Daniel Webster: Great American Orator and Speaker

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      DANIEL WEBSTER (1782-1852).—New England furnished in Daniel Webster one of the world's great orators. He was born in Salisbury, New Hampshire, and educated at Dartmouth College. It was said half humorously that no one could really be as great as he looked. Whittier called him

 "New England's stateliest type of man,
 In port and speech Olympian;
 Whom no one met, at first, but took
 A second awed and wondering look."


Daniel Webster American Orators and Speaker
Daniel Webster

      Before his death he was known as the best lawyer, the most noted statesman, and the greatest orator in the country. He is still considered America's greatest orator.

      A study of the way in which Webster schooled himself to become a speaker will repay every one who wishes to use our spoken language effectively. In Webster's youth, a stilted, unnatural style was popular for set speeches. He was himself influenced by the prevailing fashion, and we find him writing to a friend:—

 "In my melancholy moments I presage the most dire calamities. I already see in my imagination the time when the banner of civil war shall be unfurled; when Discord's hydra form shall set up her hideous yell, and from her hundred mouths shall howl destruction through our empire."

      Such unnatural prose impresses us to-day as merely an insincere play with words, but in those days many thought a stilted, ornate style as necessary for an impressive occasion as Sunday clothes for church. An Oratorical Dictionary for the use of public speakers, was actually published in the first part of the nineteenth century. This contained a liberal amount of sonorous words derived from the Latin, such as "campestral," "lapidescent," "obnubilate," and "adventitious." Such words were supposed to give dignity to spoken utterance.

      Edward Everett, the most finished classical speaker of the time, loved to introduce the "Muses of Hellas," and to make allusions to the fleets "of Tyre, of Carthage, of Rome," and to Hannibal's slaughtering the Romans "till the Aufidus ran blood." He painted Warren "moving resplendent over the field of honor, with the rose of Heaven upon his cheek, and the fire of liberty in his eye."

      Webster was cured of such tendencies by an older lawyer, Jeremiah Mason, who graduated at Yale about the time Webster was born. Mason, who was frequently Webster's opponent, took pleasure in ridiculing all ornate efforts and in pricking rhetorical bubbles. Webster says that Mason talked to the jury "in a plain conversational way, in short sentences, and using no word that was not level to the comprehension of the least educated man on the panel. This led me to examine my own style, and I set about reforming it altogether." Note the simplicity in the following sentences from Webster's speech on The Murder of Captain Joseph White:—

 "Deep sleep had fallen on the destined victim, and on all beneath his roof. A healthful old man, to whom sleep was sweet, and the first sound slumbers of the night held him in their soft but strong embrace…. The face of the innocent sleeper is turned from the murderer, and the beams of the moon, resting on the gray locks of his aged temple, show him where to strike."

      In his speech on The Completion of the Bunker Hill Monument, we find the following paragraph, containing two sentences which present in simple language one of the great facts in human history:—

 "America has furnished to the world the character of Washington! And if our American institutions had done nothing else, that alone would have entitled them to the respect of mankind."

      He knew when illustrations and figures of rhetoric could be used to advantage to impress his hearers. In discussing the claim made by Senator Calhoun of South Carolina that a state could nullify a national law, Webster said:—

 "To begin with nullification, with the avowed intent, nevertheless, not to proceed to secession, dismemberment, and general revolution, is as if one were to take the plunge of Niagara, and cry out that he would stop half way down."

      To show the moral bravery of our forefathers and the comparative greatness of England, at that time, he said:—

 "On this question of principle, while actual suffering was yet afar off, they raised their flag against a power, to which, for purposes of foreign conquest and subjugation, Rome, in the height of her glory, is not to be compared; a power which has dotted over the surface of the whole globe with her possessions and military posts, whose morning drumbeat, following the sun, and keeping company with the hours, circles the earth with one continuous and unbroken strain of the martial airs of England."

      For nearly a generation prior to the Civil War, schoolboys had been declaiming the peroration of his greatest speech, his Reply to Hayne (1830):—

 "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; on States dissevered, discordant, belligerent; on a land rent with civil feuds, or drenched, it may be, in fraternal blood!"

      This peroration brought Webster as an invisible presence into thousands of homes in the North. The hearts of the listeners would beat faster as the declaimer continued:—

 "Let their last feeble and lingering glance rather behold the gorgeous ensign of the republic, now known and honored throughout the earth, still full high advanced, its arms and trophies streaming in their original luster, not a stripe erased or polluted, nor a single star obscured…."

      When the irrepressible conflict came, it would be difficult to estimate how many this great oration influenced to join the army to save the Union. The closing words of that speech, "Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!" kept sounding like the voice of many thunders in the ear of the young men, until they shouldered their muskets. His Seventh of March Speech (1850), which seemed to the North to make compromises with slavery, put him under a cloud for awhile, but nothing could stop youth from declaiming his Reply to Hayne.

      Although the majority of orators famous in their day are usually forgotten by the next generation, it is not improbable that three American orations will be quoted hundreds of years hence. So long as the American retains his present characteristics, we cannot imagine a time when he will forget Patrick Henry's speech in 1775, or Daniel Webster's peroration in his Reply to Hayne, or Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address (p. 344), entrusting the American people with the task of seeing "that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth."

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