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GREAT occasions bring forth great men and lead to great events. What would have been known of Washington but for the struggle for
American Independence, of Napoleon but 'for the
French Revolution, of Grant but for the American
Civil War? Men like these would, no doubt, have
made their mark under any circumstances, but their
fame would have been limited by the lack of opportunity for the display of their special powers, and the history of their achievements would not have
' stirred the world It is the same with oratory as with
other branches of human effort, its great triumphs have
been dependent upon great exigencies in human affairs.
While orators have been as numerous almost as
autumn leaves, world-famous orations seem as few
as the planets of our solar system. The orator who would win fame must have, not only fine powers of thought and expression, but the impulse of momentous events, some vast stir in the tide of history to call forth his genius to the uttermost and to give his words
a living force and a permanent vitality.
The first such occasion in American history was that exciting era which gave birth to the American Republic. It is the stirring events of this historymaking epoch that produced the earliest outburst of American oratory, due to such masters of the art as Henry, Otis, Ames, Hamilton and their contemporas ries, and it is from this epoch, therefore, that our first selections are drawn.
hall of the House of Burgesses of Virginia, its date the year 1765, its occasion the effort of the King and Parliament of England to tax the American colonies without their consent. The Burgesses had met in protest and talked weakly about the Stamp Act, which was stirring up America to its depths, but were on the point of adjourning without taking any action, when a tall and slender man whom .few of them know arose in their midst. It was a new member, a lawyer from Louisa County, Patrick Henry by name. The old and influential members looked with displeasure on the raw newcomer, who ventured to address them on a topic which they had feared to deal with themselves. They were the more annoyed and amazed when he offered a set of resolutions setting forth that the Stamp Act and all acts of Parliament affecting the Colonies were contrary to the Constitution, and therefore null and void, and that the Burgesses and Governor alone had the right to levy taxes upon the people of Virginia.
This daring declaration startled the more timid members and a storm of protests arose, but they failed to silence the young orator, who quickly showed himself master of the situation. Never had the old walls of Virginia’s legislative hall rung with such mighty words as those by which he supported his resolution, and his address ended with a thunderbolt of defiant eloquence that startled the world. His vibrant voice rang out with “Caesar had his Brutus, Charles the First his Cromwell, and George the Third”—Loud cries of “Treason i Treason!" from the frightened Burgesses interrupted the speaker. Heedless of them he completed his sentence, “MAY PROFIT BY THEIR EXAMPLE.
L ET us view a great historical picture. Its scene is the Assembly
20 PATRICK HENRY
If this be treason, make the most of it.” His words carried the hall by storm; the resolutions were adopted; and from that day to this Patrick Henry has been hailed as one of the greatest of American orators. Henry was sent as a delegate to the Continental Congress, which he electrified with his noble oratory. During most of the Revolution he was Governor of Virginia and again from 1784 to 1786, poverty forcing him to decline other elections and return to his legal practice. In 1788 he opposed the new Constitution, being a strong advocate of State independence. His speeches in this cause were very eloquent, but the Constitution was adopted. In 1795 President Washington offered him the position of Secretary of State, which he declined. The following year he was again elected Governor of Virginia, which position he also declined. During the exciting events of 1798 and 1799 he once more entered the political field, made his final public address, and was elected to the Assembly. He died before he could take his seat.
AN APPEAL TO ARMS.
[As Patrick Henry had hurlcd the first defiance against Great Britain in 1765, he was the first to make an open appeal to arms in 1775. This was on March 23d, three weeks before the fight at Lexington precipitated the Revolution. Henry had returned from the Continental Congress and was now a member of the Virginia Convention, with Washington for one of his colleagues. Here he offcrcd a resolution that the Colony should be “put into a state of defence," and sustained it by the most brilliant speech to which the Revolution gave rise]
MR. PRESIDENT :
No man thinks more highly than I do of the patriotism, as Well as abilities, of the very worthy gentlemen who have just addressed the House. But different men often see the same subject in ditferent lights ; and, therefore, I hope it will not be thought disrespectful to those gentlemen, if, entertaining as I do opinions of a character very opposite to theirs, I shall speak forth my sentiments freely and without reserve. This is no time for ceremony. The question before the House is one of awful moment to this country. For my own part, I consider it as nothing less than a question of freedom or slavery; and in proportion to the magnitude of the subject ought to be the freedom of the debate. It is only in this way that we can hope to arrive at the truth, and fulfil the great responsibility which we hold to God and our country. Should I keep back my opinions at such a time, through fear of giving ofi'ence, I should consider myself as guilty of treason towards my country, and of an act of disloyalty toward the Majesty of Heaven, which I revere above all earthly kings.