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public interest survive in fresh remembrance seventy years after their delivery? I confess I can think of no jury. speeches of any kind which stand this ordeal except, in a limited way, some speeches of Erskine, and those all have the advantage of historical significance, dealing as they do with constitutional and political questions of great moment. But there is one of Webster's speeches to a jury which lives to-day, and no more crucial test could be applied than the accomplishment of such a feat. The White murder case was simply a criminal trial, without a vestige of historical, political, or general public interest. Yet Webster's speech for the prosecution has been read and recited until well-nigh hackneyed. It is in readers and manuals; and is still declaimed by schoolboys. Some of its phrases are familiar quotations and have passed into general speech. Let me recall a single passage:
“He has done the murder. No eye has seen him; no ear has heard him. The secret is his own, and it is safe.
“Ah, gentlemen, that was a dreadful mistake. Such a secret can be safe nowhere. The whole creation of God has neither nook nor corner where the guilty can bestow it and say it is safe. . .. A thousand eyes turn at once to explore every man, everything, every circumstance connected with the time and place; a thousand ears catch every whisper; a thousand excited minds intensely dwell on the scene, shedding all their light, and ready to kindle the slighest circumstance into a blaze of discovery. Meantime the guilty soul cannot keep its own secret. It is false to itself; or, rather, it feels an irresistible impulse of conscience to be true to itself. It labors under its guilty possession, and knows not what to do with it. The human heart was not made for the residence of such an inhabitant. It finds itself preyed on by a torment which it dares not acknowledge to God or man. A vulture is devouring it, and it can ask no sympathy or assistance either from heaven or earth. The secret which the
murderer possesses soon comes to possess him, and, like the evil spirits of which we read, it overcomes him, and leads him whithersoever it will. He feels it beating at his heart, rising to his throat, and demanding disclosure. He thinks the whole world sees it in his face, reads it in his eyes, and almost hears its workings in the very silence of his thoughts. It has become his master. It betrays his discretion, it breaks down his courage, it conquers his prudence. When suspicions from without begin to embarrass him and the net of circumstance to entangle him, the fatal secret struggles with still greater violence to burst forth. It must be confessed; it will be confessed. There is no refuge from confession but suicide, and suicide is confession.”
Those are words spoken to men, not written for them. It is a speech and nothing else, and yet we feel all through it the literary value and quality which make it imperishable.
Take another example. When Webster stood one summer morning on the ramparts of Quebec and heard the sound of drums and saw the English troops on parade, the thought of England's vast world-empire came strongly to his mind. The thought was very natural under the circumstances, not at all remarkable nor in the least original. Some years later, in a speech in the Senate, he put his thought into words, and this, as everyone knows, is the way he did it:
“A Power which has dotted over the surface of the whole globe with her possessions and military posts, whose morning drumbeat, following the sun and keeping company with the hours, circles the earth with one continuous and unbroken strain of the martial airs of England.”
The sentence has followed the drumbeat round the world, and has been repeated in England and in the Antipodes by men who never heard of Webster and probably did not know
that this splendid description of the British empire was due to an American. It is not the thought which has carried these words so far through time and space. It is the beauty of the imagery and the magic of the style.
Let me take one more very simple example of the quality which distinguishes Webster's speeches above those of others, which makes his words and serious thoughts live on when others, equally weighty and serious, perhaps, sleep or die. In his first Bunker Hill oration he apostrophized the monument, just as anyone else might have tried to do, and this is what he said:
“Let it rise, let it rise till it meet the sun in his coming; let the earliest light of morning gild it, and parting day linger and play on its summit.”
Here the thought is nothing, the style everything. No one can repeat those words and be deaf to their music on insensible to the rhythm and beauty of the prose with the Saxon words relieved just sufficiently by the Latin derivatives.
The ease with which it is done may be due to training, but the ability to do it comes from natural gifts which, as Goethe says,
we value more as we get older because they cannot be stuck on.” Possibly to some people it may seem very simple to utter such a sentence as I have quoted. To them I can only repeat what Scott says somewhere about Swift's style, perhaps the purest and strongest we have in the language. “Swift's style,” said Scott,“ seems so simple that one would think any child might write like him, and yet if we try we find to our despair that it is impossible.”
Such, then, were the qualities which in their perfect combination put Webster among the very few who stand forth as the world's greatest orators. In this age of ours when the
tendency is to overpraise commonplace work, to mistake notoriety for fame, and advertisement for reputation, it is of inestimable worth to a people to have as one of their own possessions such a master of speech, such a standard of distinction and of real excellence as we find in Webster. Such an orator deserves a statue.
But there is yet another ground, deeper and more serious than this. Webster deserves a statue for what he represented, for the message he delivered, and for that for which he still stands and will always stand before his countrymen and in the cold, clear light of history.
He was born just at the end of the war of the Revolution, when the country was entering upon the period of disintegration and impotence known as that of the Confederation. He was too young to understand and to feel those bitter years of struggle and decline which culminated in the adoption of the constitution. But the first impressions of his boyhood must have been of the prosperity, strength, and honor which came from the new instrument of government and from the better union of the States. His father followed his old chief in politics as he had in the field, and Webster grew up a Federalist, a supporter of Washington, Hamilton, and Adams and of the leaders of their party.
As he came to manhood he saw the first assault upon the national principle in the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions. He had entered public life when the second attack came in the movement which ended with the Hartford Convention, and with which, New England Federalist as he was, he could feel no sympathy. Again fifteen years passed and the third assault was delivered in the Nullification doctrines of South Carolina.
Webster was then at the zenith of his powers, and he came
forward as the defender of the constitution. In the reply to Hayne he reached the highest point in parliamentary oratory and left all rivals far behind. He argued his case with consummate skill, both legally and historically. But he did far more than this. He was not merely the great orator defending the constitution, he was the champion of the national principle. Whether the constitution was at the outset an experiment or not, whether it was a contract from which each or all of the signatories could withdraw at will, was secondary. The great fact was that the constitution had done its work. It had made a nation. Webster stood forth in the Senate and before the country as the exponent of that fact and as the defender of the nation's life against the attacks of separatism. This was his message to his time. This was his true mission. In that cause he spoke as none had ever spoken before and with a splendor of eloquence and a force of argument to which no one else could attain.
It is not to be supposed for an instant that Webster discovered the fact that the constitution had made a nation or that he first and alone proclaimed a new creed to an unthinking generation. His service was equally great, but widely different from this. The great mass of the American people felt dumbly, dimly perhaps, but none the less deeply and surely, that they had made a nation some day to be a great nation, and they meant to remain such and not sink into divided and petty republics.
This profound feeling of the popular heart Webster not only represented, but put into words. No slight service this, if rightly considered; no little marvel this capacity to change thought into speech, to give expression to the feelings and hopes of a people and crystallize them forever in words fit for such a use. To this power, indeed, we owe a large part