Page images
PDF
EPUB

JAMES PROCTOR KNOTT (1830

-)

A STATESMAN AND HUMORIST

[ocr errors]

T is not often that Congress, and the country at large, is captured

by a single speech, but this was accomplished in 1871, by J.

Proctor Knott, then Representative from Kentucky, in perhaps the most irresistibly humorous speech ever delivered before the national law-makers. Duluth survived the satire of his speech, and in thirty years

has grown from a name on the map into a flourishing commercial city. But Knott became the victim of his speech. He could be sober and earnest enough on occasion, but Congress thereafter refused to take him seriously, everything he uttered being dissected for the possible spirit of fun, which might lurk somewhere within its sentences.. So we may designate Knott as the man of one speech. Mr. Knott is a Kentuckian by birth, though part of his life was passed in Missouri, where he was elected to the Legislature in 1858, and was Attorney-General for the State 1859-62. He served in Congress as a member from Kentucky 1867-83 and was Governor of Kentucky 1885-87. He was professor of civics and economics at Centre College from 1892 to 1894.

THE MYSTERY OF DULUTH [Early in 1871 a bill was introduced into the House of Representatives for the construction of what was entitled the St. Croix and Bayfield Railroad, for the development of a virgin northern corner of Minnesota, its proposed terminus being a newly settled place on Lake Superior named Duluth. The country seems to have been one of barren pine forest, which was being “developed” apparently for some personal interest. We offer a sample selection of the ridicule with which Mr. Knott riddled the project. Though not made on a social occasion, the speech is best fitted for this section of our work.]

No, sir, I repeat I have been satisfied for years that if there was any portion of the inhabited globe absolutely in a suffering condition for want of a railroad, it was those teeming pine barrens of the St. Croix. At

384

JAMES PROCTOR KNOTT

what particular point on that noble stream such a road should be commenced I knew was immaterial, and so it seems to have been considered by the draughtsman of this bill. It might be up at the spring, or down at the foot-log, or the water-gate, or the fish-dam, or anywhere along the bank, no matter where. But in what direction it should run, or where it should terminate, were always to my mind questions of the most painful perplexity. I could conceive of no place on “God's green earth” in such straightened circumstances for railroad facilities as to be likely to desire or willing to accept such a connection. I knew that neither Bayfield nor Superior City would have it, for they both indignantly spurned the munificence of the Government when coupled with such ignominious conditions, and let this very same land-grant die on their hands years and years ago, rather than submit to the degradation of a direct communication by railroad with the piny woods of the St. Croix ; and I knew that what the enterprising inhabitants of those giant young cities would refuse to take would have few charms for others, whatever their necessity or cupidity might be.

Hence, as I have said, sir, I was utterly at a loss to determine where the terminus of this great and indispensable road should be, until I accidentally overheard some gentleman the other day mention the name of “ Duluth.” Duluth! The word fell upon my ear with peculiar and indescribable charin, like the gentle murmur of a low fountain stealing forth in the midst of roses ; or the soft, sweet accents of an angel's whisper in the bright, joyous dream of sleeping innocence. Duluth ! 'Twas the name for which my soul had panted for years, as the hart panted for the water-brooks. But where was Duluth ? Never, in all my limited reading, had my vision been gladdened by seeing the celestial word in print. And I felt a profounder humiliation in my ignorance that its dulcet syllables had never before ravished my delighted ear. I was certain the draughtsmen of this bill had never heard of it, or it would have been designated as one of the termini of this road. I asked my friends about it, but they knew nothing of it. I rushed to the library and examined all the maps I could find. I discovered in one of them a delicate, hair-like line, diverging from the Mississippi near a place marked Prescott, which I suppose was intended to represent the river St. Croix, but I could nowhere find Duluth.

Nevertheless, I was confident it existed somewhere, and that its discovery would constitute the crowning glory of the present century, if not of all modern times. I knew it was bound to exist, in the very nature of things ; that the symmetry and perfection of our planetary system would be incomplete without it; that the elements of material nature would long

JAMES PROCTOR KNOTT

385

since have resolved themselves back into original chaos if there had been such a hiatus in creation as would have resulted from leaving out Duluth. In fact, sir, I was overwhelmed with the conviction that Duluth not only existed somewhere, but that, wherever it was, it was a great and glorious place. I was convinced that the greatest calamity that ever befell the benighted nations of the ancient world was in their having passed away without a knowledge of the actual existence of Duluth; that their fabled Atlantis, never seen save by the hallowed vision of inspired poesy, was, in fact, but another name for Duluth; that the golden orchard of the Hesperides was but a poetical synonym for the beer-gardens in the vicinity of Duluth. I was certain that Herodotus had died a miserable death, because in all his travels, and with all his geographical research, he had never heard of Duluth. I knew that if the immortal spirit of Homer could look down from another heaven than that created by his own celestial genius, upon the long line of pilgrims from every nation of the earth to the gushing fountain of his poesy opened by the touch of his magic wand ;—if he could be permitted to behold the vast assemblage of grand and glorious productions of the lyric art called into being by his own inspired strains, he would weep tears of bitter anguish that, instead of lavishing all the stores of his mighty genius upon the fall of Ilion, it had not been his more blessed lot to crystallize in deathless song the rising glories of Duluth. Yes, sir, had it not been for this map, kindly furnished by the Legislature of Minnesota, I might have gone down to my obscure and humble grave in an agony of despair, because I could nowhere find Duluth. Had such been my melancholy fate, I have no doubt that with the last feeble pulsation of my breaking heart, I should have whispered " Where is Duluth?”

But, thanks to the beneficence of that band of ministering angels who have their bright abodes in the far-off capital of Minnesota, just as the agony of my anxiety was about to culminate in the frenzy of despair, this blessed map was placed in my hands; and as I unfolded it a resplendent scene of ineffable glory opened before me, such as I imagine burst upon the enraptured vision of the wandering peri through the opening of Paradise. There, there for the first time, my enchanted eye rested upon the ravishing word, “Duluth."

This map, sir, is intended, as it appears from its title, to illustrate the position of Duluth in the United States; but if gentlemen will examine it, I think they will concur with me in the opinion that it is far too modest in its pretensions. It not only illustrates the position of Duluth in the United States, but exhibits its relations with all created things. It even goes further than this. It lifts the shadowy veil of futurity, and affords

386

JAMES PROCTOR KNOTT

us a view of the golden prospects of Duluth far along the dim vista of ages yet to come.

If gentlemen will examine it, they will find Duluth, not only in the centre of the map, but represented in the centre of a series of concentric circles one hundred miles apart, and some of them as much as four thousand miles in diameter, embracing alike, in their tremendous sweep, the fragrant savannas of the sunlit South, and the eternal solitudes of snow that mantle the ice-bound North. How these circles were produced is, perhaps, one of the most primordial mysteries that the most skillful paleologist will never be able to explain. But the fact is, sir, Duluth is preeminently a central place, for I am told by gentlemen who have been so reckless of their own personal safety as to venture into those awful regions where Duluth is supposed to be, that it is so exactly in the centre of the visible universe that the sky comes down at precisely the same distance all around it. ...

Sir, I might stand here for hours and hours, and expatiate with rapture upon the gorgeous prospects of Duluth, as depicted upon this map. But human life is too short and the time of this House far too valuable to allow me to linger longer upon the delightful theme.

I think every gentleman on this floor is as well satisfied as I am that Duluth is destined to become the commercial metropolis of the universe, and that this road should be built at once . .. Nevertheless, sir, it grieves my very soul to be compelled to say that I cannot vote for the grant of lands provided for in this bill. Ah, sir, you can have no conception of the poignancy of my anguish that I am deprived of that blessed privilege! There are two insuperable obstacles in the way. In the first place my constituents, for whom I am acting here, have no more interest in this road than they have in the great question of culinary taste now perhaps agitating the public mind of Dominica, as to whether the illustrious commissioners who recently left this capital for that free and enlightened republic would be better fricasseed, boiled or roasted ; and in the second place these lands, which I am asked to give away, alas, are not mine to bestow. My relation to them is simply that of trustee to an express trust. And shall I ever betray that trust? Never, sir ! Rather perish Duluth! Perish the paragon of cities. Rather let the freezing cyclones of the bleak Northwest bury it forever beneath the eddying sands of the raging St. Croix !

WU TING FANG

A TWENTIETH CENTURY ORATOR FROM CHINA

W

E are almost daily learning something new about the great silent

empire of Eastern Asia, the “Celestial Kingdom ” of the far

East. No one, for instance, would have thought of crediting any of the Chinese with powers of oratory. There is nothing, so far as we know, in the conditions of China to develop the art of public speaking-either political, legal, religious or educational. Yet in Wu Ting Fang, late Chinese Minister to the United States, we have had an orator of excellent powers, a living prooi that the Chinaman only needs opportunity to develop oratorical ability. Minister Wu, indeed, was educated in Western lands, is proficient in the English language and literature, and has native powers of thought and fluency in expression associated with a sense of humor which gives piquancy to his utterances. It is to these educational and natural powers that he owes his reputation in oratory. During his sojourn at Washington he was often heard in the neighboring cities, on social or other occasions, and proved himself an entertaining and popular orator—not an especially talented speaker, but one capable of interesting an American audience.

A WONDERFUL NATION [In 1900 the Chinese Minister delivered a brief address at a club dinner in New York, in which he highly eulogized the United States, alike for the progressive spirit of its institutions, the honor and ability of its officials, and its greatness and rare promise as a nation. We append this testimonial to the American spirit.]

Gentlemen, from my boyhood I have learned in the classics of Confucius that in your dealings with others your words should be sincere. I can conscientiously say that I have always acted up to that injunction. It is sometimes said that a diplomatic representative is a gentleman sent abroad to lie for the good of his country. Perhaps that would do two or

« PreviousContinue »