IT is the fortune of some opinions, as well as of some individual characters, to have been, during long succession of ages, subjects of continual controversy among mankind. In forming an estimate of the moral or intellectual merits of many a person, whose name is recorded in the volumes of history, their virtues and vices are so nearly balanced, that their station in the ranks of fame has never been precisely assigned, and their reputation, even after death, vibrates upon the hinges of events, with which they have little or no perceptible connexion [sic]. Such too has been the destiny of the arts and sciences in general, and of the art of rhetoric in particular. Their advancement and decline have been alternate in the annals of the world. At one period they have been cherished, admired, and cultivated; at another neglected, despised, and oppressed. Like the favorites of princes, they have had their turns of unbounded influence and of excessive degradation. Now the enthusiasm of their votaries has raised them to the pinnacle of greatness; now a turn of the wheel has hurled them prostrate in the dust. Nor have these great and sudden revolutions always resulted from causes seemingly capable of producing such effects. At one period the barbarian conqueror destroys, at another he adopts, the arts of the vanquished people. The Grecian muses were 1ed captive and in chains to Rome. Once there, they not only burst assunder their own fetters, but soon, mounting the triumphal car, rode with supreme ascendency over their victors. More than once have the Tartars, after carrying conquest and desolation over the empire of China, been subdued in turn by the arts of the nation, they had enslaved. As if by a wise and equitable retribution of nature the authors of violence were doomed to be overpowered by their own prosperity, and to find in every victory the seeds of defeat.
On the other hand the arts and sciences, at the hour of their highest exaltation, have been often reproached and insulted by those, on whom they had bestowed their choicest favors, and most cruelly assaulted by the weapons, which themselves had conferred. At the zenith of modern civilization the palm of unanswered eloquence was awarded to the writer, who maintained, that the sciences had always promoted rather the miser, than the happiness of mankind; and in the age and nation, which heard the voice of Demosthenes, Socrates has been represented as triumphantly demonstrating, that rhetoric cannot be dignified with the name of an art; that it is but a pernicious practice....the mere counterfeit of justice. This opinion has had its followers from the days of Socrates to our own J and it still remains an inquiry among men, as the age of Plato, and in that of Cicero, whether eloquence is an art, worthy of the cultivation of a wise and virtuous man. To assist us in bringing the mind to a satisfactory result of this inquiry, it is proper to consider the art, as well in its nature, as in its effects; to derive our inferences, not merely from the uses, which have been made of it, but from the purposes, to which it ought to be applied, and the end, which it is destined to answer.
The peculiar and highest characteristic, which distinguishes man from the rest of the animal creation, is REASON. It is by this attribute, that our species is constituted the great link between the physical and intellectual world. By our passions and appetites we are placed on a level with the herds of the forest; by our REASON we participate of the divine nature itself. Formed of clay, and compounded of dust, we are, in the scale of creation, little higher than the clod of the valley; endowed with reason, we are little lower than the angels. It is by the gift of reason, that the human species enjoys the exclusive and inestimable privilege of progressive improvement, and is enabled to avail itself of the advantages of individual discovery. As the necessary adjunct and vehicle of reason, the faculty of speech was also bestowed as an exclusive privilege upon man; not the mere utterance of articulate sounds; not the mere cries of passion, which he has in common with the lower orders of animated nature; but as the conveyance of thought; as the means of rational intercourse with his fellow-creature, and of humble communion with his God. It is by the means of reason, clothed with speech, that the most precious blessings of social life are communicated from man to man, and that supplication, thanksgiving, and praise, are addressed to the Author of the universe. How justly then, with the great dramatic poet, may we exclaim,
“Sure, he that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and God-like reason,
To rust in us, unus’d.”
A faculty thus elevated, given us for so sublime a purpose, and destined to an end so excellent was not intended by the supreme Creator to be buried in the grave of neglect. As the source of all human improvements, it was itself susceptible to improvement by industry and application, by observation and experience. Hence, wherever man bas been found in a social state, and wherever he bas been sensible of his dependence upon a supreme disposer of events, the value and the power of public speaking, if not universally acknowledged, has at least been universally felt.
For the truth of these remarks, let me appeal to the testimony of history, sacred and profane. We shall find it equally clear and conclusive from the earliest of her records, which have escaped the ravages of time. When the people of God were groaning under the insupportable oppressions of Egyptian bondage, and the Lord of Hosts condescended, by miraculous interposition, to raise them up a deliverer, the want of ELOQUENCE was pleaded, by the chosen object of his ministry, as an argument of his incompetency [sic] for the high commission, with which he was to be charged. To supply this deficiency, which, even in the communication of more than human powers, Eternal Wisdom had not seen fit to remove, another favored servant of the Most High was united in the exalted trust of deliverance, and specially appointed, for the purpose of declaring the divine will to the oppressor and the oppressed; to the monarch of Egypt and the children of Israel. “Is not Aaron, the Levite, thy brother? I know that he can SPEAK WELL. And he shall be thy spokesman unto the people; and he shall be, even he shall be to thee instead of a mouth, and thou shalt be to him instead of God.”
It was not sufficient for the beneficent purposes of divine Providence, that the shepherd of his flock should be invested with the power of performing signs and wonders to authenticate his mission, and command obedience to his words. The appropriate instrument to appal [sic] the heart of the tyrant upon his throne, and to control the wayward dispositions of the people, Was an eloquent speaker; and the importance of the duty is apparent in the distinction, which separated it from all the other transcendent gifts, with which the inspired leader was endowed, and committed it, as a special charge, to his associate. Nor will it escape your observation, that, when the first great object of their joint mission was accomplished, and the sacred system of laws and polity for the emancipated nation was delivered by the voice of heaven from the holy mountain, the same ELOQUENT SPEAKER was separated from among the children of Israel, to minister in the priest’s office; to bear the iniquity of their holy things; to offer up to God, their creator and preserver, the public tribute of their social adoration.
In the fables of Greece and Egypt the importance of eloquence is attested by the belief, that the art of public speaking was of celestial origin, ascribed to the invention of a God, who, from the possession of this faculty, was supposed to be the messenger and interpreter of Olympus. It is attested by the solicitude, with which the art was cultivated, at a period of the remotest antiquity.
With the first glimpse of historical truth, which bursts from the oriental regions of mythological romance, in that feeble and dubious twilight, which scarcely discerns the distinction between the fictions of pagan superstition and the narrative of real events, a school of rhetoric and oratory, established in the Peloponnesus [sic], dawns upon our view. After the lapse of a thousand years.from that time, Pausanias, a Grecian geographer and historian, explicitly asserts, that he had read a treatise upon the art, composed by the founder of this school, a contemporary and relative of Theseus, in the age preceding that of the Trojan war. The poems of Homer abound with still more decisive proofs of the estimation, in·which the powers of oratory were held, and of, he attention, with which it was honored, as an essential object of instruction in the education of youth.
From that era, through the long series of Greek. and Roman history down to the gloom of universal night,.in which the glories of the Roman empire expired, the triumphs and the splendor of eloquence are multiplied and conspicuous. Then it was, that the practice of the art attained a perfection, ever since unrivalled; and to which all succeeding times have listened with admiration and despair. At Athens and Rome a town meeting could scarcely be held, without being destined to immortality; a question of property between individual citizens could scarcely be litigated, without occupying the attention, and engaging the studies of the remotest nations and the most distant posterity.
There is always a certain correspondence and proportion between the estimation, in which an art is held, and the effects, which it produces. In the flourishing periods of Athens and Rome, eloquence was POWER. It was at once the instrument and the spur to ambition. The talent of public speaking was the key to the highest dignities; the passport to the supreme dominion of the state. The rod of Hermes was the sceptre [sic] of empire; the voice of oratory was the thunder of Jupiter. The most powerful of human passions was enlisted in the cause of eloquence, and eloquence in return was the most effectual auxiliary to the passion. In proportion to the wonders, she achieved, was the eagerness to acquire; the faculties of this mighty magician. Oratory was taught, as the occupation of a life. The course of instruction commenced with the infant in the cradle, and continued to the meridian of manhood. It was made the fundamental object of education, and every other part of instruction for childhood, and of discipline for youth, was bent to its accommodation. Arts, science, letters, were to be thoroughly studied and investigated upon the maxim, that an orator must be a man of universal knowledge. Moral duties were inculcated, because none but a good man could be an orator. Wisdom, learning, virtue herself, were estimated by their subserviency [sic] to the purposes of eloquence, and the whole duty of man consisted in making himself an accomplished public speaker.
With the dissolution of Roman liberty, and the decline of Roman taste, the reputation and the excellency of the oratorical art fell alike into decay. Under the despotism of the the Cæsars, the end of eloquence was perverted from persuasion to panegyric, and all her faculties were soon palsied by the touch of corruption, or enervated by the impotence of servitude. Then succeeded the midnight of the monkish ages, when with the other liberal arts she slumbered in the profound darkness of the cloister.
At the revival of letters in modern Europe, eloquence, together with her sister muses, awoke, and shook the poppies from her brow. But their, torpors still tingled in her veins. In the interval her voice was gone; her favorite languages were extinct; her organs were no longer attuned to harmony, and her hearers could no longer understand her speech. The discordant jargon of feudal anarchy had banished the musical dialects, in which she had always delighted. The theatres of her former triumphs were either deserted, or they were filled with the babblers of sophistry and chicane. She shrunk intuitively from the forum, for the last object she remembered to have seen there was the head of her darling Cicero, planted upon the rostrum. She ascended the tribunals of justice; there she found her child, Persuasion, manacled and pinioned by the letter of the law; there she beheld an image of herself, stammering in barbarous Latin, and staggering under the lumber of a thousand volumes. Her heart fainted within her. She lost all confidence in herself. Together with her irresistible powers, she lost proportionably [sic] the consideration of the world, until, instead of comprising the whole system of public education, she found herself excluded from the circle of sciences, and dec1ared an outlaw from the realms of learning. She was not however doomed to eternal silence. With the progress of freedom and of liberal science, in various parts of modern Europe, she obtained access to mingle in the deliberations of their parliaments. With labor and difficulty she learned their languages, and lent·her aid in giving them form and polish. But she has never recovered the graces of her former beauty, nor the energies of her ancient vigor.
The immeasurable superiority of ancient over modem oratory is one.of the most remarkable circumstances, which offer themselves to the scrutiny of reflecting minds, and it is in the languages, the institutions, and the manners of modem Europe that the solution of a phenomenon, so extraordinary, must be sought. The assemblies of the people, of the select councils, or of the senate in Athens and Rome, were held for the purpose of real deliberation. The fate of measures was not decided before they were proposed. Eloquence produced a powerful effect, not only upon the minds of the hearers, but upon the issue of the deliberation. In the only countries of modern Europe, where the semblance of deliberative assemblies has been preserved, corruption, here in the form of executive influence, there in the guise of party spirit, by introducing a more compendious mode of securing decisions, has crippled the sublimest [sic] efforts of oratory, and the votes upon questions of magnitude to the interest of nations are all told, long before the questions themselves are submitted to discussion. Hence those nations,. which for ages have gloried in the devotion to literature, science, and the arts, have never been able to exhibit a specimen of deliberative oratory, that can bear a comparison with those, transmitted down to us from antiquity.
Religion indeed has opened one new avenue to the career of eloquence. Amidst the sacrifices of paganism to her three hundred thousand gods, amidst her sagacious and solemn consultations in the entrails of slaughtered brutes, in the flight o£ birds, and, the feeding o£ fowls, it had never entered her imagination to. call upon the pontiff, the haruspex, or the augur, for discourses to the people, on the nature of their duties to their Maker, their fellow-mortals, and themselves. This was an idea, too august to be mingled with the absurd and ridiculous, or profligate and barbarous rites of her deplorable superstition. It is an institution, for which mankind are indebted to christianity; introduced by the Founder himself of this divine religion, and in every point of view worthy of its high original. Its effects have been to soften the tempers and purify the morals of mankind; not in so high a degree, as benevolence could wish, but enough to call forth our strains of warmest gratitude to that good being, who provides us with the means of promoting our own felicity; and gives us power to stand, though leaving us free to fall. Here then is an unbounded and inexhaustible field for eloquence, never explored by the ancient orators; and here alone have the modem Europeans cultivated the art with much success. In vain should we enter the halls of justice, in vain should we listen to the debates of senates for strains of oratory, worthy of remembrance, beyond the duration of the occasion, which called them forth. The art of embalming thought by oratory, like that of embalming bodies by aromatics, would have perished, but for the exercises of religion. These alone have in the latter ages furnished discourses, which remind us, that eloquence is yet a faculty of the human mind.
Among the causes, which have contributed thus to depress the oratory of modem times, must be numbered the indifference, with which it has been treated, as an article of education. The ancients had fostered an opinion, that this talent was in a more than usual degree the creature of discipline; and it is one of the maxims, handed down to us, as the result of their experience, that men must be born to poetry, and bred to eloquence; that the bard is always the child of nature, and the orator always the issue of instruction. The doctrine seems to be not entirely without foundation, but was by them carried in both its parts to an extravagant excess.
The foundations for the oratorical talent, as well as those of the poetical faculty, must be laid in the bounties of nature; and as the muse in Homer, impartial in her distribution of good and evil, struck the bard with blindness, when she gave him the powers of song, her sister not unfrequently [sic], by a like mixture of tenderness and rigor, bestows the blessing of wisdom, while she refuses the readiness of utterance. Without entering however into a disquisition, which would lead me far beyond the limits of this occasion, I may remark, that the modern Europeans have run into the adverse extreme, and appear, during a considerable period, in their system of public education, to have passed upon eloquence a sentence of proscription. Even when they studied RHETORIC, as a theory, they neglected ORATORY, as an art; and while assiduously unfolding to their pupils the bright displays of Greek ·and Roman eloquence, they never attempted to make them eloquent themselves. Of the prevailing indifference to this department of human learning no stronger evidence could be offered, than the circumstances, under which we are assembled.
Nearly two centuries have elapsed since the foundation of this university. There never existed a people more anxious to bestow upon their children the advantages of education, than our venerable forefathers; and the name of Harvard is coeval with the first settlement of New England. Their immediate and remote descendants down to this day have inherited and transmitted the same laudable ardor, and numerous foundations of various kinds attest their attachment to science and literature; yet so far have rhetoric and oratory been from enjoying a preeminence in their system of education, that they are now, for the first time, made a separate branch of instruction; and I stand here to assume the duties of the first instructer [sic]. The establishment of an institution for the purpose was reserved to the name of BOYLSTON; a name, which, if public benefits can impart a title to remembrance, New England will not·easily forget; a name, to the benevolence, public spirit, and genuine patriotism of which, this university, the neighboring metropolis, and this whole nation have long had, and still have many reasons to attest; a name, less distinguished by stations of splendor, than by deeds of virtue; and better known to this People by blessings enjoyed, than by favors granted; a name, in fine, which, if not encircled with the external radiance of popularity, beams, brightly beams, with the inward lustre [sic] of beneficence. The institution itself is not of a recent date. One generation of mankind, according to the usual estimates of human life, has gone by, since the donation of Nicholas Boylston constituted the fund for the support of this professorship. The misfortunes, which befel [sic] the university, unavoidably consequent upon our revolution, and other causes, have concurred in delaying the execution of his intentions until the present time; and even now they have the prospect of little more than honest zeal for their accomplishment.
In reflecting upon the nature of the duties I undertake, a consciousness of deficiency for the task of their performance dwells upon my mind; which, however ungraciously it may come from my lips, after accepting the appointment, with which I am honored, I yet cannot forbear to express. Though the course of my life has led me to witness the practice of this art in various forms, and though its theory has sometimes attracted my attention, yet my acquaintance with both has been of a general nature; and I can presume neither to a profound investigation of the one, nor an extensive experience of the other. The habits of instruction.too are not familiar to me; and they constitute an art of little less difficulty and delicacy, than that of oratory itself; yet, as the career must necessarily be new, by whomsoever it should.here be explored, and as it leads to a course of pleasing speculations and studies, I shall rely upon the indulgence of the friends and patrons to this seminary towards well-meant endeavors, and assume with diffidence the discharge of the functions, allotted to the institution. In the theory of the art, and the principles of exposition, novelty will not be expected; nor is it perhaps to be desired. A subject, which has exhausted the genius of Aristotle, Cicero, and Quinctilian, can neither require nor admit much additional illustration. To select, combine, and apply their precepts, is the only duty left for their followers of all succeeding times, and to obtain a perfect familiarity with their instructions is to arrive at the mastery of the art. For effecting this purpose, the teacher can do little more,than second the ardor and assiduity of the scholar. In the generous thirst for useful knowledge, in the honorable emulation of excellence, which distinguishes the students of this university, I trust to find an apology for the deficiencies~of the lecturer. The richness of the soil will compensate for the unskilfulness [sic] of the tillage.
Sons of Harvard! You, who are ascending with. painful step and persevering toil the eminence of science, to prepare yourselves for the various functions and employments of the world before you, it cannot be necessary to urge upon YOU the importance of the art, concerning which I am speaking. Is it the purpose of your future life to minister in the temples of Almighty God, to be the messenger of heaven upon earth, to enlighten with the torch of eternal truth the path of your fellow-mortals to brighter worlds? Remember the reason, assigned for the appointment of Aaron to that ministry, which you purpose to assume upon yourself. I KNOW, THAT HE CAN SPEAK WELL; and, in this testimonial of Omnipotence, receive the injunction of your duty. Is your intention to devote the labors of your maturity to the cause of justice; to defend the persons, the property, and the fame of your fellow citizens from the open assaults of violence, and the secret. encroachments of fraud? Fill the fountains of your eloquence from inexhaustible sources, that their streams, when they shall begin to flow, may themselves prove inexhaustible. Is there among you a youth, whose bosom burns with the fires of honorable ambition; who aspires to immortalize his name by the extent and importance of his services to his country; whose visions of futurity glow with the hope of presiding in her councils, of directing her affairs, of appearing to future ages on the rolls of fame, as her ornament and pride? Let him catch from the relics of ancient oratory those unresisted powers, which mould the mind of man to the will of the speaker, and yield the guidance of a nation to the dominion of the voice.
Under governments purely republican, where every citizen has a deep interest in the affairs of the nation, and, in some form of public assembly or other, has the means and opportunity of delivering his opinions, and of communicating his sentiments by speech; where government itself has no arms but those of persuasion; where prejudice has not acquired an uncontroled [sic] ascendency, and faction is yet confined within the barriers of peace; the voice of eloquence will not be heard in vain. March then with firm, with steady, with undeviating step, to the prize of your high calling. Gather fragrance from the whole paradise of science and learn to distil from your lips all the honies [sic] of persuasion. Consecrate, above all, the faculties of your life to the cause of truth, of freedom, and of humanity. So shall your country ever gladden at the sound of your voice, and every talent, added to your accomplishments, become another blessing to mankind.