EXTRACT FROM AN ORATION ON ELOQUENCE, PRONOUNCED AT HARVARD UNIVERSITY, ON COMMENCEMENT DAY, 1794.
Caleb Bingham, The Columbian Orator, Philadelphia, J. B. Lippincott, 1858. 30–34.
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The excellence, utility, and importance of Eloquence; its origin, progress, and present state; and its superior claim to the particular attention of Columbia's free born sons, will exercise for a few moments the patience of this learned, polite, and respected assembly.
Speech and reason are the characteristics, the glory, and the happiness of man. These are the pillars which support the fair fabric of eloquence; the foundation, upon which is erected the most magnificent edifice, that genius could design, or art construct. To cultivate eloquence, then, is to improve the noblest faculties of our nature, the richest talents with which we are entrusted. A more convincing proof of the dignity and importance of our subject need not, cannot be advanced.
The benevolent design and the beneficial effects of eloquence, evince its great superiority over every other art, which ever exercised the ingenuity of man. To instruct, to persuade, to please; these are its objects. To scatter the clouds of ignorance and error from the atmosphere of reason; to remove the film of prejudice from the mental eye; and thus to irradiate the benighted mind with the cheering beams of truth, is at once the business and the glory of eloquence.
To promote the innocent and refined pleasures of the fancy and intellect; to strip the monster vice of all his borrowed charms, and expose to view his native deformity; to display the resistless attractions of virtue; and, in one word, to rouse to action all the latent energies of man, in the proper and ardent pursuit of the great end of his existence, is the orator's pleasing, benevolent, sublime employment.
Nor let it be objected, that eloquence sometimes impedes the course of justice, and screens the guilty from the punishment due to their crimes. Is there any thing which is not obnoxious to abuse? Even the benign reign of the Prince of Peace has been made the unwilling instrument of the greatest calamities ever experienced by man. The greater the benefits which naturally result from any thing, the more pernicious are its effects, when diverted from its proper course. This objection to eloquence is therefore its highest eulogium.
The orator does not succeed, as some would insinuate, by dazzling the eye of reason with the illusive glare of his rhetorical art, nor, by silencing her still small voice in the thunder of his declamation; for to her impartial tribunal he refers the truth and propriety of whatever he asserts or proposes. After fairly convincing the understanding, he may, without the imputation of disingenuousness, proceed to address the fancy and the passions. In this way he will more effectually transfuse into his hearers his own sentiments, and make every spring in the human machine co-operate in the production of the desired effect.
The astonishing powers of eloquence are well known, at least to those who are conversant in ancient history. Like a resistless torrent, it bears down every obstacle, and turns even the current of opposing ignorance and prejudice into the desired channel of active and zealous compliance. It is indisputably the most potent art within the compass of human acquirement. An Alexander and a Cesar could conquer a world; but to overcome the passions, to subdue the wills, and to command at pleasure the inclinations of men, can be effected only by the all-powerful charm of enrapturing eloquence.
Though it be more than probable, that oratory was known and cultivated in some degree in those eastern nations, where science first began to dawn upon the world; yet it was not till Greece became civilized and formed into distinct governments, that it made its appearance in its native, peerless majesty. Here we may fix the era of eloquence; here was its morn; here its meridian too; for here it shone with splendor never since surpassed.
It is a common and a just remark, that eloquence can flourish only in the soil of liberty. Athens was a republic, where the affairs of state were transacted in the assembly of the whole people. This afforded to eloquence a field too fertile to remain long uncultivated by the ingenious Athenians. Orators soon made their appearance, who did honor to language, to Greece, to humanity.
But though the names of many have been transmitted to us, whose genius and eloquence demand our veneration and applause; yet, like stars when the sun appears, they are lost in the superior blaze of the incomparable Demosthenes. His story is well known; and his example affords the greatest encouragement to students in eloquence; as it proves, that, by art, almost in defiance of nature, a man may attain such excellence in oratory, as shall stamp his name with the seal of immortality. Demosthenes and the liberty of Greece together expired; and from this period we hear very little more of Grecian eloquence.
Let us now direct our attention to that other garden of eloquence, the Roman commonwealth. Here, as in Greece, a free government opened the list to such as wished to dispute the palm in oratory. Numbers advance, and contend manfully for the prize. But their glory is soon to fade; for Cicero appears; Cicero, another name for eloquence itself. It is needless to enlarge on his character as an orator. Suffice it to say, that if we ransack the histories of the world to find a rival for Demosthenes, Cicero alone can be found capable of supporting a claim to that distinguished honor.
And when did Greece or Rome present a fairer field for eloquence than that which now invites the culture of the enlightened citizens of Columbia? We live in a republic, the orator's natal soil; we enjoy as much liberty, as is consistent with the nature of man; we possess as a nation all the advantages which climate, soil, and situation can bestow; and nothing but real merit is here required as a qualification for the most dignified offices of state. Never had eloquence more ample scope.
And shall we rest satisfied with only admiring, or at most with following at an awful distance, the most illustrious orators of Greece and Rome? Shall every other useful and ornamental art speed swiftly towards perfection, while oratory, that most sublime of all arts; that art, which could render one man more dreadful to a tyrant, than hostile fleets and armies, is almost forgotten? It must not, cannot bed. That refinement of taste, that laudable ambition to excel in every things which does honor to humanity, which distinguishes the Americans, and their free and popular government, are so many springs, which, though not instantaneous in their operation, cannot fail in time to raise Columbian eloquence "above all Greek, above all Roman fame."
With pleasure we descry the dawning of that bright day of eloquence, which we have anticipated. The grand council of our nation has already evinced, that in this respect, as in all others, our republic acknowledges no existing superior. And we trust, that, as our sacred teachers make it their constant endeavour to imitate the great learning, the exemplary virtue, the exalted piety, and the extensive usefulness of the great apostle of the Gentiles, they will not fail to resemble him in that commanding, that heavenly eloquence, which made an avaricious, an unbelieving Felix, tremble.
May Columbia always afford more than one Demosthenes, to support the sacred cause of freedom and to thunder terror in the ears ov every transatlantic Philip. May more than Ciceronean eloquence be ever ready to plead for injured innocence, and suffering virtue. Warned by the fate of her predecessors, may she escape those quicksands of vice, which have ever proved the bane of empires. May her glory and her felicity increase with each revolving year, till the last trump shall announce the catastrophe of nature, and time shall immerge in the ocean of eternity.