Monday, May 4, 2009

Oration Nation

Do you ever watch CSPAN? It's OK to say no. The coverage of the floor of the two bodies of our legislature is really dull. Much of the time is devoted to procedural monotony, the shuffling of papers and feet, and the occasional speech delivered by someone you've never heard of before. Most importantly, however, is the fact that the chambers always seem empty. Sure, there are some aides running around, maybe a few congressmen here and there, but nobody seems to be paying any attention to what's going on. The aides are rushing to deliver papers; the senators are checking their Blackberries; the congresswomen look bored. Even the important moments, the ones that make the national news programs, are ignored by most everyone in the room.

This brings me to one of the many reasons I love history, especially eighteenth and nineteenth century history: People were so often passionate about things that matter. Of course, there was procedural nonsense and people who didn't care in the past, as well. Yet, I can't help but romanticize a time when delivering speeches was an art, and one could actually sway the opinion of another with rhetoric.

Daniel Webster was the kind of orator who could do that. Webster hailed from Massachusetts, and though he wasn't much to look at (but what politician ever is), his voice could hold even his opponents in rapture. In January of 1830, Senator Robert Hayne delivered a speech denouncing federal interference with the South, specifically a tariff that largely protected Northern industry at the expense of Southern landholders. Webster, who had been passing by on his way back from the Supreme Court, stopped to listen to Hayne speak. Hearing Hayne's impassioned denunciation of the federal government, Webster was displeased. The next day, he responded with an impassioned, eloquent defense of national policies. "[I cannot] regard him as a safe counselor in the affairs of this Government," Webster declared, "whose thoughts should be mainly bent on considering, not how the Union should best be preserved, but how tolerable might be the condition of the People when it shall be broken up and destroyed."

Webster continued, pleading with his fellow Americans not to put their own interests before that of their country. Imagining a future in which the South took the drastic action of breaking up the Union, Webster hoped aloud that he would not see such a day: "When my eyes shall be turned to behold, for the last time, the sun in Heaven, may I not see him shining on the broken and dishonored fragments of a once glorious Union... Let their last feeble and lingering glance, rather behold the gorgeous Ensign of the Republic... its arms and trophies streaming in their original luster, not a stripe erased or polluted, nor a single star obscured -- bearing for its motto, no such interrogatory as What is all this worth? Nor other words of delusion and folly... but... that other sentiment, dear to every true American heart -- Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable."

If you go to the Capitol today, you probably won't hear anyone speak like this. Admittedly, Webster's speech was considered exceptional even at the time: Hayne, his opponent, reputedly responded by telling Webster, "A man who can make such speeches as that ought never to die." Nevertheless, should you find yourself sitting in the galleries of the Senate chamber, close your eyes, and recall all the persons and words that have echoed through that hall. Maybe, just maybe, you can imagine Webster, standing with one hand in the small of his back, the other on the podium (the oratory style of the time), humbling his foes with fiery rhetoric and sweeping imagery.

Perhaps then you won't notice that the senator next to you is Twittering.

Source: Jon Meacham, American Lion: Jackson in the White House (New York: Random House, 2008).


  1. Looks like someone has been reading their American Lion!

  2. Gah! I knew I was forgetting something. And here I was just proud to have remembered to tag the post.