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services in Boston were crowded; and so until well into the nineteenth century were the regular Thursday lectures, given by various ministers, who often discussed theological subjects, but frequently fell to treating public matters from a more or less theological point of view. Meanwhile, there were few frivolous amusements. Theatres were held in such abhorrence that even so lately as 1850 the Boston Museum, whose stock company at that time admirably preserved the old traditions of the English stage, advertised its auditorium as a lecture-room and its performances of standard comedies and farces as lectures. Although church-going was a duty, then, and even going to the Thursday lectures was represented as something of the kind, there can be little doubt that Boston people felt genuine interest in what their preachers and lecturers said to them; and until long after 1800 native Yankees had a traditional liking, which they honestly believed unaffected, for hearing people talk from platforms or pulpits.
When the Revolution came, accordingly, the surest means of attaining eminence in New England was public speaking. James Otis, always a man rather of speech than of action, began the career which made his name national by his spoken argument against Writs of Assistance. The heroic memory of Joseph Warren is almost as closely associated with his oration at the Old South Church concerning the so-called Boston Massacre as with his death at Bunker Hill. Samuel Adams, too, is remembered as eloquent; and John Adams, the founder of that family line which to this day preserves its distinction, was a skilful public speaker. There is something widely characteristic, indeed, in the speech which Webster's eulogy of 1826 attributed to this first New England President of the United States. The famous "Sink or swim, live or die, survive or perish," closely imitates the harangues and speeches of classical historians. In each case the speeches may possibly have been based on some tradition of what was actually said; in each case, obeying the conventional fashion of his
time, the writer Thucydides, Livy, or Webster — puts into the mouth of a hero eloquent words which are really his own. In each case these words not only characterise the personages who are feigned to have uttered them, but as elaborately artificial pieces of rhetoric they throw light as well both on the men who composed them, and on the public for which they were composed. In more than one way, then, the speech which Webster's superb fiction of 1826 attributed to the John Adams of half a century before illustrates the New England oratory of which Adams was one of the first exponents and Webster himself the greatest.
For between the time of Adams's early maturity and Webster's prime there was a flood of public speaking in New England, more and more punctilious and finished in form. The name of an eminent Federalist, for one thing, who died in 1808 at the age of fifty has been so excellently remembered that a Chief Justice of Massachusetts, in a eulogy on a fellowjudge who died little more than twenty years ago, declared with no intention of anti-climax that "his English was purified by constant reading of the greatest models, the English Bible, Shakspere, Addison, and Fisher Ames." And were oratory pure literature, and not rather related to the functions of the pulpit or the bar, one might well give a whole volume to the American oratory of the century which followed the Revolution. In a study like ours, however, we have time only for a glance at it; and this hasty glance shows clearly that its most eminent exponent in New England was Daniel Webster.
Webster's public life is a matter of familiar history. Born in 1782, the son of a New Hampshire farmer, he graduated at the little country college of Dartmouth. He began his legal career in his native State; but Portsmouth, the chief city of New Hampshire, was already declining in importance, and before 1820 Webster removed to Boston. At that time the material prosperity of New England was well under way.
Webster's active life in Massachusetts coincided with the full development of those manufacturing industries on which the older Boston fortunes are still generally based. At the head of these industries and of other similar activities was that class of native Massachusetts gentlemen whom Stuart painted. Before long this developed politically into the old Whig party, in which was long concentrated the political energy of the educated and socially eminent people who for a good while controlled Massachusetts politics. Of this party Webster soon became the recognised leader, acquiring such power as no other political leader of New England has known before or since.
Not the least remarkable phase of this extraordinary dominance lies in the fact that Webster was foreign in temperament to the social class of which he thus became the acknowledged chief. The Massachusetts Whigs were Boston gentlemen who embodied the general traits at which we have glanced. Webster was the son of a New Hampshire countryman; and despite the formal dignity of his manners, his character, from their point of view, left something to be desired. Undoubtedly a man of commanding ability, he was with equal certainty a good fellow, robust in personal habits, and not very careful of his minor morals; you could generally trust him to win a case, and not to pay a bill. Yet for half a lifetime he justly maintained personal leadership amid the most severely moral and commercially punctilious aristocracy of America. In view of this fact the means by which he attained eminence becomes significant.
For, in the first place, as an advocate at the bar, in the second place, as a representative of public sentiment on memorable festal occasions, and finally as the most influential of American Senators, Webster's means of asserting himself remained the same. He had an unsurpassed power of getting up before great bodies of his fellow-citizens and talking to them in a way which should hold their attention, influence
their convictions, and guide their conduct. It is worth our while, then, to glance at two or three passages from his speeches.
There is no more familiar example of his occasional oratory than his Apostrophe to the survivors of the battle of Bunker Hill, which occurs in an oration delivered in 1825, when the cornerstone of the Bunker Hill Monument was laid:
"Venerable men! you have come down to us from a former generation. Heaven has bounteously lengthened out your lives, that you might behold this joyous day. You are now where you stood fifty years ago, this very hour, with your brothers and your neighbours, shoulder to shoulder, in the strife for your country. Behold, how altered! The same heavens are indeed over your heads; the same ocean rolls at your feet; but all else how changed! You hear now no roar of hostile cannon, you see no mixed volumes of smoke and flame arising from burning Charlestown. The ground strewed with the dead and the dying; the impetuous charge; the steady and successful repulse; the loud call to repeated assault; the summoning of all that is manly to repeated resistance; a thousand bosoms freely and fearlessly bared in an instant to whatever of terror there may be in war or death; all these you have witnessed, but you witness them no more. All is peace. The heights of yonder metropolis, its towers and roofs, which you then saw filled with wives and children and countrymen in distress and terror, and looking with unutterable emotions for the issue of the combat, have presented you to-day with the sight of its whole happy population, come out to welcome and to greet you with a universal jubilee. Yonder proud ships, by a felicity of position appropriately lying at the foot of this mount, and seeming fondly to cling around it, are not means of annoyance to you, but your country's own means of distinction and defence. All is peace; and God has granted you this sight of your country's happiness, ere you slumber in the grave. He has allowed you to behold and to partake the reward of your patriotic toils; and he has allowed us, your sons and countrymen, to meet you here, and in the name of the present generation, in the name of your country, in the name of liberty, to thank you!"
However impressive you may find such work as this, you can hardly avoid feeling it to be elaborately artificial; and yet its artificiality has a ring of genuineness. It comes very near bombast, but it is not quite bombastic. It does not caricature itself.
Similar traits you may find in Webster's legal arguments, such as his description of the murder of Joseph White of Salem :
"The deed was executed with a degree of self-possession and steadiness equal to the wickedness with which it was planned. The circumstances now clearly in evidence spread out the whole scene before us. Deep sleep had fallen on the destined victim, and on all beneath his roof. A healthful old man, to whom sleep was sweet, the first sound slumbers of the night held him in their soft but strong embrace. The assassin enters, through the window already prepared, into an unoccupied apartment. With noiseless foot he paces the lonely hall, half-lighted by the moon; he winds up the ascent of the stairs, and reaches the door of the chamber. Of this, he moves the lock, by soft and continued pressure, till it turns on its hinges without noise; and he enters, and beholds his victim before him. The room is uncommonly open to the admission of light. 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. The fatal blow is given! and the victim passes without a struggle or a motion, from the repose of sleep to the repose of death! It is the assassin's purpose to make sure work; and he plies the dagger, though it is obvious that life has been destroyed by the blow of the bludgeon. He even raises the aged arm, that he may not fail in his aim at the heart, and replaces it again over the wounds of the poniard! To finish the picture, he explores the wrist for the pulse! He feels for it, and ascertains that it beats no longer! It is accomplished. The deed is done. He retreats, retraces his steps to the window, passes out through it as he came in, and escapes. He has done the murder. No eye has seen him, no ear has heard him. The secret is his own, and he is safe!"
It would be hard to find a more vivid description of appallingly tragic fact; and the speech of which this formed a part carried a Salem jury against the evidence to a morally just verdict. As one looks at it, however, after an interval of seventy years, one feels along with its consummate skill, an artificiality of both conception and phrase, nowadays as foreign to us as a totally foreign language. The words "bludgeon" and "poniard," for instance, just as palpably as the slip into the historical present tense, instantly betray elaborate, though spontaneous, artifice.