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EARL OF CHESTERFIELD (1694-1773)
THE ORATOR OF WIT AND SARCASM
FAMOUS man was Philip Dormer Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield, in his time and season, posing at once as wit, orator, and
author, and for a long time serving as an active member of Parliament and Cabinet official. He sat in the House of Commons from 1716 to 1726, when he was given his title and promoted to the House of Lords. He entered the Pelham Cabinet in 1744, and retired from public life in 1748. Two things have helped to keep alive the memory of Chesterfield. One was Dr. Johnson's famous letter, in which he hotly scorched the politic Earl for withholding his patronage until after the publication of his great dictionary, and then offering it when it was no longer needed. The other was his well-known “ Letters to his Son,” which have gained a permanent place in English literature. They contain a good deal of shrewd and solid observation, but many of their teachings are those of a man of fashion of that age, and are by no means in accord with the code of social morals now prevailing. As an orator Chesterfield had marked ability, wit and sarcasm adding their force to the more solid characteristics of his method of speech. Until 1730 he was a Whig in politics and supported Walpole, but, ousted from office in the king's household by that minister, he joined the opposition and became one of his bitterest antagonists.
THE DRINKING FUND [Of Chesterfield's oratory the most effective existing example is his speech made in the House of Lords, February 21, 1743, on the Gin Act; a measure proposing to increase the revenue by licensing the sale of gin. In this powerful speech he antedated by a century the Prohibition movement, using the same arguments against the sale of ardent spirits as were employed by the nineteenth century advocates, and with equal effectiveness. We append a characteristic selection from this address. ]
EARL OF CHESTERFIELD
Luxury, my lords, is to be taxed, but vice prohibited, let the difficulties in executing the law be what they will. Would you lay a tax on the breach of the Ten Commandments ? Would not such a tax be wicked and scandalous; because it would imply an indulgence to all those who could pay the tax? Is not this a reproach most justly thrown by the Protestants upon the Church of Ronie? Was it not the chief cause of the Reformation ? And will you follow a precedent which brought reproach and ruin upon those that introduced it ? This is the very case now before you. You are going to lay a tax, and consequently to indulge a sort of drunkenness, which almost necessarily produces a breach of every one of the Ten Commandments. Can you expect the reverend bench will approve of this.
of this. I am convinced they will not; and therefore I wish I had seen it full upon this occasion.
We have already, my lords, several sorts of funds in this nation, so many that a man must have a good deal of learning to be master of them. Thanks to his Majesty, we have now among us the most learned man of the nation in this way. I wish he would rise up and tell us what name we are to give this new fund. We have already the Civil List Fund, the Sinking Fund, the Aggregate Fund, the South Sea Fund, and God knows how many others. What name we are to give this new fund I know not, unless we are to call it the Drinking Fund. It may, perhaps, enable the people of a certain foreign territory (Hanover] to drink claret, but it will disable the people of this kingdom from drinking anything else but gin ; for when a man has, by gin drinking, rendered himself unfit for labor or business, he can purchase nothing else ; and then the best thing for him to do is to drink on till he dies.
Surely, my lords, men of such unbounded benevolence as our present ministers deserve such honors as were never paid before ; they deserve to bestride a butt upon every signpost in the city, or to have their figures exhibited as tokens where this liquor is to be sold by the license which they have procured. They must be at least remembered to future ages as the “happy politicians " who, after all expedients for raising taxes had been employed, discovered a new method of draining the last relics of the public wealth, and added a new revenue to the Government. Nor will those who shall hereafter enumerate the several funds now established among us, forget, among the benefactors of their country, the illustrious authors of the Drinking Fund. .
The noble lord has been pleased kindly to inform us that the trade of distilling is very extensive ; that it employs great numbers ; and that they have arrived at an exquisite skill, and therefore-note well the consequence--the trade of distilling is not to be discouraged.
EARL OF CHESTERFIELD
Once more, my lords, allow me to wonder at the different conceptions of different understandings. It appears to me that since the spirits which the distillers produce are allowed to enfeeble the limbs and vitals of the blood, to pervert the heart and obscure the intellect, that the number of distillers should be no argument in their favor ; for I never heard that a law against theft was repealed or delayed because thieves were numerous. It appears to me, my lords, that if so formidable a body are confederated against the virtue or the lives of their fellow-citizens, it is time to put an end to the havoc, and to interpose while it is yet in our power to stop the destruction.
So little, my lords, am I afflicted with the merit of this wonderful skill which the distillers are said to have attained, that it is, in my opinion, no faculty of great use to mankind to prepare palatable poison ; nor shall I ever contribute my interest for the reprieve of a murderer, because he has, by long practice, obtained great dexterity in his trade.
If their liquors are so delicious that the people are tempted to their own destruction, let us at length, my lords, secure them from these fatal draughts by bursting the vials that contain them. Let us crush at once these artists in slaughter, who have reconciled their countrymen to sickness and to ruin, and spread over the pitfalls of debauchery such baits as cannot be resisted.
This bill, therefore, appears to be designed only to thin the ranks of mankind, and to disburden the world of the multitudes that inhabit it; and is perhaps the strongest proof of political sagacity that our new min. isters have yet exhibited. They well know, my lords, that they are universally detested, and that, whenever a Briton is destroyed, they are freed from an enemy; they have therefore opened the flood gates of gin upon the nation, that, when it is less numerous, it may be more easily governed.
Other ministers, my lords, who had not attained to so great a knowledge in the art of making war upon their country, when they found their enemies clamorous and bold, used to awe them with prosecutions and penalties, or destroy them like burglars, with prisons and with gibbets. But every age, my lords, produces some improvement; and every nation, however degenerate, gives birth, at some happy period of time, to men of great and enterprising genius. It is our fortune to be witnesses of a new discovery in politics. We may congratulate ourselves upon being contemporaries with those men who have shown that hangmen and halters are unnecessary in a State, and that ministers may escape the reproach of destroying their enemies by inciting them to destroy themselves.
The Golden Age of British Oratory
HE oratory of Great Britain reached its cul
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 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)
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.