Page images

BOOK II. The Golden Age of American Oratory


F what may be called the critical periods in the

history of the United States, there have

been two which stand pre-eminent in the development of oratory as in other respects. The first of these was the period of unrest and social and political turmoil which led to the war of the Revolution and to the formation of the Constitution. The second was the period of equal disturbance which had its outcome in the Civil War. In both cases a conflict of words preceded that of arms. The voice of the orator was the weapon employed, and a long contest on the rostrum preceded the appeal to arms. With the first of these periods we have already dealt. The second was dominated by two exciting political problems, the tariff question and the slavery controversy. The first of these led to the attempted secession from the Union of South Carolina. Its most notable result, so far as oratory is concerned, was the famous Congressional debate between Daniel Webster and Robert Y. Hayne, the grandest verbal passage-at-arms in American history. The other subject of controversy was more extended; continuing for forty years, during which the halls of Congress rang with arguments of fiery contestants; and ending in actual war when logic and argument had failed to smooth the waves of hostile feeling. This period has been well denominated“ The Golden Age of American Oratory.” It gave rise to such giants in debate as Clay, Webster, Calhoun, and added to the literature of oratory many brilliant examples of the speaker's art.

HENRY CLAY (1777–1852)


[ocr errors]

N those days of tariff and slavery agitation, when all seemed at

risk in the great Republic of the West, the noble figure of Henry

Clay stood in the front rank of the patriots who fought against the forces of disunion; not towering, like Webster, in heroic defiance of the foes of the Union, but healing its wounds, allaying the violence of the combat, and winning by mild measures what could not be attained by violence. Where other men made themselves admired, Clay made himself loved. His gentleness and courtesy won him an abiding place in the hearts of his countrymen. He was everywhere the favorite of the people. “Who ever," says Parton, “heard such cheers, so hearty, distinct and ringing, as those which his name evoked ? Men shed tears at his defeat and women went to bed sick from pure sympathy with his disappointment. He could not travel during the last thirty years of his life, he only made progresses ; the committee of one State passing him on to the committee of another, the hurrahs of one town dying away as those of the next caught his ear.”

How did this man win such-high esteem ? He began life humbly enough, working on a Virginia farm to aid his widowed mother, and riding barefoot to mill for the family flour—whence his familiar title, “The Mill-boy of the Slashes." A clerk in Richmond at fourteen, he was admitted to the bar at twenty, and by signal fortune became a member of the United States Senate before reaching the constitutional limit of thirty years of age. His rapid progress was due to his fine native powers of oratory, his skill in debate, and his controlling influence in political measures. Endowed by nature with a voice of wonderful compass and rich harmony, fluent in delivery

[blocks in formation]

and graceful in gesture, his reputation soon spread from end to end of the land. “ Take him for all in all," says Parton, " we must regard him as the first of American orators; but posterity will not assign him that high rank, for posterity will not hear that matchless voice, will not see those large gestures, those striking attitudes, that grand manner, which gave to second-rate composition first-rate effect.” While excelled as a reasoner by Webster, and surpassed in fiery earnestness by Calhoun, none were his equals. in grace of oratory and charm of manner. His speeches do not all read well. Many dull passages are met with. They lack that splendor of delivery which gave them such winning effect. Yet they present, even on the printed page, hundreds of admirable passages, and will long be perused with pleasure and profit by students and lovers of oratory.

In the several critical periods of American history which came while Clay was in Congress, his broad spirit of conciliation went far to tide the Union over the danger points in its career. Three great compromise measures were engineered by him—the Missouri Compromise of 1820, the Tariff Compromise of 1833, and the Territorial Compromise of 1850, the latter two being initiated and carried through by him. By these noble services he smoothed the waves of discontent and stayed the spirit of disunion until death removed him from the scene. His own words form the true motto of his character: "I would rather be right than be President."

THE AMERICAN SYSTEM (Clay, who had argued strongly in favor of a protective tariff during the spirited discussion in 1824, took different ground in 1832 and 1833, during a period of excitement in the South against high tariff that yielded in South Carolina an attempt to nullify the United States tariff laws. Clay, in a speech in 1832, showed vividly the prosperity which had arisen between 1824 and the latter date, due, as he believed, to the protective tariff. But in the following year he introduced, in order to allay the irritation, a bill for a gradual reduction of the tariff during the ten succeeding years. This was the compromise above spoken of.]

Eight years ago it was my painful duty to present to the House of Congress an unexaggerated picture of the general distress pervading the whole land. We must all yet remember some of its frightful features. We all know that the people were then oppressed and borne down by an enormous load of debt; that the value of property was at the lowest point of depression; that ruinous sales and sacrifices were everywhere made of real estate ; that stop-laws and relief-laws and paper-money were adopted

[blocks in formation]

Twelve thousand volunteers were called out, and preparations made for the defence of the State, but Jackson's energetic measures quickly brought them to an end. In the following March the passage of Clay's Compromise Tariff Act removed the subject of dispute ; and in a subsequent convention, over which Governor Hayne presided, the Nullification measure was repealed. Hayne was a man of excellent mental powers and was ready, fluent and able as an orator.

SOUTH CAROLINA AND THE UNION [Mr. Foot's resolution, which called forth the brilliant passage of arms between the oratorical champions of South Carolina and Massachusetts, was for an inquiry and report on the quantity of the public lands remaining within each State and Territory, and to consider the expediency of continuing or ceasing their sale. This resolution was debated by Hayne in two able speeches, both of which were answered by Webster. In these speeches the subject broadened far beyond the original topic, bringing in the question of the stability of the Union. In his second speech Hayne was very caustic in his allusions to the Massachusetts Senator, provoking the latter to his famous rejoinder. We must confine ourselves to suggestive extracts from this speech.]

MR. PRESIDENT : When I took occasion, two days ago, to throw out some ideas with respect to the policy of the Government, in relation to the public lands, nothing certainly could have been further from my thoughts than that I should have been compelled again to throw myself upon the indulgence of the Senate. Little did I expect to be called upon to meet such an argument as was yesterday urged by the gentleman from Massachusetts (Mr. Webster). Sir, I questioned no man's opinions; I impeached no man's motives ; I charged no party, or State, or section of country with hostility to any other, but ventured, as I thought in a becoming spirit, to put forth my own sentiments in relation to a great national question of public policy. Such was my course. The gentleman from Missouri (Mr. Benton), it is true, had charged upon the Eastern States an early and continued hostility towards the West, and referred to a number of historical facts and documents in support of that charge. Now, sir, how have these different arguments been met? The honorable gentleman from Massachusetts, after deliberating a whole night upon his course, comes into this chamber to vindicate New England; and, instead of making up his issue with the gentleman from Missouri, on the charges which he had preferred, chooses to consider me as the author of those charges; and, losing sight entirely of that gentleman, selects me as his adversary, and pours all the vials of his mighty wrath upon my devoted head. Nor is he willing to stop there. He goes on to assail the institutions and policy of the South, and calls in question the principles and

[blocks in formation]

name of Webster will always live as one of the few supreme orators of the world.

THE REPLY TO HAYNE [Of Daniel Webster's Congressional orations, that which stands first on the roll of fame is his magnificent address of January 30, 1830. The occasion for this famous display of oratory was a speech made by Robert Y. Hayne, of South Carolina, in which he affirmed the right of a State to annul an Act of Congress, assailed New England, and made caustic remarks about Mr. Webster himself. From this speech we have quoted. Webster's reply was unanswerable. In it he drew the charge from Mr. Hayne's guns by praising South Carolina while eulogizing Massachusetts.]

The eulogium pronounced on the character of the State of South Carolina, by the honorable gentleman, for her revolutionary and other merits, meets my hearty concurrence. I shall not acknowledge that the honorable member goes before me in regard for whatever of distinguished talent, or distinguished character, South Carolina has produced. I claim part of the honor, I partake in the pride, of her great names. I claim them for countrymen, one and all : the Laurenses, the Rutledges, the Pinckneys, the Sumpters, the Marions-Americans all—whose fame is no more to be hemmed in by State lines than their talents and patriotism were capable of being circumscribed within the same narrow limits. In their day and generation they served and honored the country, and the whole country, and their renown is of the treasures of the whole country. Him, whose honored name the gentleman himself bears— does he esteem me less capable of gratitude for his patriotism, or sympathy for his sufferings, than if his eyes had first opened upon the light of Massachusetts instead of South Carolina ? Sir, does he suppose it in his power to exhibit a Carolina name so bright as to produce envy in my bosom? No, sir, increased gratification and delight, rather. I thank God, that, if I am gifted with little of the spirit which is able to raise mortals to the skies, I have yet none, as I trust, of that other spirit which would drag angels down. When I shall be found, sir, in my place here in the Senate, or elsewhere, to sneer at public merit, because it happens to spring up beyond the little limits of my own State or neighborhood; when I refuse, for any such cause, or for any cause, the homage due to American talent, to elevated patriotisın, to sincere devotion to liberty and the country; or, if I see an uncommon endowment of Heaven, if I see extraordinary capacity and virtue in any son of the South, and if, moved by local prejudice, or gangrened by State jealousy, I get up here to abate a tithe of a hair from his just character and just fame, may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth !

Sir, let me recur to pleasing recollections—let me indulge in refreshing remembrances of the past—let me remind you that in early times no

« PreviousContinue »