« PreviousContinue »
The Golden Age of British Oratory
HE oratory of Great Britain reached its culT"
minating period in the latter quarter of the
eighteenth century, in the eloquent and inspired utterances of such masters of the art as Chatham, Burke, Fox, Sheridan, Pitt, Grattan, Curran, and others well known to fame. The incitement to earnest and vigorous oratory then existed in large measure, and the response was not wanting. The first great inciting cause was the effort to coerce the colonists in America, and the war for independence that followed. During this period the British Parliament thundered with vehement harangues, it being a somewhat remarkable fact that the greatest orators of that era-Chatham, Burke, Fox, and Wilkes-were all strongly on the side of the colonists, assailing the administration in language whose fearlessness testifies to the freedom of speech then existing in England. There were important opportunities also for forensic oratory, especially the famous Warren Hastings trial, which led to some of the most splendid examples of the oratory of invective and accusation on record, especially those of Burke and Sheridan, which rank highly among oratorical triumphs. In the final decade of the century came another great occasion for parliamentary debate, in the French Revolution and the opening of the Napoleonic wars.
In all, the period was one full of food for oratory, and there arose in the British kingdom a greater number of orators of superior powers than in any other period of its history.
THE EARL OF CHATHAM (1708-1778)
THE GREAT COMMONER
IR ROBERT WALPOLE, for twenty years Prime Minister of
England, was fairly terrified when he first heard the voice of
young William Pitt in the House of Commons, and exclaimed, “ We must muzzle that terrible cornet of horse!” He tried to do so in 1741, in a sarcastic speech, in which he referred to Pitt's fluency of rhetoric and vehemence of gesture, “pompous diction and theatrical emotions.” He went on to say that “ Excursions of fancy and flights of oratory are pardonable in young men, but in no others.” Pitt's reply-beginning, “ The atrocious crime of being a young man, which the honorable gentleman has, with such spirit and decency, charged upon me, I shall neither attempt to palliate nor deny"-effectually settled the old Conservative, and showed the members of Parliament that they had a new force to deal with. In the years that followed Pitt took rank as one of the greatest orators of modern times. About 1760 he was idolized by the populace, who called him "The Great Commoner," but six years afterward he sacrificed his popularity by accepting a peerage, with the title of Earl of Chatham. He was now growing old, and was affected both physically and mentally, but recovered sufficiently to raise his voice in earnest protest against the acts of the King and his ministers before and during the American Revolution. His eloquent appeals in behalf of fhe colonists have endeared him to the people of the United States, as their most ardent friend in their days of mortal need.
As an orator, the name of Chatham ranks among the few supreme in this noble art. We possess but fragments of his speeches, but these serve to indicate the character of the eloquence to which he owed his great fame. But with him words were not all; manner told as well.
THE EARL OF CHATHAM
Hazlitt says, “The principle by which the Earl of Chatham exerted his influence over others was sympathy. He himself evidently had a strong possession of his subject, a thorough conviction, an intense interest; and this communicated itself from his manner, from the tones of his voice, from his commanding attitudes, and eager gestures, instinctively and unavoidably, to his hearers.”
REMOVE THE BOSTON GARRISON [No stronger words could hare been spoken in defense of the American colonists on their own shores than those which the aged Chatham uttered in the British House of Lords. In 1774 he denounced the measure for quartering troops on the people of Boston, and in January, 1775, made the notable speech from which we quote.]
When your lordships look at the papers transmitted to us from America, when you consider their firmness, decency, and wisdom, you cannot but respect their cause and wish to make it your own. For myself, I must affirm, declare, and avow that, in all my reading and observation (and it has been my favorite study, for I have read Thucydides, and have studied and admired the master-states of the world), I say, I must declare that, for solidity of reasoning, force of sagacity, and wisdom of conclusion, under such a complication of difficult circumstances, no nation or body of men can stand in preference to the General Congress at Philadelphia. I trust it is obvious to your lordships that all attempts to impose servitude upon such men, to establish despotism over such a mighty continental nation, must be vain, must be fatal.
We shall be forced, ultimately, to retract. Let us retract while we can, not when we must. I say we must necessarily undo these violent, oppressive acts. They must be repealed. You will repeal them. I pledge myself for it that you will, in the end, repeal them. reputation on it. I will consent to be taken for an idiot if they are not finally repealed.
[Speaking of the state of affairs in Boston, and the preparations for resistance, he said:]
Had the early situation of the people of Boston been attended to, things would not have come to this. But the infant complaints of Boston were literally treated like the capricious squalls of a child, who, it was said, did not know whether it was aggrieved or not.
But full well I knew, at that time, that this child, if not redressed, would soon assume the courage and voice of a man. Full well I knew that the sons of ancestors, born under the same free constitution and once breathing the same liberal air as Englishmen, would resist upon the same principles and on the same occasions.
I stake my
CHARLES JAMES FOX (1749–1806)
THE FAMOUS PARLIAMENTARY DEBATER
MONG the British statesmen who were on the side of the Ame
rican colonists in their Revolutionary War, Fox ranks high,
being still more radical in his views than the great Lord Chatham. Chatham urged conciliation of the rebellious colonists, but Fox favored complete separation, and foresaw and foretold its advantages. Throughout the war he was the most vigorous advocate of the claims of the colonists. At a later date the Warren Hasting's trial, the French Revolution, and the Napoleonic wars gave him an abundant field for the exercise of his rare talents, and he played a very active part in Parliament. The leader of the opposition to Pitt, he strenuously opposed the war with France, and advocated non-intervention views. He was on the point of introducing a bill for the abolition of the slave-trade when he died in 1806. Fox, despite the vicious irregularity of his life, was a man of genial and kindly instincts, generous and devoid of malignant feelings towards his opponents. As regards his powers as an orator he had a phenomenal fluency of extemporaneous speech, and we may quote Burke's opinion that he was "the greatest debater the world ever saw," and that of Mackintosh, who called him “the most Demosthenian speaker since Demosthenes."
THE TYRANNY OF THE EAST INDIA COMPANY [On the ist of December, 1783, Fox arraigned in a vigorous speech the reprehensible conduct of the irresponsible East India Company. It was a preliminary step towards the subsequent trial of Warren Hastings for his cruel and rapacious acts. ]
The lionorable gentleman charges me with abandoning that cause, which, he says, in terms of flattery, I had once so successfully asserted. 31