On the Outskirts of Public Life
LIVING in a university city, I am occasionally asked by students how they can best train themselves for public speaking; ant I always begin with one bit of counsel, based on half a century’s experience: “ Enlist in a reform.” Engage in something which you feel for the moment so unspeakably more important than yourself as wholly to dwarf you, and the rest will come. No matter what it is, — tariff or free trade, gold standard or silver, even communism or imperialism, —the result is the same as to oratory, if you are only sincere. Even the actor on the dramatic stage must fill himself with his part, or he is nothing, and the public speaker on the platform must be more than a dramatic actor to produce the highest effects. When the leading debater in an intercollegiate competition told me, the other day, that he did not believe in the cause which he was assigned to advocate, my heart sank for him, and I dimly foresaw the defeat which came. There is an essential thing wanting to the eloquence of the men who act a part; but given a profound sincerity, and there is something wonderful in the way it overcomes the obstacles of a hoarse voice, a stammering tongue, or a feeble presence.
On the anti-slavery platform, where I was reared, I cannot remember a really poor speaker ; as Emerson said, “eloquence was dog-cheap ” there. The cause was too real, too vital, too immediately pressing upon heart and conscience, for the speaking to be otherwise than alive. It carried men away as with a flood. Fame is never wide or retentive enough to preserve the names of more than two or three leaders : Bright and Cobden in the anti-corn-law movement ; Clarkson and Wilberforce in the West India Emancipation ; Garrison, Phillips, and John Brown in the great American agitation. But there were constantly to be heard in anti-slavery meetings such minor speakers as Parker, Douglass, William Henry Channing, Burleigh, Foster, May, Remond, Pillsbury, Lucretia Mott, Abby Kelley, — each one holding the audience, each one making converts. How could eloquence not be present there, when we had no time to think of eloquence ? — as Clarkson under similar circumstances said that he had not time to think of the welfare of his soul. I know that my own teachers were the slave women who came shyly before the audience, women perhaps as white as my own sisters, — Ellen Craft was quite as white, — women who had been stripped and whipped and handled with insolent hands and sold to the highest bidder as unhesitatingly as the little girl whom I had seer in the St. Louis slave-market; or women who, having once escaped, had, like Harriet Tubman, gone back again and again into the land of bondage to bring away their kindred and friends. My teachers were men whom I saw first walking clumsily across the platform, just arrived from the South, as if they still bore a hundred pounds weight of plantation soil on each ankle, and whom I saw develop in the course of years into the dignity of freedom. What were the tricks of oratory in the face of men and women like these ? We learned to speak because their presence made silence impossible.
All this, however, I did not recognize at the time so clearly as I do now ; nor was I sure that I, at least, was accomplishing much for the cause I loved. In one respect the influence of Wendell Phillips did me harm for a time, as to speaking in public, because it was his firm belief that the two departments of literature and oratory were essentially distinct, and could not well be combined in the same person. He had made his choice, he said, and had abandoned literature. It was hard to persuade him to write even a pamphlet or a circular, although when he did it was done with such terseness and vigor as to refute his theory. Of this I was gradually convinced, but there was a long period during which I accepted the alternative offered by him, and therefore reasoned that because literature was my apparent vocation, oratory was not. Of course it was often necessary for me to appear on the platform, but I did it at first only as a duty, and did nut feel sure of myself in that sphere. Little by little the impression passed away, and I rejected Phillips’s doctrine. Since the civil war, especially, I have felt much more self-confidence in public speaking ; and it is one sign of this that I have scarcely ever used notes before an audience, and have long since reached the point where they would be a hindrance, not a help. Indeed, I believe that most young speakers can reach this point much earlier than they suppose ; and in my little book. Hints on Writing and Speechmaking, I have indicated how this can be done. A speaker’s magnetic hold upon his audience is unquestionably impaired by the sight of the smallest bit of paper in his hand.
During a long intervening period, however, I lectured a great deal in what were then called “ lyceum ” courses, which stretched over the northern half of the United States, forty years ago, to an extent now hardly conceivable. There were two or three large organizations, or bureaus, which undertook systematically the task of bringing speaker and audience together, with the least possible inconvenience to both. One of these, whose centre was Dubuque, Iowa, negotiated in 1867 for thirty-five lecturers and one hundred and ten lecture courses ; undertaking to distribute the one with perfect precision, and to supply the other. As a result, the lecturer left home with a printed circular in his pocket assigning his dozen or his hundred engagements, as the case might be. Many of these might be in towns of which he had never heard the names. No matter ; he was sure that they would be there, posted a day’s journey apart, and all ready to receive him. As a rule, he would meet in each new place what looked like the same audience, would make the same points in his lecture as before, would sleep at what seemed the same hotel, and breakfast on the same tough beefsteak. He would receive the usual compliments, if any, and make the same courteous reply to the accustomed questions as to the acoustics of the hall and the intelligence of the audience. In the far West he would perhaps reach villages where, as the people came twenty miles for their entertainments, a dance might be combined with the lecture, — “ tickets to Emerson and ball, one dollar.” I have still a handbill, printed in some village in Indiana in 1867, wherein Mr. J. Jackson offers to read Hamlet for twenty-five cents admission, ladies free. He adds that after the reading he will himself plan for the formatior of a company, with a small capital, for the manufacture of silk handkerchiefs of a quality superior to anything in the market, and will relate some incidents of his early life in connection with this particular article. Thus having administered Hamlet once, he would prepare his audience to shed the necessary tears on a second hearing.
To the literary man, ordinarily kept at home by task work or by domestic cares, — and both of these existed in my own case,—there was a refreshing variety in a week or two, possibly a month or more, of these lecturing experiences. Considered as a regular vocation, such lecturing was benumbing to the mind as well as exhausting to the body, but it was at any rate an antidote for provincialism. It was a good thing to be entertained, beyond the Mississippi, at a house which was little more than a log cabin, and to find, as I have found, Longfellow’s Dante on the table and Millais’ Huguenot Lovers on the wall; or to visit, as I once visited, a village of forty houses, in the same region, in nineteen of which The Atlantic Monthly was regularly taken. After such experiences a man could go back to his writing or his editing with enlarged faith. He would get new impressions, too, of the dignity and value of the lecture system itself. In one of my trips, while on a small branch railway in New England, I found everybody talking about the prospective entertainment of that evening, —conductor, brakemen, and passengers all kept recurring to the subject; everybody was going. As we drew near the end, the conductor singled me out as the only stranger and the probable lecturer, and burst into eager explanation. “ The president of the lyceum,” he said, “ is absent from the village, and the vicepresident, who will present you to the audience, is the engineer of this very train.” So it turned out: the engineerintroduced me with dignity and propriety. He proved to be a reader of Emerson and Carlyle, and he gave me a ride on his locomotive the next morning.
There was something pleasant, also, in the knowledge that the lecturer himself met the people as man to man; that he stood upon the platform to be judged and weighed. From the talk of his fellow travelers in the train, beforehand, he could know what they expected of him : and from the talk next morning, how he had stood the test. Wendell Phillips especially dreaded this ordeal, and always went home after lecturing, if his home could by any possibility be reached, in order to avoid it. The lecturer, often unrecognized in his traveling garb, might look through the eyes of others on his own face and figure ; might hear his attitudes discussed, or his voice, or his opinions. Once, after giving a lecture on physical education, I heard it talked over between two respectable ladies, with especial reference to some disrespectful remarks of mine on the American pie. I had said, in a sentence which, though I had not really reduced it to writing, yet secured a greater circulation through the newspapers than any other sentence I shall ever write, that the average pie of the American railway station was “ something very white and indigestible at the top, very moist and indigestible at the bottom, and with untold horrors in the middle.” I had given this lecture at Fall River, and was returning by way of the steamboat to Providence, when I heard one of my neighbors ask the other if she heard the lecture.
“ No,” she answered, “ I did n’t. But Mis’ Jones, she come home that night, and she flung her hood right down on the table, and says she, ‘ There,’ says she, ‘ Mr. Jones, I’m never goin’ to have another o’ them mince pies in the house just as long as I live,’ says she. ‘ There was Sammy,’ says she, ‘ he was sick all last night, and I do believe it was nothin’ in all the world but just them mince pies,’ says she.”
“ Well,” said the other lady, a slow, deliberate personage, “ I do suppose that them kind of concomitants ain’t good things.”
Here the conversation closed, but Mr. Weller did not feel more gratified when he heard the Bath footmen call a boiled leg of mutton a “ swarry,” and wondered what they would call a roast one, than I when my poor stock of phrases was reinforced by this unexpected polysyllable. Instead of wasting so many words to describe an American railway pie, I should have described it, more tersely, as a “ concomitant.”
The lecture system was long since shaken to pieces in America by the multiplying of newspapers and the growth of musical and dramatic opportunities. The “ bureaus ” now exist mainly for the benefit of foreign celebrities; and the American lecturer has come to concern himself more and more with questions of public policy and morals, while literature and science have receded more into the background. The transition was easy from the lyceum course to the political platform, and this, at least, has held its own. No delusion is harder to drive out of the public mind than the impression that college-bred American men habitually avoid public duties. It may hold in a few large cities, but is rarely the case in country towns, and in New England generally is quite untrue. In looking back fifty years, I cannot put my finger on five years when I myself was not performing some official service for the city or state, or both simultaneously. In each of the four places where I have resided I have been a member of some public school committee ; and in three of these places a trustee of the public library, there being then no such institution in the fourth town, although I was on a committee to prepare for one.
As to service to the commonwealth, since my return to my native state — twenty years ago — I have spent thirteen years in some public function, one year as chief of the governor’s personal staff, two years as member of the state House of Representatives, three years on the State Board of Education, and seven years as state military and naval historian. How well I did my duty is not the question ; we are dealing with quantity of service, not quality. Besides all this, I have almost invariably voted when there was any voting to be done, have repeatedly been a delegate to political conventions, and have commonly attended what are called primary meetings, often presiding at them. There is nothing exceptional in all this ; it is a common thing for American citizens to have rendered as much service as is here stated, and in the university city where I dwell it is the rule, and not the exception, for professors and instructors to take their share in public duties. Some of those most faithful in this respect have been among the most typical and fastidious scholars, such as Professor Charles Eliot Norton and the late Professor Francis James Child. I confess that it makes me somewhat indignant to hear such men stigmatized as mere idealists and dilettantes by politicians who have never in all their lives done so much to purify and elevate politics as these men have been doing daily for many years.
Side by side with this delusion there is an impression, equally mistaken, that college-bred men are disliked in politics, and have to encounter prejudice and distrust, simply by reason of education. They do indeed encounter this prejudice, but it comes almost wholly from other educated men who think that they can make a point against rivals by appealing to some such feeling. Nobody used this weapon more freely, for instance, than the late Benjamin F. Butler, who was himself a college graduate. He was always ready to deride Governor John D. Long for having translated Virgil; while his audiences, if let alone, would have thought it a creditable performance. As a rule, it may be assumed that any jeer at a “ scholar in politics ” proceeds from some other scholar in politics. It was almost pathetic to me to see, while in the Massachusetts legislature, the undue respect and expectation with which the more studious men in that body were habitually treated by other members, who perhaps knew far more than they about the matters of practical business with which legislatures are mainly occupied. It was, if analyzed, a tribute to a supposed breadth of mind which did not always exist, or to a command of language which proved quite inadequate. Many a college graduate stammers and repeats himself, while a man from the anvil or the country store says what he has to say and sits down. Again and again, during my service in the legislature, when some man had been sent there by his town, mainly to get one thing done, — a boundary changed or a local railway chartered, — he has come to me with an urgent request to make his speech for him ; and I have tried to convince him of the universal truth that a single-speech man who has never before opened his lips, but who understands his question through and through, will be to other members a welcome relief from a voice they hear too often. Wordsworth says:—
With coldness still returning ;
Alas ! the gratitude of men
Hath oftener left me mourning.”
I have much oftener been saddened by the too great deference of men who were my superiors in everything but a diploma than I have been amazed by their jealousy or distrust.
It is my firm conviction that there never was an honester body of men, on the whole, than the two Massachusetts legislatures with which I served in 1880 and 1881. If there has been a serious change since, which I do not believe, it has been a very rapid decline. Doubtless the legislature was extremely liable to prejudice and impatience ; it required tact to take it at the right moment, and also not to bore it. I had next me, for a whole winter, a politician of foreign birth, so restless that he never could remain half an hour in his seat, and who took such an aversion to one of the ablest lawyers in the house, because of his long and frequent speeches, that he made it a rule to go out whenever this orator began, and to vote against every motion he made. This was an individual case ; yet personal popularity certainly counted for a great deal, up to the moment when any man trespassed upon it and showed that his head was beginning to be turned; from that moment his advantage was gone. Men attempting to bully the House usually failed ; so did those who were too visibly wheedling and coaxing, or who struck an unfair blow at an opponent, or who aspersed the general integrity of the body they addressed, or who even talked down to it too much. On the other hand, there existed among the members certain vast and inscrutable undercurrents of prejudice ; as, for instance, those relating to the rights of towns, or the public school system, or the law of settlement, or perhaps only questions of roads and navigable streams, or of the breadth of wheels or the close time of fishing, — points which could never be comprehended by academic minds or even city-bred minds, and which yet might at any moment create a current formidable to encounter, and usually impossible to resist. Every good debater in the House and every one of its recognized legal authorities might be on one side, and yet the smallest contest with one of these latent prejudices would land them in a minority.
There were men in the House who scarcely ever spoke, but who comprehended these prejudices through and through ; and when I had a pet measure to support, I felt more alarmed at seeing one of these men passing quietly about among the seats, or even conversing with a group in the cloak-room, than if I had found all the leaders in the legislature opposed to me. Votes were often carried against the leaders, but almost never against this deadly undertow of awakened prejudice. No money could possibly have affected it; and indeed the attempt to use money to control the legislature must then have been a very rare thing. There was not then, and perhaps is not to this day, any organized corporation which had such a controlling influence in Massachusetts as have certain railways, according to rumor, in Connecticut and Pennsylvania. Something of this power has been attributed, since my time, perhaps without reason, to the great West End Railway ; but there was certainly only one man in the legislature, at the time I describe, who was generally believed to be the agent of a powerful corporation; and although he was one of the most formidable debaters in the house, by reason of wit and brilliancy, he yet failed to carry votes through this general distrust. Men in such bodies often listen eagerly, for entertainment, to an orator who commands after all but few votes, while they are perhaps finally convinced, nevertheless, by some dull or stammering speaker who thoroughly comprehends what he is discussing and whose sincerity is recognized by all.
Perhaps the most tedious but often the most amusing part of legislative life consists in the hearings before committees. I was at different times House chairman of committees on constitutional amendments, on education, on woman suffrage, and on “ expediting the business of the House.” All these were liable to be the prey of what are called cranks, but especially the first of these, which gathered what Emerson once called “ the soul of the soldiery of dissent.” There were men and women who haunted the State House simply to address the sessions of the Committee on Constitutional Amendments, and who would have been perfectly ready to take all that part of the business off our hands. I find in my notebook that one of these, an Irishman, once said to us, with the headlong enthusiasm of his race, “ Before I say anything on this subject, let me say a word or two! In a question of integral calculus, you must depend on some one who can solve it. Now I have solved this question of Biennial Sessions,” — this being the subject under consideration, — “ and you must depend on me. Working men, as a rule, have what may be called a moral sense. Moral sense is that which enables us to tell heat from cold, to tell white from yellow : that is moral sense. Moral sense tells us right from wrong.” Then followed an address with more of fact and reasoning than one could possibly associate with such an introduction, but ending with the general conclusion, “ It [the biennial method] would give more power to the legislature, for they would centralize more money into their pockets. I hope every member of the legislature, when this matter comes up, will be voted down.” All these flowers of speech are taken from my own notebook as kept in the committee.
I always rather enjoyed being contradicted in the legislature or being crossexamined on the witness-stand : first, because the position gives one opportunity to bring in, by way of rejoinder, points which would not have fitted legitimately into one’s main statement, thus approaching the matter by a flank movement, as it were ; and again because the sympathy of the audience is always with the party attacked, and nothing pleases the spectators better, especially in the court-room, than to have a witness turn the tables on the lawyer. It is much the same in legislative bodies, and nothing aided the late General Butler more than the ready wit with which he would baffle the whole weight of argument by a retort. The same quality belonged to the best roughand-ready fighter in the Massachusetts legislature of 1881, — a man to whom I have already referred as lacking the confidence of the House. He was a man who often hurt the cause he advocated by the brutality of his own argument, and was never so formidable as when he was driven into a corner, and suddenly, so to speak, threw a somerset over his assailant’s head and came up smiling. I remember to have been once the victim of this method when I felt safest. I was arguing against one of those bills which were constantly reappearing for the prohibition of oleomargarine, and which usually passed in the end, from a sheer desire to content the farmers. I wTas arguing — what I have always thought to this day — that good oleomargarine was far better than bad butter, and should not be prohibited; and I fortified this by a story I had just heard of a gentleman in New York city, who had introduced the substitute without explanation at a lunch he had lately given, and who, on asking his guests to compare it with the best butter, also on the table, found them all selecting the oleomargarine. The House had seemed about equally divided, and I thought my little anecdote had carried the day, when Mr.-arose and with the profoundest seriousness asked, “ Will the gentleman kindly inform us at what precise stage of the lunch party this test was applied?” The retort brought down the house instantly, and the rout which followed was overwhelming. It readily occurred to the experienced, or even to the inexperienced, that at a convivial party in New York there might arrive a period when the judgment of the guests would lose some of its value.
I had, in the legislature, my fair share of successes and failures, having the pleasure, for instance, of reporting and carrying through the present law which guarantees children in public schools from being compelled to read from the Bible against the wish of their parents, and also the bill giving to the Normal Art School a dwelling-place of its own. I contributed largely, the reporters thought, to the defeat of a measure which my constituents generally approved, the substitution of biennial sessions for annual; and have lived to see it finally carried through the legislature, and overwhelmingly defeated by the popular vote. I supported many propositions which required time to mature them and have since become laws ; as the abolition of the poll tax qualification for voting, and the final abolition of the school district system. Other such measures which I supported still require farther time for agitation, as woman suffrage and the removal of the stigma on atheist witnesses. The latter, as well as the former, was very near my heart, since I think it an outrage first to admit the evidence of atheists, and then admit evidence to show that they are such, — a contradiction which Professor Longfellow described as “ allowing men to testify, and then telling the jury that their testimony was not worth having.” This measure was defeated, not by the Roman Catholics in the House, but by the Protestants, the representatives of the former being equally divided; a result attributed mainly to my having a certain personal popularity among that class. A more curious result of the same thing was when the woman suffrage bill was defeated, and when four Irish-American members went out and sat in the lobby, — beside Mr. Plunkett, the armless sergeant-at-arms, who told me the fact afterwards, — not wishing either to vote for the bill or to vote against what I desired. I rejoice to say that I had the same experience described by Theodore Roosevelt, in finding my general liking for the Irish temperament confirmed by seeing men of that race in public bodies. Often unreasonable, impetuous, one-sided, or scheming, they produce certainly some men of a high type of character. There was no one in the legislature for whose motives and habits of mind I had more entire respect than for those of a young Irish-American lawyer, since dead, who sat in the next seat to mine during a whole session. I believe that the instinct of this whole class for politics is on the whole a sign of promise, although producing some temporary evils ; and that it is much more hopeful, for instance, than the comparative indifference to public affairs among our large FrenchCanadian population.
The desire for office, once partially gratified, soon becomes very strong, and the pride of being known as a “ vote-getter ” is a very potent stimulus to Americans, and is very demoralizing. Few men are willing to let the offices come to them, and although they respect this quality of abstinence in another, if combined with success, they do not have the same feeling for it per se. They early glide into the habit of regarding office as a perquisite, and as something to be given to the man who works hardest for it, not to the man who is fitted for it. Money too necessarily enters into the account, as is shown by the habit of assessing candidates in proportion to their salaries, a thing to which I have always refused to submit. Again, I am sorry to say, there is a certain amount of hypocrisy on the subject, and men often carry on a still hunt, as it is technically called, and do not frankly own their methods. I remember when, some thirty years ago, a man eminent in our public life was boasting to me of the nomination of his younger brother for Congress, and this especially on the ground that whereas his competitor for the nomination had gone about promising offices and other rewards to his henchmen, the successful candidate had entirely refused to do anything of the kind, and had won on his merits alone. Afterward, on my asking the manager of the latter’s campaign whether there was really so much difference in the methods of the two, he said with a chuckle, “ Well, I guess there was n’t much left undone on either side.” The whole tendency of public life is undoubtedly to make a man an incipient boss, and to tempt him to scheme and bargain ; and it is only the most favorable circumstances which can enable a man to succeed without this ; it is mainly a question whether he shall do it in person or through an agent or “ wicked partner.” The knowledge of this drives from public life some men well fitted to adorn it, and brings in many who are unfit. The only question is whether there is much variation in this respect between different countries, and whether the process by which a man takes a step of rank in England, for instance, differs always essentially from the method by which position is gained in American public life. It is my own impression that this is also a case where there is not much left undone on either side.
Here is one plain advantage in the hands of the literary man: that he is in a world where these various devices are far less needful. The artist, said Goethe, is the only man who lives with unconcealed aims. Successes are often won by inferior productions, no doubt, but it is because these are in some way better fitted to the current taste, and it is very rarely intrigue or pushing which secures fame. It is rare to see a book which has a merely business success; and if such a case occurs, it is very apt to be only a temporary affair, followed by reaction. This, therefore, is an advantage on the side of literature ; but, on the other hand, the direct contact with men and the sense of being uncloistered is always a source of enjoyment in public life, and I should be sorry to go altogether without it. Presiding at public meetings, for instance, is a position which affords positive enjoyment to any one to whom it comes easily; it demands chiefly a clear head, prompt decision, absolute impartiality, and tolerable tact. An audience which recognizes these qualities will almost invariably sustain the chairman; those present have come there for a certain purpose, to carry the meeting fairly through, and they will stand by a man who helps to this, though if he is tricky they will rebel, and if he is irresolute they will ride over him. The rules of order are really very simple, and are almost always based on good common sense; and there is the same sort of pleasure in managing a somewhat turbulent meeting that is found in driving a four-inhand. At smaller meetings of committees and the like, an enormous amount can be done by conciliation ; nine times out of ten the differences are essentially verbal, and the suggestion of a word, the substitution of a syllable, will perhaps quell the rising storm. People are sometimes much less divided in purpose than they suppose themselves to be, and an extremely small concession will furnish a sufficient relief for pride. There is much, also, in watching the temper of those with whom you deal, and in choosing the fortunate moment, — a thing which the late President Garfield, while leader of the House of Representatives at Washington, pointed out to me as the first essential of success. There were days, he said, when one could carry through almost without opposition measures that at other times would have to be fought inch by inch; and I afterward noticed the same thing in the Massachusetts legislature. It is so, also, I have heard the attendants say, even with the wild beasts in a menagerie : there are occasions when the storm signals are raised, and no risks must be taken, even with the tamest.
Probably no other presidential election which ever took place in this country showed so small a share of what is base or selfish in politics as the first election of President Cleveland ; and in this I happened to take a pretty active part. I spoke in his behalf in five different states, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, and New Jersey, and was brought closely in contact with the current of popular feeling, which I found a sound and wholesome one. The fact that he was a new man kept him singularly free from personal entanglements until actually in office ; and his rather deliberate and stubborn temperament, with the tone of his leading supporters, gave an added safeguard. On the other hand, the same slowness of temperament made it impossible for him to supervise all departments at once, and he had to leave some of them in the hands of old-fashioned spoilsmen. There was among those who originally brought him forward — the so-called Mugwumps — an almost exaggerated unselfishness, at least for a time; in Massachusetts, especially, it was practically understood among them that they were to ask for nothing personally ; and they generally got what they asked for. Mr. Cleveland’s administration, with all its strength and weakness, has gone into history ; he had, if ever a man had, les défauts de ses qualités, but I cannot remember any President whose support implied so little that was personally unsatisfactory. This I say although I was led by my interest in him to accept, rather against my will, a nomination for Congress on the Democratic ticket at the time when Mr. Cleveland failed of reëlection (1888). I made many speeches in my own district, mainly in his behalf ; and although I was defeated, I had what is regarded in politics as the creditable outcome of having more votes in the district than the head of the ticket.
There are always many curious experiences in campaign-speaking. It will sometimes happen that the orators who are to meet on the platform have approached the matter from wholly different points of view, so that each makes concessions which logically destroy the other’s arguments, were the audience only quick enough to find it out; or it may happen — which is worse — that the first speaker anticipates the second so completely as to leave him little to say. It is universally the case, I believe, that toward the end of the campaign every good point made by any speaker, every telling anecdote, every neat repartee, is so quoted from one to another that the speeches grow more and more identical. One gets acquainted, too, with a variety of prejudices, and gets insight into many local peculiarities and even accents. I remember that once, when I was speaking on the same platform with an able young Irish lawyer, he was making an attack on the present Senator Lodge, and said contemptuously, “ Mr. Henry Cabot Lodge of Nâhânt ” — and he paused for a response which did not adequately follow. Then he repeated more emphatically, “ Of Nâhânt! He calls it in that way, but common people say Nâhânt! ” Then the audience took the point, and, being largely Irish, responded enthusiastically. Now, Mr. Lodge had only pronounced the name of his place of residence as he had done from the cradle, as his parents had said it before him, and as all good Bostonians had habitually pronounced it, with the broad sound universal among Englishmen, except — as Mr. Thomas Hardy has lately assured me — in the Wessex region; while this sarcastic young political critic, on the other hand, representing the Western and Southern and Irish mode of speech, treated this tradition of boyhood as a mere affectation.
One forms unexpected judgments of characters, also, on the platform. I can remember one well-known lawyer, — not now living, — whose manner to an audience, as to a jury, was so intolerably coaxing, flattering, and wheedling that it always left me with a strong wish that I could conscientiously vote against him. I remember also one eminent clergyman and popular orator who spoke with me before a very rough audience at Jersey City, and who so lowered himself by his tone on the platform, making allusions and repartees so coarse, that I hoped I might never have to speak beside him again. Of all the speakers with whom I have ever occupied the platform, the one with whom I found it pleasantest to be associated was the late Governor William Eustis Russell of Massachusetts. Carrying his election three successive times in a state where his party was distinctly in the minority, he yet had, among all political speakers whom I ever heard, the greatest simplicity and directness of statement, the most entire absence of trick, of claptrap, or of anything which would have lowered him. Striking directly at the main line of his argument, always well fortified, making his points uniformly clear, dealing sparingly in joke or anecdote, yet never failing to hold his audience, he was very near the ideal of a political speaker : nor has the death of any man in public life appeared so peculiar and irremediable a loss.
On the election of John Davis Long, now Secretary of the Navy, as governor of Massachusetts in 1880, he asked me to act on his military staff; and although I had not known him personally, I felt bound to accept the post. The position is commonly regarded in time of peace as merely ornamental, but I had learned during the civil war how important it might become at any moment ; and as nearly all his staff had seen some military service, I regarded the appointment as an honor. So peaceful was his administration that my chief duty was in representing him at public dinners and making speeches in his place. Sometimes, however, I went with him, and could admire in him that wondrous gift, which is called in other countries “the royal faculty,” of always remembering the name of every one. With the utmost good will toward the human race, I never could attain to this gift of vivid personal recollection, and could only admire in my chief the unerring precision with which he knew in each case whether it was his constituent’s wife or grandaunt who had been suffering under chronic rheumatism last year, and must now be asked for with accuracy. He had, too, the greatest tact in dealing with his audiences, not merely through humor and genial good sense, but even to the point of risking all upon some little stroke of audacity. This happened, for instance, when he delighted the Ancient and Honorable Artillery, a body made up from various military and non-military ingredients, by complimenting them on their style of marching, — which was rarely complimented by others, — and this on the ground that he did “ not remember ever to have seen just such marching,” The shot told, and was received with cheer upon cheer. Almost the only mistake I ever knew this deservedly popular official to make in dealing with an audience was when he repeated the same stroke soon after upon a rural semi-military company of somewhat similar description, which received it in stern and unsympathetic silence; for it was their marching upon which these excellent citizens had prided themselves the most.
The Nemesis of public speaking — the thing which makes it seem almost worthless in the long run — is the impossibility of making it tell for anything after its moment is past. A book remains always in existence, — litera scripta manet, — and long after it seems forgotten it may be disinterred from the dust of libraries, and be judged as freshly as if written yesterday. The popular orator soon disappears from memory, and there is perhaps substituted in his place some solid thinker like Burke, who made speeches, indeed, but was called “ the Dinner Bell,” because the members of Parliament scattered themselves instead of listening when he rose. Possibly this briefer tenure of fame is nature’s compensation for the more thrilling excitement of the orator’s life as compared with the author’s. The poet’s eye may be in never so fine a frenzy rolling, but he enjoys himself alone ; he can never wholly trust his own judgment, nor even that of his admiring family. A perceptible interval must pass before he hears from his public. The orator’s appreciation, on the other hand, comes back as promptly as an answering echo : his hearers sometimes hardly wait for his sentence to be ended. In this respect he is like the actor, and enjoys, like him, a life too exciting to be quite wholesome. There are moments when every orator speaks, as we may say, above himself. Either he waked that morning fresher and more vigorous than usual, or he has had good news, or the audience is particularly sympathetic; at any rate, he surprises himself by going beyond his accustomed range. Or it may be, on the other hand, that he has heard bad news, or the audience is particularly antagonistic, so that he gets the warmth by reaction, as from a cold bath. When Wendell Phillips was speaking more tamely than usual, the younger Abolitionists would sometimes go round behind the audience and start a hiss, which roused him without fail. The most experienced public speaker can never fully allow for these variations, or foretell with precision what his success is to be. No doubt there may be for all grades of intellect something akin to inspiration, when it is the ardor of the blood which speaks, and the orator himself seems merely to listen. Probably a scolding fishwoman has her days of glory when she is in remarkably good form, and looks back afterward in astonishment at her own flow of language. Whatever surprises the speaker is almost equally sure to arrest the audience ; his prepared material may miss its effect, but his impulse rarely does. “ Indeed,” as I wrote elsewhere long ago, “ the best hope that any orator can have is to rise at favored moments to some height of enthusiasm that shall make all his previous structure of preparation superfluous ; as the ship in launching glides from the ways, and scatters cradle-timbers and wedges upon the waters that are henceforth to be her home.”
The moral of my whole tale is that while no man who is appointed by nature to literary service should forsake it for public life, yet the experience of the platform, and even of direct political service, will be most valuable to him up to a certain point. That neither of these avenues leads surely to fame or wealth is a wholly secondary matter. Gibbon says of himself that " in circumstances more indigent or more wealthy ” he “ should never have accomplished the task or acquired the fame of an historian.” For myself, I have always been very grateful, first for not being rich, since wealth is a condition giving not merely new temptations, but new cares and responsibilities, such as a student should not be called upon to undertake ; and secondly, for having always had the health and habits which enabled me to earn an honest living by literature, and this without actual drudgery. Drudgery in literature is not simply to work hard, which is a pleasure, but to work on unattractive material. If one escapes drudgery, it seems to me that he has in literature the most delightful of all pursuits, especially if he can get the added variety which comes from having the immediate contact with life which occasional public speaking gives. The writer obtains from such intercourse that which Selden, in his Table Talk, attributes to the habit of dining in public as practiced by old English sovereigns: “The King himself used to eat in the hall, and his lords with him, and then he understood men.” It is, after all, the orator, not the writer, who meets men literally face to face ; beyond this their functions are much alike. Of course neither of them can expect to win the vast prizes of wealth or power which commerce sometimes gives ; and one’s best preparation is to have looked poverty and obscurity in the face in youth, to have taken its measure and accepted it as a possible alternative, — a thing insignificant to a man who has, or even thinks he has, a higher aim.
No single sentence, except a few of Emerson’s, ever moved me so much in youth as did a passage translated in Mrs. Austen’s German Prose Writers from Heinzelmann, an author of whom I never read another word: “Be and continue poor, young man, while others around you grow rich by fraud and disloyalty ; be without place or power, while others beg their way upward ; bear the pain of disappointed hopes, while others gain the accomplishment of theirs by flattery ; forego the gracious pressure of the hand, for which others cringe and crawl; wrap yourself in your own virtue, and seek a friend, and your daily bread. If you have, in such a course, grown gray with unblenched honor, bless God, and die.” This should be learned by heart by every young man ; but he should also temper it with the fine saying of Thoreau, that he “ did not wish to practice selfdenial unless it was quite necessary.” In other words, a man should not be an ascetic for the sake of asceticism, but he should cheerfully accept that attitude if it proves to be for him the necessary path to true manhood. It is not worth while that he should live, like Spinoza, on five cents a day. It is worth while that he should be ready to do this, if needful, rather than to forego his appointed work, as Spinoza certainly did not. If I am glad of anything, it is that I learned in time, though not without some early stumblings, to adjust life to its actual conditions and to find it richly worth living.
After all, no modern writer can state the relative position of author and orator, or the ultimate aims of each, better than it was done eighteen centuries ago in that fine dialogue which has been variously attributed to Quintilian and Tacitus, in which the representatives of the two vocations compare their experience. Both agree that the satisfaction of exercising the gift and of knowing its usefulness to others provides better rewards than all office, all wealth. Aper, the representative orator, says that when he is called on to plead for the oppressed or for any good cause, he rises above all places of high preferment, and can afford to look down on them all. (“ Tum mihi supra tribunatus et præturas et consulatus ascendere videor.”) Maternus, who has retired from the public forum to write tragedies, justifies his course on the ground that the influence of the poet is far more lasting than that of the orator ; and he is so far from asking wealth as a reward that he hopes to leave behind him, when he shall come to die, only so much of worldly possessions as may provide parting gifts for a few friends. (“ Nec plus habeam quam quod possim cui velim relinquere.”) If ancient Rome furnished this lofty standard, cannot modern Christendom hope at least to match it ?
Thomas Wentworth Higginson.