Chapter 13

Were it imposed upon me as a task, by some republic, to educate a number of young persons to be orators, in order to introduce a good taste for public speaking, I would begin with the understanding. What? not with the heart; it will be said. I take that to be the same thing. For I know no difference between good sense, and virtue, except that the one is the judgment of what is virtuous, and the other the practice. I take a knave and a fool to have only this difference, that the fool is a knave in his transactions without meaning to be so; the other intends it. Or, if this way of putting the argument will not be understood, I say that every man who knowing the right, intends the wrong, is not wise; that is, a fool. Above all things, give me a good judgment as the foundation of morals: and the communicating knowledge is strengthening the judgment.


I admit that there is such a thing as being of bad stock; and the moral qualities are as communicable as the physical constitution, or the features. Hence it is, that I would look to the stock in the selection of subjects; but still more to the physiognomy of the youth himself. For I think it possible that Curran, who cannot but have a good heart, yet may be of a germ from one of the worst stock that ever trod the bogs. I should have a great curiosity to trace his ancestry. I say, I cannot think but that he must have a good heart; because it is impossible for a cold heart to be warm; and a heart to be warm that has not a love of virtue. His eloquence is to me prima facie proof at least, that he is benevolent.


But pursuing my observations on the main point, I say, to form an orator I would cultivate the understanding. What is eloquence, but good sense expressed in clear language. The vox, et preterea nihil; voice without sense, is provoking. I grant that sound may do a great deal; but it is but as the rushing wind. The effect of a persuasive speech is like the moving force of waters. The tide rises without noise; but the effect is irresistible.


By the precepts of one whose experience has enabled him to judge of these things, a bad habit may be prevented or corrected. But it is the application only that can confirm the precepts. Hence it is that there is no forming an orator, but when the attaining some object by the speaker elicits his powers. A man that has his life at stake, and what is next to this, has his daily bread to get by his mouth, will not miss the thought, the word, the pathos to accomplish his purpose. Hence it is that the bar is the only school in our government for real eloquence.--In the deliberate assemblies, the speaker is thinking of his constituents, and is a slave sent forward to serve a party founded at home. I would sooner drag a cart than be a representative upon such conditions. Hence it is that a man of talents has no prospect in a public body, but to make himself unpopular; unless on some occasion when the people are alarmed for themselves, and party and intrigue is put down by the danger of the occasion. It is thus in a storm, or other perils in life, abilities are in request. At other times they are the object of envy, and combination to bring down.


Application to any science, and the acquisition of knowledge in general, is a drudgery in the first stages; and hence it is natural for the youth to excuse himself; and to hope that by the more easy exertion of his lungs, and the blowing of his mouth, he can supply the defect of thought. It is vexatious to the person who has the effect of solid reasoning, to find that blustering will go as far as it does; but it ought to be his consolation, and he will literally find it the fact, that of solid talents, it may be said, as it is said of truth, great is the force thereof, and it will prevail.


Magna est veritas, et prevalebit.


For solidity in mental talent is truth; and the appearance of intellect where it is not, is the false.


One of the best things that I ever heard by a lawyer to excuse himself to his client for having misled him in defending, or bringing a suit, I forget which, were he ought not; was, on the honest man saying, did you not tell me I had the law on my side? And did I not tell the court so too? said the lawyer. Did you? said the client. Yes. The man could say no more. It would have been unreasonable; especially as the advocate had made as much noise as any one could reasonably expect in asserting his conceptions. But had he been informed properly in his profession, his embarrassment might not have occurred, nor his presence of mind rendered it necessary; which, as it is what one cannot always command, it may be well to be without the necessity of it.--Not that I mean to say, that any powers of intellect can anticipate what may be the way of thinking of a court and jury. There is such a thing as a bystander thinking differently from both. But that in general the public judgment, both as to merits of the cause, and the ability of those who manage or dispose, goes according to the truth. This is a consolation to the industrious; and the diligent student who places his dependence on solid, not on showy qualifications.


At the same time, the garnishing is not to be neglected. The voice is capable of formation in point of sweetness, as well as force. In point of sweetness, by diligent attention, and lending the ear to those who speak musically; in point of force, by exercise alone. It is as necessary to observe the key at which to begin to speak, as for a musician in singing; so that he may retain the command of his voice under every passion to be expressed. It is to be observed that reading well is a different talent from speaking; and does not altogether depend upon equal cultivation. I leave this to be accounted for; I only repeat the fact.


Action is the last; the ancients thought not least advantage of a speaker. That can be true only of the oratory proper for a popular assembly. That must be extremely guarded and chastised, that is used at the bar. For the least suspicion in the minds of a jury, that the passions are attempted, will excite distrust of even a good argument, and injure it. At the same time, while human nature is susceptible of the impressions of grace and dignity, the manner of an orator must have a great effect. Hence it is that I recommend even attention to dress; not so much in the cloth, as in the fullness, and flowing of the vestment, which appears to make the orator loom more.


I have an impression of having treated upon these particulars in the preceding pages, and that I may seem to repeat. But if any one finds fault, I charge him home with an expression of the scripture, "line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little, and there a little." It may be said that some of my lines, and precepts, and littles, may be pretty good; but that there is a great deal of trash. That this may be the case, I have acknowledged heretofore. But would the more valuable be read without the less? I applied to a hatter the other day to make me a hat; and requested him to make me one entirely of beaver, and not to mix racoon. The truth is, I thought he would charge me as much for the one as the other, and therefore I might as well have the best.--But he informed me that a little racoon mixed with the beaver would make a better hat than one all beaver. It may be so with my book, which is calculated for all capacities; and a mixture of images drawn from high and low life, with painting serious and ludicrous, may conduce to the being more read; and lasting longer in the world. Or should it not be read, and that object fail, it is amusing to one's self to indulge in variety; to discumb and to rise.