WE have hitherto considered the importance and utility of the oratorical only with regard to its influence upon the private relations of life; and pointed out the inducements, which recommend its cultivation to the lawyer and the divine. These considerations have their weight in all civilized countries, favored with the light of the gospel, and enjoying a regular administration of government. Under all the forms of polity, prevailing among·the European nations, considerable scope is allowed to the eloquence of the bar and of the pulpit; under all, the inducements I have suggested for coveting these splendid and useful talents must have their force. There are others, which, if not exclusively applicable to our native country, and our present state of society, are at least of more than ordinary magnitude to us. But before I enter upon a survey of these local and occasional objects, which give so much adventitious cumulation to the arguments of universal application in favor of eloquence, it may be proper to examine with candor the objections, which often have been and still are occasionally urged against it.
These objections are three. First, that rhetoric is a pedantic science, overcharged with scholastic subtleties, and innumerable divisions and subdivisions, burdensome to the memory, oppressive to genius, and never applicable to any valuable purpose in the business of the world. Second, that it is a frivolous science substituting childish declamation instead of manly sense, and adapted rather to the pageantry of a public festival, than to the sober concerns of real life. And third, that it is a pernicious science; the purpose of which is to mislead the judgment by fascinating the imagination. That its tendencies are to subject the reason of men to the control of their passions; to pervert private justice, and to destroy public liberty. These are formidable objections, and unless a sound and satisfactory answer can be given to them all, both your time and mine, my friends, is at this moment very ill employed, and the call I am obliged to make upon your attention is a trespass upon something more than your patience.
Let me first remark, that the last of these difficulties is not barely at variance with, but in direct hostility to the other two. If rhetoric be a pedantic science, consisting of nothing but a tedious and affected enumeration of the figures of speech, or if it be a frivolous science, teaching only the process of beating up a frothy declamation into seeming consistency, at least it cannot be that deadly weapon, the possession of which is so pernicious, that the affection of a parent, studious of the learning and virtue of his son, dares not entrust it to his hand. If rhetoric be no more than the Babylonish [sic] dialect of the schools, if oratory be no more than the sounding emptiness of the scholar, they are at least not those dangerous and destructive engines, which pollute the fountains of justice, and batter down the liberties of nations. These objections are still more at strife with each other, than with the science, against which they are pointed. Were they urged by one and the same disputant, we might be content to array them against each other. We might oppose the argument of insignificance against the argument of danger; and enjoy the triumph of beholding our adversary refute himself. But inasmuch as they spring from different sources, they are. entitled to a distinct consideration. From their mutual opposition, the only conclusive inference we can draw against them is, that they cannot all be well founded. Let us endeavour [sic] to prove the same against each of them separately, beginning with those, which affect only the usefulness, and not the moral character of our profession.
The first assault then, which we are called upon to repel, comes from the shaft of wit; always a formidable, but not always a fair antagonist. A poet of real genius and original humor, in a couplet, which goes farther to discredit all systems of rhetoric, than volumes of sober argument can effect in promoting them, has told the world, that
All a rhetorician's rules
Teach nothing but to name his tools.
But happily the doctrine, that ridicule is the test of truth, has never obtained the assent of the rational part of mankind. Wit, like the ancient Parthian, flies while it fights; or like the modern Indian, shoots from behind trees and hedges. The arrow comes winged from an invisible hand. It rankles in your side, and you look in vain for the archer. Wit is the unjust judge, who often decides wrong; and even when right, often from a wrong motive. From his decisions however, after paying the forfeit, there is always an appeal to the more even balance of common sense. On this review we shall find the poet’s position not exactly conformable to truth; and even so far as true, by no means decisive against the study of the science. For what can be more necessary to the artist, than to know the names, as well as the uses of his tools? Rhetoric alone can never constitute an orator. No human art can be acquired by the mere knowledge of the principles, upon which it is founded. But the artist, who understands its principles, will exercise his art in the highest perfection. The profoundest study of the writers upon architecture, the most laborious contemplation of its magnificent monuments will never make a mason. But the mason,thoroughly acquainted with the writers, and familiar to the construction of those monuments, will surely be an abler artist, than the mere mechanic, ignorant of the mysteries of his trade, and even of the·names of his tools. A celebrated French comic writer, Moliere, has represented one of his characters, learning with great astonishment and self-admiration, at the age of forty, that he had been all his life time speaking prose without knowing it. And this bright discovery comes from the information he then first receives from his teacher of grammar, that whatsoever is not prose is verse, and whatsoever is not verse is prose.
But the names of the rhetorician’s rules are not the only objects of his precepts. They are not even essential to the science. Figurative and ornamented language indeed is one of the important properties of oratory, and when the art came to be reduced into a system among the ancient Greeks, some of the subordinate writers, unable to produce any thing of their own upon the general subject, exercised their subtlety to discriminate, and their ingenuity to name the innumerable variety of forms, in which language may be diverted from the direct into the figurative channel. Pursuing this object with more penetration than discernment, they ransacked all their celebrated authors for figures of speech, to give them names; and often finding in their search some incorrect expression, which the inattention of the writer had overlooked, they concluded it was a figure of speech, because it was not conformable to grammatical construction; and very gravely turning a blunder into a trope, invested it with the dignity of a learned name. A succession of these rhetorical nomenclators [sic] were continually improving upon one another, until the catalogue of figures grew to a lexicon, and the natural shape of rhetoric was distended to a dropsy.
This excessive importance, given to one of the branches of the science, led to the absurd notion that all rhetoric was comprised in the denomination of figurative expressions, and finally provoked the lash of Butler’s ridicule. But he must have a partial and contracted idea indeed of rhetoric, who can believe, that by the art of persuasion is meant no more than the art of distinguishing between a metonymy and a metaphor, or of settling the boundary between synecdoche and antonomasia. So far is this from being true, that Aristotle, the great father of the science, though he treats in general terms of metaphorical language, bestows very little consideration upon it, and cautions the orator, perhaps too rigorously, against its use. Cicero, though from the natural turn of his genius more liberal of these seductive graces, allows them only a very moderate station in his estimate of the art; and Quinctilian appropriates to them only part of two, out of his twelve books of institutes.
The idea, that the purpose of rhetoric is only to teach the art of making and delivering a holiday declamation, proceeds from a view of the subject equally erroneous and superficial. Were this its only or even its principal object, its acquisition might rationally occupy a few moments of your leisure, but could not claim that assiduous study and persevering application, without which no man will ever be an orator. It would stand in the rank of elegant accomplishments, but could not aspire to that of useful talents. Perhaps one of the causes of this mistaken estimate of the art is the usual process, by which it is learnt. The exercises of the student are necessarily confined to this lowest department of the science. Your weekly declamations, your occasional themes, and forensic disputes, and the dialogues, conferences, and orations of the public exhibitions, from the nature of things, must relate merely to speculative subjects. Here is no issue for trial, in which the life or fortune of an individual may be involved. Here is no vote to be taken, upon which the destinies of a nation may be suspended. Here is no immortal soul, whose future blessedness or misery may hinge upon your powers of eloquence to carry conviction to the heart. But here it is, that you must prepare yourselves to act your part in those great realities of life. To consider the lessons or the practices, by which the art of oratory can be learnt, as the substance of the art itself, is to mistake the means for the end. It is to measure the military merits of a general by the gold threads of his epaulette, or to appreciate the valor of the soldier by the burning of powder upon a parade. The eloquence of the college is like the discipline of a review. The art of war, we are all sensible, does not consist in the manoeuvres [sic] of a training day; nor the steadfastness of the soldier at the hour of battle, in the drilling of his orderly serjeant [sic]. Yet the superior excellence of the veteran army is exemplified in nothing more forcibly, than in the perfection of its discipline. It is in the heat of action, upon the field of blood, that the fortune of the day may be decided by the exactness of the manual exercise; and the art of displaying a column, or directing a charge, may turn the balance of victory and change the history of the world. The application of these observations is as direct to the art of oratory, as to that of war. The exercises, to which you are here accustomed, are not intended merely for the display of the talents, you have acquired. They are instruments, put into your hands for future, use. Their object is not barely to prepare you for the composition and delivery of an oration to amuse an idle hour on some public anniversary. It is to give you a clue for the labyrinth of legislation in the public councils; a spear for the conflict of judicial war in the public tribunals; a sword for the field of religious and moral victory in the pulpit.
In the endeavour [sic] to refute these petty cavils against rhetoric, which have no higher foundation, than a superficial misconception of its real character and object, I have perhaps consumed too much of your time. A more serious obstacle remains to be removed. An obstacle, arising, not from a mistaken estimate of its value, but from too keen a sense of its abuses. An objection, which admits, nay, exaggerates the immensity of its powers, but harps upon their perversion to evil ends; which beholds in oratory, not the sovereign, but the usurper of the soul; which, far from exposing the science to the sneer of contempt, aims at inflaming against it the rancour [sic] of jealousy.
Eloquence, we are told by these eloquent detracters [sic], is the purveyor of fraud, and the pander of delusion. Her tongue drops manna, but to make the worse appear the better reason; to perplex and dash maturest [sic] counsels. She fills the trump of glory with the venal blast of adulation, and binds the wreath of honor around the brows of infamy. Her voice is ever ready to rescue the culprit from punishment, and to turn the bolt of public vengeance upon innocence. Upon very breeze her breath wings the pestilence of sedition, or kindles the flames of unextinguishable war. Her most splendid victories are but triumphs over reason, and the basis of her temple is erected upon the ruins of truth.
To this tempest of inculpation what reply can we oppose? If we dispute the correctness of the assertions, our adversaries appeal with confidence to the testimony of historical fact. If we assure them upon the word of Cicero and Quinctilian, that none but a good man can possibly be an orator, they disconcert us by calling for our examples of orators, who have been good men.
Let us then tell them, that their objection in this instance is rather against the constitution of human nature, the dispensations of Providence, and the moral government of the universe, than against rhetoric and oratory. It applies with equal force against every faculty, which exalts the human character, virtue alone excepted. Strength of body, vigor of mind, beauty, valor, genius, whatever we admire and love in the character of man; how often are they perverted to his shame and corruption! It applies with equal force against the laws of physical nature. Observe the phenomena of the universe, in which we dwell. The very beams of that glorious sun, the source of genial heat, of heavenly light, of vegetable growth, and of animal life, how often does their radiance blind the eyes, and their fervor parch the plains! How often do they shed pernicious plagues, and kindle consuming fires! The very atmosphere we breathe, unless perpetually purified by the accession of oxygen, is it not the most deadly poison? Virtue, my young friends, is the oxygen, the vital air of the moral world. Immutible [sic] and incorruptible itself, like that being, of whom it is the purest emanation, in proportion as it intermingles with and pervades every other particle of intellectual nature, it inspires the salutiferous gale, the principle of life, and health, and happiness. But this is the peculiar privilege of virtue. Like all the other gifts of Providence, eloquence is, according to the manner, in which it is applied, a blessing, or a curse; the pest of nations, or the benefactress of human kind.
Here then we might rest our defence [sic]. We might rely on the trite and undisputed maxim,that arguments, drawn from the abuse of any thing, are not admissible against its use. But we must proceed one step further, and say, that in this case the argument from the abuse is conclusive in favor of the use. Since eloquence is in itself so powerful a weapon, and since by the depravity of mankind this weapon must. and often will be brandished for guilty purposes, its exercise, with equal or superior skill, becomes but the more indispensable to the cause of virtue. To forbid the sincere christian, the honest advocate, the genuine patriot, the practice of oratorical arts, would be like a modern nation, which should deny to itself the use of gunpowder, and march, with nothing but bows and arrows, to meet the thunder of an invader's artillery. If the venal orators of Athens would have sold their country to the crafty tyrant of Macedon, what could baffle their detested bargains, but the incorruptible eloquence of Demosthenes? If the incestuous Clodius and the incendiary Catiline had eloquence enough for the destruction of imperial Rome, what but the immortal voice of Cicero could have operated her salvation? Or to bring the issue closer home to your own hearts, when would you so anxiously desire, and so eagerly hail this irresistible power of words, as at the very moment after hearing it perverted by cruelty, hypocrisy, or infidelity, for the purposes of violence or of fraud?
In these objections then, the most plausible of those, which ever have been advanced against rhetoric and oratory, there is nothing, which ought to deter an·honest and a generous mind from their assiduous cultivation. Of the arguments I have urged to convince you, that the study is at once useful and honorable, your own minds will judge. You will perhaps think, that I have dwelt with more earnestness, than the occasion required, upon topics, concerning which your hearts were already with me. That I have been over anxious in demonstrating what was to you before sufficiently proved. That, under the blaze of a meridian sun, I have been sweating with·the toil of making daylight visible to your eyes. And is it truly so? Are you convinced beyond a doubt, that the powers of eloquence are a wise, an honorable, a virtuous pursuit? A pursuit, to which justice, patriotism, and piety, with equal energy stimulate your souls? Then go with me but one step further; draw with me the only valuable inference, which can result from this long dissertation; the practical inference, which alone can make it of any use to you. Invert the advice of Timotheus to Alexander, and say to yourselves,
If the world be worth enjoying,
Think! Oh! think it worth thy winning.
I will conclude with urging upon your reflections the last great consideration, which I mentioned, as giving its keenest edge to the argument for devoting every faculty of the mind to the acquisition of eloquence; a consideration, arising from. the peculiar situation and circumstances of our own country, and naturally connecting my present subject, the vindication of the science, with that, which will next claim your attention; I mean its origin and history.
Should a philosophical theorist, reasoning à priori, undertake to point out the state of things, and of human society, which must naturally produce the highest exertions of the power of speech, he would recur to those important particulars, which actually existed in the Grecian commonwealths. The most strenuous energies of the human mind, would he say, are always employed, where they are instigated by the stimulus of the highest rewards. The art of speaking must be most eagerly sought, where it is found to be most useful. It must be most useful, where it is capable of producing the greatest effects; and that can be in no other state of things, than where the power of persuasion operates upon the will, and prompts the actions of other men. The only birth place of eloquence therefore must be a free state. Under arbitrary governments, where the lot is 'cast upon one man to command, and upon all the rest to obey; where the despot, like the Roman centurion, has only to say to one man, go, and he goeth, and to another, come, and he cometh; persuasion is of no avail. Between authority and obedience there can be no deliberation; and wheresoever submission is the principle of government in a nation, eloquence can never arise. Eloquence is the child of liberty, and can descend from no other stock. And where will she find her most instructive school? Will it not be in a country, where the same spirit or liberty, which marks the relations between the individuals of the same community, is diffused over those more complicated and important relations between different communities? Where the independence of the man is corroborated and invigorated by the independence of the state? Where the same power of persuasion, which influences the will of the citizens at home, has the means of operating upon the will and the conduct of sovereign societies? Should it happen then, that a number or independent communities, founded upon the principles of civil and political liberty, were so reciprocally situated, as to have a great and continual intercourse with each other, and many momentous common interests, occasional as well as permanent, there above all others will be the spot, where eloquence will spring to light; will flourish; will rise to the highest perfection, of which human art or science is susceptible.
The experience of mankind has proved exactly conformable to this theory. The Grecian ommonwealths furnish the earliest examples in history of confederated states with free governments; and there also the art of oratory was first practised [sic], the science of rhetoric first invented; and both were raised to a pitch of unrivalled excellence and glory.
From this powerful concurrence of philosophical speculation with historical proof, there are several important inferences, which ought to be pressed with peculiar energy upon the consideration of all youthful Americans; and more especially of those, who are distinguished by the liberal discipline of a classical education, and enjoy the advantages of intellectual cultivation. They cannot fail to remark, that their own nation is at this time precisely under the same circumstances, which were so propitious to the advancement of rhetoric and oratory among the reeks. Like them, we are divided into a number of separate commonwealths, all founded upon the principles of the most enlarged social and civil liberty. Like them, we are united in certain great national interests, and connected by a confederation, differing indeed in many essential particulars from theirs, but perhaps in a still higher degree favorable to the influence and exertion of eloquence. Our institutions, from the smallest municipal associations to the, great national bond, which links this continent in union, are republican. Their vital principle is liberty. Persuasion, or the influence of reason and of feeling, is the great if not the only instrument, whose operation can affect the acts of all our corporate bodies; of towns, cities, counties, states, and of the whole confederated empire. Here then eloquence is recommended by the most elevated usefulness, and encouraged by the promise of the most precious rewards.
Finally, let us observe how much it tends to exalt and ennoble our ideas of this art, to find it both in speculation and experience, thus grappled, as with hooks of steel, to the soul of liberty. So dear, and so justly dear to us are the blessings or freedom, that if no other advantage could be ascribed to the powers of speech, than that they are her inseparable companions, that alone would be an unanswerable argument for us to cherish them with more than a mother's affection. Let then the frosty rigor of the logician tell you, that eloquence is an insidious appeal to the passions of men. Let the ghastly form of despotism groan from his hollow lungs and bloodless heart, that eloquence is the instrument of turbulence and the weapon of faction. Nay, let the severe and honest moralist himself pronounce in the dream of abstraction, that truth and virtue need not the aid of foreign ornament. Answer; silence them all. Answer; silence them forever, by recurring to this great and overpowering truth. Say, that by the eternal constitution of things it was ordained, that liberty should be the parent of eloquence; that eloquence should be the last stay and support of liberty; that with her she is ever destined to live, to flourish, and to die. Call up the shades of Demosthenes and Cicero to vouch your words; point to their immortal works, and say, these are not only the sublimest [sic strains of oratory, that ever issued from the uninspired lips of mortal men;.they are at the same time the expiring accents of liberty, in the nations, which have shed the brightest lustre [sic] on the name of man.