« PreviousContinue »
human achievements — the emancipation of his country; and though his immediate ancestors, the old Mirabeaus who lorded it over their native province, acted and wrote like the old Roman of the elder Cato's school, and would have despised orators, he thought it no degradation to use, in as noble a cause, the arts of Cicero and Demosthenes. He deigned to speak oratorically; and he then could so speak, because the clash of the social elements, thus striving with something like equal force, gave to France all the glory of the constitutional period, except its order, and gave to Mirabeau an excitable and impassioned audience, and that liberty which earlier ages would have denied him of inveighing with the fullest license against a monarchy too powerful for tlie conditions of French society. But that mere license of speech alone will make the statesmen of a nation orators is shown to be a grievous mistake by the history of many countries, and more particularly of England. In a pure aristocracy there is the most perfect license of speech among the aristocrats, yet there is never animated oratory. Many times have aristocratic dissensions produced harangues in which the most complete license of speech was exercised; but in such ages it is according to the mould and fashion of men's minds, whatever be their theoretical ideas, rather to express their opinion than to try to reason and persuade others. As Selden said of Parliament: “A man is not there to persuade other men to be of his mind, but to speak his own heart, and if it be liked, so; if not, there's an end.” * And so in the collection of speeches in Parliament from 1646 to 1714 appended to the Duke of Buckingham's works, one may see that the English statesman addressed an audience not unlike that whose habits induced Lord Clarendon t, in his character of the Earl of Mansfield, to say that most men rather consider the person
* Selden's Table Talk, Tit. Parliament. | History of the Rebellion, i. 97.
that speaks than the things he says. And the same noble author remarks how, in the debates preceding the Rebellion some great men actually kept silence from pride, " that it might appear their reputation and interest had an influence upon the sense of the house, against any rhetoric or logic.”* This was indeed carrying the aristocratic scorn of showy oratory to an extreme.
It has often been said that civil commotions and great struggles of principle are necessary to call forth the highest efforts of animated oratory, and there the observation stops. We should, however, add to it that the struggles must take place at a time when men are to a great extent emancipated from the exclusive domination of aristocratic habits; when, in short, there is so much equality in the nation that those who are at the head of the great conflicting parties find it necessary to their success to convince, to please, and even to carry captive by the tricks of rhetoric. This time had arrived in Roman history when Cicero appeared. It was this crisis in Athenian history which evoked Demosthenes; and Mirabeau had died inglorious had he not lived at the juncture of French affairs when a cultivated and educated democracy thoroughly imbued with the principle of equality contended with a refined and courtly aristocracy.
In English history it was different. A civil commotion stirring more deeply the foundations of national life, invoking more aptly and with more force the aid of high and momentous principles than did our civil wars in the seventeenth century it were impossible to find in any history, and yet the stirring events of that period did not evoke a rival to Demosthenes or to Cicero. It was not a struggle against aristocracy; the habits and principles of aristocracy were deeply rooted in the mind
* Clarendon, History of the Rebellion, ii. 27. Goldsmith (Works, ed. Prior, i. 457) went so far as to say that the best orations that ever were spoken were pronounced in the Parliaments of King Charles I. The judicial style of oratory is the only one which could be to his
of the nation, and the object of the Roundheads was not to establish a democratic equality -- a thing then not dreamt of in this country out of the closets of the studious. Consequently, the greater speakers on either side of the question spoke like aristocrats ; on the one side giving their opinion with few reasons, and no ornaments of rhetoric in favour of monarchy and high prelacy; on the other side, with equal grandeur, hauteur, and solemnity, delivering, in brief sentences full of majestic self-reliance, their opinions against monarchs, courts, and gorgeous priests.
As our national progress advanced the importance of individual men decreased. Adventurers found their way into Parliament who appealed to the reason of their audience, and exposed and refuted the arguments by which the old statesmen professed to have convinced themselves. Animated oratory thus became necessary in self-defence; and in the latter half of the last century it first appeared in England. We had then both conditionsliberty of speech, and sufficient personal equality to make it necessary for statesmen not merely to state their own opinion, but also to try to convince others by argument, though the influence of position and character was still great. We had also a cultivated aristocracy still ruling, who delighted in literature, and were proud themselves to practise this, the literature of politics. Much of that glory, and for the same reasons, still remains to us; and still so much of the old habit of regarding the character of the speaker (though our ideas of what is a good character are very different), that even profound and subtle arguments do not make much way in our senate, unless the speaker is believed sincerely to entertain the views he supports. One class of men labour under the most unjust suspicions in this respect. The members of the Bar make the most argumentative speeches in the House of Commons, but the rest of the house never divest themselves of the ungenerous idea that the barrister is speaking from
a brief; and therefore the lawyers whose ability would entitle them to the most weight, have, as a body, the least in the House of Commons. It is curious that the same men in the House of Lords, when judges, and no longer in the habit of holding briefs, obtain that influence which they ought to have possessed in the House of Commons. Their style of speaking in the Upper House is more judicial and solemn than in the Lower; and the age and long experience, as well as the official dignity of the judges, contribute to give them, then more sedate in their tone and less zealous in the support of their party, an influence wanting to them in the hot days of their forensic struggles. Our time listened to one orator who commanded universal attention though destitute of every grace of oratory. The Duke of Wellington in the House of Lords was the precise and only representative of a true aristocratic statesman. When he rose, silence immediately followed, nor ceased till he had delivered in a few short sentences his well-considered opinion upon the matter in debate. He made no rhetorical flights ; he hardly descended to argument; as a speaker, in the artistic sense of the term, he deserved no reputation; but the weight of his character, and the universal worship that men paid to his wisdom, gave him and his rude ill-formed speech that enormous influence which in earlier ages people allowed to the equally inartistic, brief, and rugged dicta of the old aristocratic statesmen. In pure democracies, which are absolute governments, there is no room for true orators. The only statesmen who then make a reputation by speaking are those who, sailing on the current of events, provide arguments and reasons to justify the passions of the majority; who, in short, pick out the best parts of their employer's case, like advocates of the bar. In modern days, the writers of leading articles perform this function ; and orators exist in no democracy of the present day, nor have existed for any length of time in any country where the democratic element is substantially
supreme. The orators of our democratic element have no personal influence. When they supply reason to passion they call down applause ; but let them utter one sentiment contrary to their employers’ views and they go to the dogs at once.
Mr. Cobden was strong upon free trade, he is impotent upon anything else. Mr. Bright is cheered to the echo in a reform meeting. When he speaks for reform and its accompaniments how would he fare there if he gave reasons against the ballot ? and yet, in an artistic point of view Mr. Bright is no mean orator. There were orators in America when there was a great and noble struggle for freedom, but at present the race seems extinct, although there is no country which talks more.
This is my explanation of the presence of oratory among the statesmen at the constitutional period in the career of each nation, and its absence at other periods. Perhaps some readers will, at the moment of reading this, be in the belief that they have discovered a fallacy. I have said that the influence of the speakers in aristocratic states of society depends on character; and yet it is notorious that some of the most prominent and powerful aristocratic statesmen have been atrocious villains and were well known to their hearers to be such.
To explain this mụst be explored a dark and unholy cavern, lying amid the deepest foundations of human nature; that cavern in whose inmost recesses we perform the secret rite of worship to a fellow-creature. For what is the idol before whom we there prostrate ourselves in the twilight of the reason? It wears a Janus-head, -one side made in the image of God, the other in the image of the Devil; and in proportion as the Godlike face is most expressive of what is most good and holy, so often, in that same proportion, the other face bears a resemblance, bolder and more marked than in ordinary instances, to its prototype.
The tapers of that worship are ever burning; the altar steps are ever pressed by kneeling