship — assailing first one great party, and then another in no uncertain terms. Finally, he had uncomplimentary things to say about the old soldier, and the pension system. By the time he had proceeded half an hour, there was restlessness in various parts of the house. At the end of an hour, there was open hostility; students began to whisper and shuffle their feet to show disapproval. But with his face in his manuscript the speaker went doggedly on.

Finally, the President of the University rose and begged the audience to hear the speaker respectfully to the end. But the noise grew louder: and, finally, from the irritated and exhausted men waiting for their degrees in the postgraduate sections, arose distinct and steady hisses. One of the most honored and distinguished men on the platform — a trustee of the University, an ardent supporter of coeducation, a devoted church man, a gallant officer during the Civil War — arose, and after securing quiet for a moment reminded the dis-orderly element that the speaker was their guest, and that courtesy and fair play demanded that he be given a hearing. The sea of disorder subsided to some extent; and the unhappy but stubborn disturber of the peace ploughed onward another fifteen minutes, and finally made a stormy harbor.

The next day a group of clergymen who had heard the address were talking excitedly about the event of the previous night, when an eminent bishop of the church under whose auspices the university was founded joined the group. He was asked what he thought of the commencement oration. "There were just three things the matter with it," he replied. "First, the speaker read it. Second, he read it poorly. Third, it was not worth reading."

In the last resolve, then, the making of a masterful oration involves the making of an eminent man. To enlarge and ennoble one's oratory the individual must be enlarged and ennobled. There is nothing that enters into human personality that will not be put under tribute to this most sublime function of man. It calls into play every highest power of his being. It brings into action every resource of voice; it taxes to the utmost his physical energies; it drafts into service the whole wide range of his experience; it tests the quality and compass of his general education; his moral fervor, his philosophy of life; his force of will; his whole character and personality are levied upon and are given opportunity for their fullest display. When a great man is seen thus in action — speaking, moving, thinking, willing, passionately aroused — his imagination on fire, his tongue as the pen of a ready writer, his thought flashing forward and backward driving in perfect order words, phrases, sentences, images — all of this simultaneously — one cannot resist exclaiming with Hamlet: "What a piece of work is man!"

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