When People Knew How to Speak: Oratory in the 19th Century

At a time when the quality of public discourse is often complained of, it’s interesting to look back to when people took oratory, or eloquence in public speaking, seriously. One such period was 200 years ago, in the early 19th century. Inspired by Greek and Roman ideals, politicians, lawyers, religious leaders and other public speakers sought to stir emotions, change minds and inspire action by speaking so masterfully that people would pack rooms just to hear what they said.

Oratory in the US Senate 1850

Henry Clay demonstrating his oratorical skills in the Senate in 1850. Daniel Webster is seated to the left of Clay, and John C. Calhoun to the left of the Speaker’s chair.

Oratory an ancient skill

Orators were held in high esteem in ancient Greece and ancient Rome, where citizens participated in government. Rhetoric (the art of persuasive speaking) was formally taught to boys, and politicians were expected to be good speakers. Cicero, one of Rome’s most famous orators, wrote of the “incredible magnitude and difficulty of the art” of oratory.

A knowledge of a vast number of things is necessary, without which volubility of words is empty and ridiculous; speech itself is to be formed, not merely by choice, but by careful construction of words; and all the motions of the mind, which nature has given to man, must be intimately known; for all the force and art of speaking must be employed in allaying or exciting the feelings of those who listen. To this must be added a certain portion of grace and wit, learning worthy of a well-bred man, and quickness and brevity in replying as well as attacking, accompanied with a refined decorum and urbanity. Besides, the whole of antiquity and a multitude of examples is to be kept in the memory; nor is the knowledge of laws in general, or of the civil law in particular, to be neglected. And why need I add any remarks on delivery itself, which is to be ordered by action of body, by gesture, by look, and by modulation and variation of the voice, the great power of which, alone and itself, the comparatively trivial art of actors and the stage proves, on which though all bestow their utmost labour to form their look, voice, and gesture, who knows not how few there are, and have ever been, to whom we can attend with patience? What can I say of that repository for all things, the memory, which, unless it be made the keeper of the matter and words that are the fruits of thought and invention, all the talents of the orator, we see, though they be of the highest degree of excellence, will be of no avail? (1)

Oratory was a less useful skill in the feudal, monarchical and oligarchical governments of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The Enlightenment, and the American and French Revolutions, occasioned a revival of interest in Greek and Roman democratic and republican traditions, including civic eloquence. Oratory again became regarded as an important practice of a free people.

How to be a good orator

A “how to” book published in 1823 defined oratory as “the art of communicating, by the immediate action of the vocal and expressive organs, to popular, or to select assemblies, the dictates of our reason, or our will, and the workings of our passions, feelings, and imaginations.”

Oratory…includes the idea of eloquence; for no man can be an orator who possesses not a flow of thought and language. But eloquence does not necessarily include the idea of oratory; since a man may be rich in all the stores of language and thought, without possessing the advantage of a graceful and impressive delivery. (2)

Instruction in oratory included pronunciation, voice, articulation, punctuation, pausing, gestures and expression. This involved many rules, such as:

When a sentence concludes an antithesis, the first branch of which requires the strong emphasis, and therefore demands the falling inflection; the second branch requires the weak emphasis and the rising inflection. (3)

In calm and sedate discourses, the head should keep its natural state and upright posture, occasionally moving, and turning gently, sometimes on one side, and sometimes on the other, as occasion requires, and then returning to its natural position. It should always accompany the other actions of the body, except in aversion, which is expressed by stretching out the right hand, and turning the head to the left. But nothing is more indecent than violent motions and agitations of the head. (4)

The settings in which oratorical skills were thought to be most applicable were the law, religion, politics, theatre, and public meetings. There was a sense that instruction was needed, particularly when it came to political oratory.

It is in the senate alone, and the popular assemblies of the nation, that the orator is to hurry away the impetuous passions, and transport the hearer into absolute action; and there only are, of course, required the full thunders of elocutionary energy. But it is not only in the fervid tones of an impetuous declamation that the senatorial elocutionist should excel; in the calm dignity of a well-modulated cadence, and the polished grace and propriety of enunciation, he should also surpass; and in the easy urbanity of tone and euphony (when the stronger exertions of eloquence are not required) he should manifest, at once the dignity of the statesman, and the elegance and refinement of the polite scholar. How little these circumstances (almost all of them within the reach of a well-directed education) are attended to, is but too generally known; and in the humble state of modern oratory (as judged by its effects) the consequences may but too well be discovered. (5)

John Quincy Adams on oratory

America’s sixth president, John Quincy Adams, was a big fan of the ancient ideal of the citizen-orator. In 1805, Adams was offered the Boylston Professorship of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard, a position he held from 1806 to 1808 while he was a senator from Massachusetts. Adams gave a series of lectures in which he extolled the virtues of oratory and its importance to the United States.

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. …

[Our] own nation is at this time precisely under the same circumstances which were so propitious to the advancement of rhetoric and oratory among the Greeks. 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. … 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. … So dear, and so justly dear to us are the blessings of 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. (6)

Examples of great orators

According to Congressional librarian George Watterston, John Quincy Adams was not in the first rank of orators.

He is evidently well skilled in the rhetorical art on which he has lectured, and in which he displays considerable research and ability; but whether he succeeded in reducing his principles to practice, while a member of the Senate, I am not able to say. I should infer, however, that his speeches were more correct and polished, if they were not more eloquent, than those of his coadjutors in legislation. Yet after all…there is something more required to complete an orator than the mere knowledge and practice of those principles which rhetoricians have established as the ground work of this art. If there be an absence of that peculiar kind of talent, or want of that peculiar enthusiasm, which propels the mind to embrace with ardour and delight the profession of an orator, the most intimate and accurate knowledge or the most perfect dexterity in the use of the ‘rhetorician’s tools’ will be inadequate to produce excellence. And, however skilfully a man may round his periods and balance his sentences, select his phrases or direct their harmony; without that ethereal and incomprehensible power which gives animation to matter, sweeps through nature like the lightning of Heaven, and creates and embodies and unfolds; he will still be cold and tame and spiritless, correct indeed but frigid, regular but insensible. From what I can learn, Mr. Adams, with all his knowledge and talent, did not attain the first rank among American orators. He wanted enthusiasm and fire; he wanted that nameless charm which, in oratory as well as poetry, delights and fascinates, and leads the soul captive, without the desire of resistance, or the consciousness of error. (7)

Below are some examples of oratory from people who were thought, by their contemporaries, to be great orators. Along with Adams, two of them appear as characters in Napoleon in America.

Robert Hall on the prospect of Napoleon invading England

Robert Hall (1764-1831), a Baptist minister at Cambridge in England, was reckoned among the greatest British orators of the early 19th century. Here is an extract from his sermon on the prospect of the invasion of England by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1803.

To form an adequate idea of the duties of this crisis, it will be necessary to raise your minds to a level with your station, to extend your views to a distant futurity, and to consequences the most certain, though most remote. By a series of criminal enterprises, by the successes of guilty ambition, the liberties of Europe have been gradually extinguished: the subjugation of Holland, Switzerland, and the free towns of Germany, has completed that catastrophe: and we are the only people in the eastern hemisphere who are in possession of equal laws, and a free constitution. Freedom, driven from every spot on the continent, has sought an asylum in a country which she always chose for her favourite abode: but she is pursued even here, and threatened with destruction. The inundation of lawless power, after covering the whole earth, threatens to follow us here; and we are most exactly, most critically placed in the only aperture where it can be successfully repelled – in the Thermopylae of the world. As far as the interests of freedom are concerned, the most important by far of sublunary interests, you, my countrymen, stand in the capacity of the federal representatives of the human race; for with you it is to determine (under God) in what condition the latest posterity shall be born; their fortunes are intrusted to your care, and on your conduct at this moment depend the colour and complexion of their destiny.

If Liberty, after being extinguished on the continent, is suffered to expire here, whence is it every to emerge in the midst of that thick night that will invest it? It remains with you then to decide whether that Freedom, at whose voice the kingdoms of Europe awoke from the sleep of ages, to run a career of virtuous emulation in every thing great and good; the Freedom which dispelled the mists of superstition, and invited the nations to behold their God; whose magic torch kindled the rays of genius, the enthusiasm of poetry, and the flame of eloquence; the Freedom which poured into our lap opulence and arts, and embellished life with innumerable institutions and improvements, till it became a theatre of wonders; it is for you to decide, whether this Freedom shall yet survive, or be covered with a funeral pall, and wrapped in eternal doom. … I cannot but imagine that the virtuous heroes, legislators, and patriots of every age and country, are bending from their elevated seats to witness this contest, as if they were incapable, till it be brought to a favourable issue, of enjoying their eternal repose. (8)

John C. Calhoun on the need for war against Britain

John C. Calhoun (1782-1850) was a South Carolina planter and politician who served in the House of Representatives and the Senate, and as secretary of war, secretary of state and seventh vice president. Although he was short on charisma, Calhoun was considered a brilliant orator. James C. Jewett, a citizen of Maine, wrote in 1817:

Yesterday I had the pleasure to listen to (in my opinion, and generally speaking, the opinion of all good judges,) the most elegant speaker that sits in the House. I mean Mr. Calhoun. His gestures are easy and graceful, his manner forcible, and language elegant; but above all, he confines himself closely to the subject, which he always understands, and enlightens everyone within hearing; having said all that a statesman should say, he is done. (9)

Calhoun’s skill at oratory helped propel the United States into the War of 1812 against Great Britain. Here’s an excerpt from one of his speeches to the House, delivered on December 12, 1811.

[T]he report could mean nothing but war or empty menace. I hope no member of this House is in favor of the latter. A bullying, menacing system has every thing to condemn and nothing to recommend it. In expense, it almost rivals war. It excites contempt abroad, and destroys confidence at home. Menaces are serious things; and ought to be resorted to with as much caution and seriousness as war itself; and should, if not successful, be invariably followed by it….

I might prove the war, should it ensue, justifiable…and necessary, by facts undoubted, and universally admitted…. The extent, duration, and character of the injuries received; the failure of those peaceful means heretofore resorted to for the redress of our wrongs, are my proofs that it is necessary. Why should I mention the impressment of our seamen; depredations on every branch of our commerce, including the direct export trade, continued for years, and made under laws which professedly undertake to regulate our trade with other nations; negotiation resorted to, again and again, till it is become hopeless; the restrictive system persisted in to avoid war, and in the vain expectation of returning justice? The evil still grows, and, in each succeeding year, swells in extent and pretension beyond the preceding. The question, even in the opinion and by the admission of our opponents, is reduced to this single point – Which shall we do, abandon or defend our own commercial and maritime rights, and the personal liberty of our citizens employed in exercising them? These rights are vitally attacked, and war is the only means of redress. The gentleman from Virginia [John Randolph] has suggested none, unless we consider the whole of his speech as recommending patient and resigned submission as the best remedy. Sir, which alternative this House will embrace, it is not for me to say. I hope the decision is made already, by a higher authority than the voice of any man. It is not for the human tongue to instil the sense of independence and honor. This is the work of nature; a generous nature that disdains tame submission to wrongs.

This part of the subject is so imposing as to enforce silence even on the gentleman from Virginia. He dared not deny his country’s wrongs, or vindicate the conduct of her enemy. Only one part of his argument had any, the most remote relation to this point. He would not say, we had not a good cause for war; but insisted, that it was out duty to define that cause. If he means that this House ought, at this stage of its proceedings, or any other, to specify any particular violation of our rights to the exclusion of all others, he prescribes a course, which neither good sense nor the usage of nations warrants. When we contend, let us contend for all our rights; the doubtful and the certain; the unimportant and essential. It is as easy to struggle, or even more so, for the whole as for a part. At the termination of the contest, secure all that our wisdom and valor and the fortune of war will permit. This is the dictate of common sense; such also is the usage of nations. (10)

Daniel Webster on a jury’s duty

Daniel Webster (1782-1852) was an American lawyer and statesman who represented New Hampshire and Massachusetts in Congress and served as secretary of state under three presidents. He was widely regarded as an excellent orator. As a lawyer, Webster argued over 200 cases before the Supreme Court. British social theorist and writer Harriet Martineau observed his oratory on a visit to Washington in 1835.

[I]t was amusing to see how the court would fill after the entrance of Webster, and empty when he had gone back to the Senate Chamber. The chief interest to me in Webster’s pleading, and also in his speaking in the Senate, was from seeing one so dreamy and nonchalant roused into strong excitement. It seemed like having a curtain lifted up through which it was impossible to pry; like hearing autobiographical secrets. Webster is a lover of ease and pleasure, and has an air of the most unaffected indolence and careless self-sufficiency. It is something to see him moved with anxiety and the toil of intellectual conflict; to see his lips tremble, his nostrils expand, the perspiration start upon his brow; to hear his voice vary with emotion, and to watch the expression of laborious thought while he pauses, for minutes together, to consider his notes, and decide upon the arrangement of his argument. (11)

Webster was the prosecuting attorney at the trial of John Francis Knapp for the murder of Captain Joseph White in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1830. Here is the opening of his summation for the jury.

Your whole concern should be to do your duty, and leave consequences to take care of themselves. You will receive the law from the court. Your verdict, it is true, may endanger the prisoner’s life; but, then, it is to save other lives. If the prisoner’s guilt has been shown and proved beyond all reasonable doubt, you will convict him. If such reasonable doubts still remain, you will acquit him. You are the judges of the whole case. You owe a duty to the public as well as to the prisoner at the bar. You cannot presume to be wiser than the law. Your duty is a plain, straightforward one. Doubtless, we would all judge him in mercy. Towards him, as an individual, the law inculcates no hostility; but towards him, if proved to be a murderer, the law, and the oaths you have taken, and public justice, demand that you do your duty.

With consciences satisfied with the discharge of duty, no consequences can harm you. There is no evil that we cannot face or fly from but the consciousness of duty disregarded.

A sense of duty pursues us ever. It is omnipresent, like the Deity. If we take to ourselves the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the seas, duty performed or duty violated is still with us, for our happiness or our misery. If we say the darkness shall cover us, in the darkness as in the light our obligations are yet with us. We cannot escape their power nor fly from their presence. They are with us in this life, will be with us at its close; and in that scene of inconceivable solemnity which lies yet farther onward, we shall still find ourselves surrounded by the consciousness of duty, to pain us wherever it has been violated, and to console us so far as God may have given us grace to perform it. (12)

Henry Clay on the plight of the Cherokees

Henry Clay (1777-1852) was a lawyer and statesman who represented Kentucky in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. He was the seventh House speaker and America’s ninth secretary of state. Harriet Martineau observed Clay speak in the Senate during her visit to Washington in 1835.

The chief characteristic of his eloquence is its earnestness. Every tone of his voice, every fibre of his frame bears testimony to this. His attitudes are, from the beginning to the close, very graceful. His first sentences are homely, and given with a little hesitation and repetition, and with an agitation shown by a frequent putting on and taking off of the spectacles, and a trembling of the hands among the documents on the desk. Then, as the speaker becomes possessed with his subject, the agitation changes its character, but does not subside. His utterance is still deliberate, but his voice becomes deliciously winning. Its higher tones disappointed me at first; but the lower ones, trembling with emotion, swelling and falling with the earnestness of the speaker, are very moving, and his whole manner becomes irresistibly persuasive. I saw tears, of which I am sure he was wholly unconscious, falling on his papers as he vividly described the woes and injuries of the aborigines. I saw Webster draw his hand across his eyes; I saw every one deeply moved except two persons, the vice-president, who yawned somewhat ostentatiously, and the Georgian senator, who was busy brewing his storm. (13)

The speech Clay delivered was on the subject of the treatment of the Cherokees by Georgia. Here is a portion of his oratory.

I go into this subject with feelings which no language at my command will enable me adequately to express. … I am actuated only by feelings of grief, feelings of sorrow, and of profound regret, irresistibly called forth by a contemplation of the miserable condition to which these unfortunate people have been reduced by acts of legislation proceeding from one of the State of this confederacy. I again assure the honorable senators from Georgia that, if it has become my painful duty to comment upon some of these acts, I do not with any desire to place them, or the State they represent, in an invidious position; but because Georgia was, I believe, the first in the career, the object of which seems to be the utter annihilation of every Indian right, and because she has certainly, in the promotion of it, far out-stripped every other State in the Union. …

[I]n the observations I have made, I am actuated by no other than such as ought to be in the breast of every honest man, the feelings of common justice. I would say nothing, I would whisper nothing, I would insinuate nothing, I would think nothing which can, in the remotest degree, cause irritation in the mind of any one, of any Senator here, of any State in this Union, I have too much respect for every member of the confederacy. I feel nothing but grief for the wretched condition of these most unfortunate people, and every emotion of my bosom dissuades me from the use of epithets that might raise emotions which should draw the attention of the Senate from the justice of their claims. I forbear to apply to this law any epithet of any kind. Sir, no epithet is needed. The features of the law itself; its warrant for the interposition of military power, when no trial and no judgment has been allowed; its denial of any appeal, unless the unhappy Indian shall first renounce his own rights, and admit the rights of his opponent – features such as these are enough to show what the true character of the act is, and supersede the necessity of all epithets, were I even capable of applying them.

The Senate will thus perceive that the whole power of the State of Georgia, military as well as civil, has been made to bear upon these Indians, without their having any voice in forming, judging upon, or executing the laws under which he is placed, and without even the poor privilege of establishing the injury he may have suffered by Indian evidence: nay, worse still, not even by the evidence of a white man! Because the renunciation of his rights precludes all evidence, white or black, civilized or savage. There then he lies, with his property, his rights, and every privilege which makes human existence desirable, at the mercy of the State of Georgia; a State in whose government or laws he has no voice. Sir, it is impossible for the most active imagination to conceive a condition of human society more perfectly wretched. …

To me, in that awful hour of death, to which all must come, and which, with respect to myself, cannot be very far distant, it will be a source of the highest consolation that an opportunity has been found by me, on the floor of the Senate, in the discharge of my official duty, to pronounce my views on a course of policy marked by such wrongs as are calculated to arrest the attention of every one, and that I have raised my humble voice, and pronounced my solemn protest against such wrongs. (14)

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  1. John Selby Watson, ed., Cicero on Oratory and Orators (London, 1855), pp. 147-148.
  2. Robert James Ball, The Academic Cicero; or Exercises in Modern Oratory (Dublin, 1823), p. 2.
  3. Ibid., p. 82.
  4. Ibid., p. 112.
  5. Ibid., p. 120.
  6. John Quincy Adams, Lectures on Rhetoric and Oratory, Vol. I (Cambridge, MA, 1810), pp. 68-71.
  7. George Watterston, Letters from Washington, on the Constitution and Laws; with Sketches of Some of the Prominent Public Characters of the United States, (Washington, 1818), pp. 44-45.
  8. Ball, The Academic Cicero, pp. 184-186.
  9. “The United States Congress of 1817 and Some of its Celebrities,” William and Mary College Quarterly Historical Magazine, Vol. XVII, No. 2 (October, 1908), p. 143.
  10. Frank Moore, American Eloquence: A Collection of Speeches and Addresses, by the Most Eminent Orators of America, Vol. II (New York, 1857), pp. 475-476.
  11. Harriet Martineau, Retrospect of Western Travel, Vol. I (London, 1838), p. 166.
  12. Ibid., 169.
  13. Ibid., p. 178.
  14. Henry Clay, The Life and Speeches of Henry Clay, Vol. II (Philadelphia, 1860), pp. 256-265.

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A knowledge of a vast number of things is necessary, without which volubility of words is empty and ridiculous.

Cicero