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RELIGIOUS AND POPULAR ORATORS.
DELIVERED AT THE COMMENCEMENT OF THE UNIVERSITY OF THE SOUTH, AUGUST 5, 1875, AT SEWANEE, TENN.
By Hon. T. L. CLINGMAN.
In no country in the world does public speaking perform so important a part as in the United States. It is not only true that our political contests, on the result of which depend the action of the government, are in a great degree influenced by public discussions, but almost all kinds of instruction and information are diffused in this mode. Especially is this true with regard to religious subjects. A majority, probably, of our people are dependent on oral addresses mainly for the knowledge they acquire with regard to religion.
Hence it is of the utmost consequence that the style of public speaking should approach as near perfection as possible. While we have many fine pulpit as well as popular orators, yet a majority of speakers, perhaps, fall below the standard which they ought to attain. Great pains are taken to teach men what they should say, but in what manner they ought to speak, to enable them to make the most decided impression on their hearers, is seldom thought of. In this respect, many of our public speakers are strikingly deficient.
When, however, as on this occasion, I propose to consider the defects of certain pulpit orators, and the characteristics of popular speakers, it may be objected that unless one were free from fault himself, he should not venture to criticise others. A man, however, may be able to judge whether a suit of clothes fits him, though he has never constructed a garment, and persons who cannot sing are often capable of appreciating music. The stone mason and the carpenter observe the effect of their blows on the material on which they are operating, and in like manner public speakers may be benefitted by knowing what impressions they make on their auditors. Hence, though I may be ever so faulty as a speaker, yet the points of objection made may be worthy of consideration.
Again, Burke says our antagonist is our helper. An enemy, if we have one, will be likely to find our weak points, and during my political life I was ever more anxious to read attacks made on me than commendations. As some of my criticisms will perhaps apply as frequently to ministers of the Episcopal Church as others, it may be proper that I should state that I am a member of that church, and naturally should feel a greater interest in its excellence than in that of any of the other religious denominations.
The deficiencies to which I am now about to call your attention occur more frequently in written sermons than in such as are delivered ex tempore. The most striking defect is the want of earnestness in manner and delivery. Many years since, at a Methodist quarterly meeting, I was struck by the force with which this point was presented by one of the preachers. While complaining of the want of earnestness among his brethren, he exclaimed: "Any one of these lawyers," pointing to several present, "will, for ten dollars, exhibit before the jury, ten times as much zeal for his client as you do in your great calling!" No one who compares the earnestness with which juries are addressed, with the delivery of many sermons, can fail to be impressed with such a remark. The animation of political speakers is not less striking. Especially is this to be noted in the cases where the candidates for office debate together, and thus struggle for each vote. If a candidate in the Southern, and many of the Western States, were to speak with no more earnestness and effect than do many clergymen, the crowd would abandon the stand in fifteen minutes, and he would be distanced in the race. I have observed, that in several instances, lawyers who became preachers, were very successful pulpit orators. The late Dr. Hawks was a shining example. This is perhaps chiefly due to the fact that they had at the bar acquired an earnest manner of speaking.
As the clergyman has the greatest of all subjects to present, and the most momentous issue to discuss, how can this defect be remedied? In ex tempore speaking, the difficulty is more easily overcome, for one who expresses his thoughts as they come up, naturally speaks with some animation. But in the delivery of written sermons can the evil be corrected?
We know that Demosthenes electrified the Athenians with speeches that had been written and committed to memory. Thousands of other speakers have, in like manner, been successful. Whitfield was one of the most wonderful orators that ever lived. Some of the play-actors who used to listen to him in the streets of London, with a view of improving their own elocution, said that he was never heard to the greatest advantage, except in one of those sermons that he had delivered an hundred times. When Joseph R. Chandler, then a member of Congress from Philadelphia, began to read a speech in the House of Representatives, many of the members started to get out of the hall. The practice, now so common in both Houses, of members reading their speeches, even from printed slips, was unknown, and I doubt if six speeches were read during any one Congress of my service, running through more than a dozen years. But Mr. Chandler read his
speech with so much force, earnestness and unction, that he soon commanded the attention of the House, and ever afterwards members, instead of fleeing away when he began to read, collected around him. The play-actors, however, furnish us with the best evidence of what may be accomplished in this line. Not only do such men as Forrest and Booth, for the thousandth time, utter the same sentences with the greatest force and earnestness, but the common stock-actors deliver their parts with such animation as to interest their auditors. No man could earn a living either on the stage or at the bar, who should speak in the listless or drowsy manner which we often witness in the pulpit. What, then, is the first step to be taken to correct this evil? The fact must be realized that men should speak to be heard. It is to no useful purpose that a man shall, in a low, inanimate tone, repeat to himself, or to a few persons, who may chance to sit near him, some things so well known that they cease to interest him. The most important sentence of every sermon is unquestionably the text on which it is founded. And yet how often is it delivered in a tone so low that the major part of the congregation do not hear it. It is true that after the speaker has proceeded for some minutes, his voice from the effect of exercise rises, probably without his being conscious of it, so that most of the congregation can hear him. Every speaker in the pulpit ought to announce his text, so that it may be heard by the whole congregation. To insure this, he should fix his eyes for the moment, at least, on those who sit most distant from him. When we speak to any one, we instinctively give to the voice that pitch which is necessary to reach the person addressed. If we do not recognize this fact, we shall either strain the voice unnecessarily by over-exertion, or fail to be properly heard.
One of our North Carolina Judges left the bench, and became a candidate for office before the people. He had been accustomed to charge juries, who sat near him, in a low tone. In his public speeches he would often turn his attention to persons quite close to him, and thus, though he spoke with sufficient animation, his voice failed to reach the greater part of his audience. On my suggesting to him that he ought rather to look to the rear of the assembly, he readily corrected the defect. To fix one's attention on the most distant auditors, requires an unnecessary strain of the voice, and it is sufficient to speak to those who are two-thirds of the distance to the outer limits. It is well, too, that the eye of the speaker should occasionally go to every part of the audience, as this influences the pitch of the voice, and every auditor perceives, both from the tone and eye of the speaker, that he is directly addressed. By thus throwing the voice into the different parts of the assembly, it is easy to see the effect produced on individuals, and this reacts on the speaker, and stimulates him to an extent that greatly increases the effect of the address.
Some speakers are so irregular in their enunciation, that a part of their sentences only, is heard. Nothing is more unsatisfactory to the hearer, than to lose sometimes the most important words of the sentences. It is easy to give due modulation to the tones of the voice, without rendering it indistinct. All the great orators I have heard,
were able to vary their tones without ceasing to be audible at any time. When one speaks naturally to the persons before him, this will usually be done unconsciously.
Clergymen, as a class, suffer from disease of the throat. This has been attributed to their much speaking. But lawyers on the circuits where I have practiced, frequently do more speaking per week than most clergymen do. They usually too, speak with much more vehemence and loudness of tone, and yet they do not suffer from that cause. The difference is, I think, due to the monotony with which the clergy speak. They strain their voices by using them in a dull, uniform tone. This consideration was brought to my mind by a fact which I will mention. For more than twenty years, I had been accuscustomed to ex tempore speaking, often in the open air, some times for three hours without cessation, and with sufficient loudness to be heard fifty or sixty yards around. This was done without any sense of fatigue to the voice. Having been invited to deliver an address, before an agricultural association, I thought it would be necessary to write it, as is usually done. When, after it was written, I attempted to read it aloud, before I got half way through, my throat, to my great surprise, began to feel pain. When the time came, however, for delivery, abandoning the attempt to follow the language as written, I spoke it to the assembly without fatigue. If one will read with animation, entering into the spirit of what he is uttering, he will easily modulate his voice naturally, and thus rest it, as the muscles of the body are relieved by changing their action, when they have been strained by continued exertion of one kind.
Many speakers, too, injure their voices, and soon break down by speaking in the throat, instead of the palate or roof of the mouth. Stephen A. Douglas, when I first knew him in Congress, used, in his vehement style of speaking, to tear his throat very much, often becoming quite hoarse. He afterwards improved his method, and spoke in a clear, ringing voice, with great ease. This evil practice can easily be cured if persons will speak only as they exhale. By throwing the voice against the roof of the mouth, and closing the teeth sufficiently, it is easy to produce both loudness and distinctness. John Bell, of Tennessee, though an able and vehement speaker at times, was very faulty in this respect. When in July, 1850, he was speaking in the Senate, and panting with excitement and the heat of the season, a word uttered as he inhaled was scarcely audible, while the next, given during a violent exhalation, went with a force almost sufficient in seeming, to cleave the roof of the edifice. Of eminent men, Mr. Wm. H. Seward probably had the worst delivery of any one I ever heard. In the ordinary parts of his speeches he talked moderately well, but when he assumed to be eloquent, he adopted a sort of sing-song, monotonous, hollow tone, like a low howl, decaying and dying away at the end o the sentences, as unnatural as possible. This faulty style I have more frequently observed in certain Presbyterian preachers than perhaps in any other class of speakers.
Any one may easily, by a few week's practice, learn to speak entirely as he exhales, and then by separating his words, so as not to let them
run into each other, and properly marking the distinctive sounds of each word, his meaning will be apprehended as far as his voice can be heard. Nor will this at all affect the rapidity of speech. On the contrary, Mr. Curran, who formerly managed the reporting of the debates for the House of Representatives, told me that a gentleman who spoke in this mode so as to be heard distinctly throughout the hall, could fill more columns of the Globe in an hour's speech than any member then in the House.
By giving attention to these points, by endeavoring to enter into the meaning and spirit of that which he is uttering, and by fixing his attention on his auditors, and attempting to make an impression on them, every one may not only cause himself to be well heard, but will also be able to interest his audience.
Let us now consider the peculiarities and characteristics of some of the most distinguished orators of the country. I will, in the first place, call your attention to two prominent Senators of the same State, Daniel Webster and Rufus Choate, of Massachusetts. Among orators deservedly eminent, I can recall no more striking contrast than they presented. When I first heard Mr. Webster, his voice, though not in any sense melodious, was strong, fine and very masculine. At times it reminded me somewhat, and pleasantly, of the ringing tone of a raven's note at a great distance through the air. During his latter years it lost much of its strength and volume, but was always distinct and pleasant. In 1848 he made an elaborate speech on the subject of the proposed acquisition of territory from Mexico. He differed with his colleague, Mr. Davis, had much feeling on the subject, and only spoke after thorough preparation. That speech may be remembered as the one in which he said, "Politicians are not sunflowers, they do not turn on their god when he sets, the same look that they turned when he rose." A lady at Washington mentioned to me, that fully two weeks before this speech was delivered, he sent to her a note requesting the loan of a copy of Moore's Melodies, and that she would mark the passage where these verses appeared. This circumstance indicates. the care with which the speech was prepared. On this occasion he spoke with unusual earnestness, and was very impressive. There were several of the new members of the House in, listening to Mr. Webster for the first time. Towards the close of his speech a member from one of the Northwestern States said to me, "What is the matter with the old fellow; what makes him so dull?" Why," I observed, "he is to-day speaking with more animation than I ever heard him." "My God!" he exclaimed, "if he were to speak to one of our Western crowds in that manner, and they did not know who he was, they would go off and leave him."
It was then the custom for certain Western speakers in the House to declaim with great vehemence of manner, clenching their fists and marching forward and backward with a formidable aspect, and when they reached the most eloquent part of the speech, the cravat was pulled off with a sudden jerk, the vest unbuttoned and thrown open, partly to diminish heat and perspiration, and doubtless also to impress the audience with the greatness of the effort being made. To persons