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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

A Natural Orator

By William Wirt (1772–1834)

[From Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry. Second Edition. 1818.]

IT was on questions before a jury that he was in his natural element. There, his intimate knowledge of human nature, and the rapidity as well as justness of his inferences, from the flitting expressions of the countenance, as to what was passing in the hearts of his hearers, availed him fully. The jury might be composed of entire strangers, yet he rarely failed to know them, man by man, before the evidence was closed. There was no studied fixture of features, that could long hide the character from his piercing and experienced view. The slightest unguarded turn of countenance, or motion of the eye, let him at once into the soul of the man whom he was observing. Or, if he doubted whether his conclusions were correct, from the exhibitions of countenance during the narration of the evidence, he had a mode of playing a prelude as it were upon the jury, in his exordium, which never failed to “wake into life each silent string,” and show him the whole compass as well as pitch of the instrument; and, indeed (if we may believe all the concurrent accounts of his exhibitions in the general court), the most exquisite performer that ever “swept the sounding lyre,” had not a more sovereign mastery over its powers, than Mr. Henry had over the springs of feeling and thought that belong to a jury. There was a delicacy, a taste, a felicity in his touch, that was perfectly original, and without a rival. His style of address, on these occasions, is said to have resembled very much that of the Scriptures. It was strongly marked with the same simplicity, the same energy, the same pathos. He sounded no alarm; he made no parade, to put the jury on their guard. It was all so natural, so humble, so unassuming, that they were carried imperceptibly along, and attuned to his purpose, until some master touch dissolved them into tears. His language of passion was perfect. There was no word “of learned length or thundering sound,” to break the charm. It had almost all the stillness of solitary thinking. It was a sweet reverie, a delicious trance. His voice, too, had a wonderful effect. He had a singular power of infusing it into a jury, and mixing its notes with their nerves, in a manner which it is impossible to describe justly; but which produced a thrilling excitement, in the happiest concordance with his designs. No man knew so well as he did what kind of topics to urge to their understandings; nor what kind of simple imagery to present to their hearts. His eye, which he kept rivetted upon them, assisted the process of fascination, and at the same time informed him what theme to press, or at what instant to retreat, if by rare accident he touched an unpropitious string. And then he had such an exuberance of appropriate thoughts, of apt illustrations, of apposite images, and such a melodious and varied roll of the happiest words, that the hearer was never wearied by repetition, and never winced from an apprehension that the intellectual treasures of the speaker would be exhausted.

A striking example of this witchery of his eloquence, even on common subjects, was related by a very respectable gentleman, the late Major Joseph Scott, the marshal of this state. This gentleman had been summoned, at great inconvenience to his private affairs, to attend as a witness a distant court, in which Mr. Henry practised. The cause which had carried him thither having been disposed of, he was setting out in great haste to return, when the sheriff summoned him to serve on a jury. This cause was represented as a complicated and important one; so important, as to have enlisted in it all the most eminent members of the bar. He was therefore alarmed at the prospect of a long detention, and made an unavailing effort with the court to get himself discharged from the jury. He was compelled to take his seat. When his patience had been nearly exhausted by the previous speakers, Mr. Henry rose to conclude the cause, and having much matter to answer, the major stated that he considered himself a prisoner for the evening, if not for the night. But, to his surprise, Mr. Henry appeared to have consumed not more than fifteen minutes in the reply; and he would scarcely believe his own watch, or those of the other jurymen, when they informed him that he had in reality been speaking upwards of two hours. So powerful was the charm by which he could bind the senses of his hearers, and make even the most impatient unconscious of the lapse of time.