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BOOK IV. The Golden Age of British Oratory
HE oratory of Great Britain reached its culminating 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 oratorieal 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)
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 fle 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.
S IR ROBERT WALPOLE, for twenty years Prime Minister of
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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 have 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. I stake my 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.
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What has Government done 2 They have sent an armed force, consisting of seventeen thousand men, to dragoon the Bostonians into what is called their duty; and, so far from once turning their eyes to the policy and destructive consequence of this scheme, are constantly sending out more troops. And we are told, in the language of menace, that if seventeen thousand men won’t do, fifty thousand shall. It is true, my lords, with this force they may ravage the country, waste and destroy as they march ; but, in the progress of fifteen hundred miles, can they occupy the places they have passed ? Will not a country which can produce three millions of people, wronged and insulted as they are, start up like hydras in every corner, and gather fresh strength from fresh opposition ? Nay, what dependence can you have upon the soldiery, the unhappy engines of your wrath 2 They are Englishmen, who must feel for the privileges of Englishmen. Do you think that these men can turn their arms against their brethren 2 Surely no. A victory must be to them a defeat, and carnage a sacrifice. But it is not merely three millions of people, the produce of America, we have to contend with in this unnatural struggle; many more are on their side, dispersed over the face of this wide empire. Every Whig in this country and in Ireland is with them. In this alarming crisis I come with this paper in my hand to offer you the best of my experience and advice; which is, that a humble petition be presented to his Majesty, beseeching him that, in order to open the way towards a happy settlement of the dangerous troubles in America, it may graciously please him that immediate orders be given to General Gage for removing his Majesty's forces from the town of Boston. Such conduct will convince America that you mean to try her cause in the spirit of freedom and inquiry, and not in letters of blood. There is no time to be lost. Every hour is big with danger. Perhaps, while I am now speaking the decisive blow is struck which may involve millions in the consequence. And, believe me, the very first drop of blood which is shed will cause a wound which may never be
healed. THE WAR IN AMERICA [On November 18, 1777, Chatham, a few months only before his death, made a notable speech on the same subject. He spoke with impassioned eloquence against the employment of Indians in the war with the colonists, alluded to the probability of an alliance between the United States and France, and continued as follows.]
The people whom they (the ministers) affect to call rebels, but whose growing power has at last obtained the name of enemies: the people with
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whom they have engaged this country in war, and against whom they now command our implicit support in every measure of desperate hostility; this people—despised as rebels—are acknowledged as enemies, are abetted against you, supplied with every military store, their interests consulted, and their ambassadors entertained by your inveterate enemy. And our ministers dare not interpose with dignity and effect. Is this the Honor of a great kingdom 2 Is this the indignant spirit of England, who but yesterday gave law to the House of Bourbon 2 The dignity of nations demands a decisive conduct in a situation like this. The desperate state of our arms abroad is in part known. I love and I honor the English troops. No man thinks more highly of them than I do. I know they can achieve anything except impossibilities; and I Rnow that the conquest of English America is an impossibility. You cannot, I venture to say, you cannot conquer America. Your armies in the last war effected everything that could be effected, and what was it? It cost a numerous army, under the command of a most noted general, now a noble lord in this House, a long and laborious campaign, to expel five thousand Frenchmen from French America. My 1ords, you cannot conquer Americal What is your present situation there 2 We do not know the worst, but we know that in the three campaigns we have done nothing and suffered much. We shall soon know, and in any event have reason to lament, what may have happened since. As to conquest, my lords, I repeat, it is impossible ! You may swell every expense and every effort still more extravagantly; pile and accumulate every assistance you can buy or borrow ; traffic and barter with every little, pitiful German prince who will sell his subjects to the shambles of a foreign power | Your efforts are forever vain and impotent; doubly so from this mercenary aid on which you rely. For it irritates, to an incurable resentment, the minds of your enemies, to overrun them with the mercenary sons of rapine and plunder, devoting them and their possessions to the rapacity of hireling cruelty. If I were an American, as I am an Englishman, while a foreign troop remained in my country I never would lay down my arms; never, never, never/