Oratory in History By J. Calvin Coolidge
Black River Academy Commencement
To further estimate the degree in which oratory has influenced the history of the world, would be a difficult task, but the history of every country and of every age turns with miracles wrought by this necromantic form. Oratory, as every schoolboy knows, was the master spirit of both great nations of antiquity, Greece and Rome, and plays an important part in modern nations.
It was not the fleets of Attica, though mighty, nor the valor of her troops, though unconquerable, that directed her destinies; but the words and gestures of the men who had the genius and skill to move, to concentrate, and to direct; the energies and passions of a whole people as though they were but one person. Even when Greece was in the last stages of decay, when she was oppressed by the galling tyranny of Philip, the Athenian populace, roused by the burning words of Demosthenes, started up with one accord and one cry to march on Philip; and the Macedonian monarch himself said of the orator who had baffled him, “Had I been there, he would have persuaded me to take up arms against myself. Such was the effect of oratory in Athens, a state weakened as it was by oppression and its life blood almost gone in long continued wars.
When the commons of Rome were ground down to the dirt beneath the load of debts which they owed to their patrician creditors, it was the agonizing appeals of one old man in rags, pale and famished, who told the citizens he had fought in eight and twenty battles, and yet had been imprisoned for a debt which he had been compelled to contract but could not pay, that caused a change of laws and a restoration to liberty of those who had been enslaved by their creditors. It was not alone the fate of Lucretia, but the eloquence of Brutus that drove the Tarquin from Rome, overthrew the throne, and established the Roman Republic. Aye! “Rome, that sat on her seven hills and from her throne of beauty ruled the world” received her freedom by the power of oratory. We are told that such was the force of Cicero’s oratory, that it not only confounded the audacious Cataline, and silenced the eloquent Hortentious, not only deprived Curio of all power of recollection, when he rose to oppose that great master of enchanting rhetoric, but made even Caesar tremble, change his determined purpose and acquit the man he had resolved to condemn. It was not till the two champions of ancient liberty, Demosthenes and Cicero, were silenced that the triumph of Despotism in Greece and Rome was complete.
In the Dark Ages, the earnest tones of a simple private man; who has left to posterity only his baptismal name with the modest surname of Hermit, that aroused the people to engage in the Crusades; drove back the victorious crescent, overthrew feudalism, freed the serfs, delivered the towns from the oppression of the Barons, and changed the moral face of all Europe. Two centuries later, the voice of a solitary monk shook the Vatican, and emancipated half of Europe from the dominion of Papal Rome. In later times, the achievements of oratory have been hardly less potent. What mighty changes have been wrought in England’s political system within the last fifty years by the indomitable energy of such orators as Vincent, Cobden, Bright, and scores of others, who traversed the kingdom, advocating the repeal of the Corn Laws and other measures which were once deemed Utopian and hopeless! During the French Revolution, it was the voice of Mirabeau, hurling defiance at the king, that inspired the Tiers-Etat with courage. When he cried out to the astonished emissary of Louis: “Slave, go tell your master that we are here by the will of the people, and that we will depart only at the point of the bayonet,” the words sounded like a thunder clap to all Europe, and from that moment the bondage of the nation was broken and the fate of despotism sealed.
Who can say what the history of Europe or even of the world would have been, had the British Parliament never been shaken by the powerful eloquence of Fox, Camden, or Grattan; or had Miribeau, Louvert, and Danton never hurled their fiery bolts from the French tribune? No one will say that in our own struggle for independence the majestic eloquence of Chatham, the profound reasoning of Burke, the burning satire and irony of Barre did not have influence on our fortunes in America. They tended to diminish the confidence of the British ministry in their hopes to hold us in subjection. There was not a man who did not struggle more boldly for liberty when those exhilarating sounds, uttered in the two houses of Parliament, reached him across the seas.
In the history of our own country, the triumphs of oratory have been hardly less marked than those of the Old World. In the night of tyranny, the eloquence of the country first blazed up, like the lighted signal fires of a distracted border to startle and enlighten the community. Everywhere as the news of some fresh invasion of our liberties and rights was bourne on the wings of the wind, men ran together and called upon some earnest citizen to address them. When, in 1761, James Otis, in a Boston popular assembly, denounced the British Writs of Assistance, in words like Marc Anthony, who said, “I come not, friends, to steal away your hearts, . . . I only speak right on; I tell you that which you yourselves do know”; his hearers were hurried away resistlessly on the torrents of his impressive speech. When he concluded, every man of the vast audience went away resolved to take up arms against the injustice.
In the first American Congress, convened at Philadelphia, Patrick Henry arose, and drew such a picture of the horrors of servitude and the charms of freedom that his hearers became activated as one soul, and the universal shout was “Liberty or Death.” The single speech of this one illustrious man gave an impulse which probably decided the fate of America. During the present century, the effects of oratory are no less obvious. As it was the eloquence of Hamilton, spoken and written, which in no small degree established our political system; – so it was the eloquence of Webster, with his clarion voice and mighty words, that mainly defended and saved it. As the great orator of Massachusetts, the champion of the Federal Constitution, closed his memorable reply to Hayne, profound silence reigned in the crowded Senate Chamber. When again, over thirty years later, Nullification once more raised its front, and stood forth armed for a long and desperate conflict, it was the ignited logic of this same Defender of the Constitution, and the echo of his burning, enthusiastic appeals for: “Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable” which roused the people to resistance, and, with the eloquence of Garrison and Philips, broke the fetters of the slave, then remaining the most formidable obstacle to the complete union of North and South.
The effects of sacred oratory on the history of the world would fill volumes. We will only recall the manner of John the Baptist, Paul, Peter, and Chrysostom, the golden mouthed; and in modern times, the names of such pulpit orators as Whitfield, Hall, Chalmers, Latimer, Knox, Edwards, Beecher, and Brookes. It would be hardly too much to say, that since the dawn of civilization, the triumphs of the tongue have rivaled, if not surpassed, those of the sword. Although some of the most fiery themes of eloquence may have passed away with the occasions of tyranny, outrage, and oppression that created them, though the age of Philippics has happily gone; yet so long as wickedness and misery, injustice and wretchedness prevail on the earth, so long as the millennium is still distant and Utopia a dream, the voice of the orator will still be needed to warn, to denounce, to terrify, and to overwhelm.
Transcript of Coolidge’s “Oratory in History” courtesy Vermont Historical Society.