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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

Eloquence of the Six Nations

By DeWitt Clinton (1769–1828)

[Born in Little Britain, New Windsor, Orange Co., N. Y., 1769. Died in Albany, N. Y., 1828. From an Address delivered before the N. Y. Hist. Soc. 1811.—The Life and Writings of De Witt Clinton. By W. W. Campbell. 1849.]

THE CONFEDERATES were as celebrated for their eloquence, as for their military skill and political wisdom. Popular, or free governments have, in all ages, been the congenial soil of oratory. And it is, indeed, all important in institutions merely advisory; where persuasion must supply the place of coercion; where there is no magistrate to execute, no military to compel; and where the only sanction of law is the controlling power of public opinion. Eloquence being, therefore, considered so essential, must always be a great standard of personal merit, a certain road to popular favor, and an universal passport to public honors. These combined inducements operated with powerful force on the mind of the Indian; and there is little doubt but that oratory was studied with as much care and application among the Confederates as it was in the stormy democracies of the eastern hemisphere. I do not pretend to assert that there were, as at Athens and Rome, established schools and professional teachers for the purpose; but I say that it was an attainment to which they devoted themselves, and to which they bent the whole force of their faculties. Their models of eloquence were to be found, not in books, but in the living orators of their local and national assemblies; their children, at an early period of life, attended their council fires, in order to observe the passing scenes, and to receive the lessons of wisdom. Their rich and vivid imagery was drawn from the sublime scenery of nature, and their ideas were derived from the laborious operations of their own minds, and from the experience and wisdom of their ancient sages.

The most remarkable difference existed between the Confederates and the other Indian nations with respect to eloquence. You may search in vain in the records and writings of the past, or in events of the present times, for a single model of eloquence among the Algonquins, the Abenaquis, the Delawares, the Shawanese, or any other nation of Indians, except the Iroquois. The few scintillations of intellectual light—the faint glimmerings of genius, which are sometimes to be found in their speeches, are evidently derivative, and borrowed from the Confederates.

Considering the interpreters who have undertaken to give the meaning of Indian speeches, it is not a little surprising that some of them should approach so near to perfection. The major part of the interpreters were illiterate persons, sent among them to conciliate their favor, by making useful or ornamental implements; or they were prisoners who learned the Indian language during their captivity. The Reverend Mr. Kirkland, a missionary among the Oneidas, and sometimes a public interpreter, was indeed a man of liberal education; but those who have seen him officiate at public treaties must recollect how incompetent he was to infuse the fire of Indian oratory into his expressions; how he labored for words, and how feeble and inelegant his language. Oral is more difficult than written interpretation or translation. In the latter case, there is no pressure of time, and we have ample opportunity to weigh the most suitable words, to select the most elegant expressions, and to fathom the sense of the author; but in the former case, we are called upon to act immediately; no time for deliberation is allowed; and the first ideas that occur must be pressed into the service of the interpreter. At an ancient treaty, a female captive officiated in that capacity; and at a treaty held in 1722, at Albany, the speeches of the Indians were first rendered into Dutch, and then translated into English. I except from these remarks the speech of the Onondaga chief, Garangula, to M. Delabarre, delivered on the occasion which I have before mentioned. This was interpreted by Monsieur Le Maine, a French Jesuit, and recorded on the spot by Baron La Hontan—men of enlightened and cultivated minds, from whom it has been borrowed by Colden, Smith, Herriot, Trumbull, and Williams. I believe it to be impossible to find, in all the effusions of ancient or modern oratory, a speech more appropriate and more convincing. Under the veil of respectful profession it conveys the most biting irony; and while it abounds with rich and splendid imagery, it contains the most solid reasoning. I place it in the same rank with the celebrated speech of Logan; and I cannot but express astonishment at the conduct of two respectable writers, who have represented this interesting interview, and this sublime display of intellectual power, as “a scold between the French generals and an old Indian.”…

Within a few years, an extraordinary orator has risen among the Senecas, his real name is Saguoaha, but he is commonly called Red Jacket. Without the advantages of illustrious descent, and with no extraordinary talents for war, he has attained the first distinctions in the nation, by the force of his eloquence. His predecessor in the honors of the nation, was a celebrated chief, denominated The Cornplanter. Having lost the confidence of his countrymen, in order to retrieve his former standing, as it is supposed, he persuaded his brother to announce himself as a prophet, or messenger from Heaven, sent to redeem the fallen fortunes of the Indian race. The superstition of the savages cherished the impostor, and he has acquired such an ascendancy as to prevail upon the Onondagas, formerly the most drunken and profligate of the Six Nations, to abstain entirely from spirituous liquors, and to observe the laws of morality in other respects. He has obtained the same ascendancy among the Confederates, as another impostor had acquired among the Shawanese, and other western Indians; and like him, he has also employed his influence for evil, as well as for good purposes. The Indians universally believe in witchcraft; the prophet inculcated this superstition, and proceeded, through the instrumentality of conjurors selected by himself, to designate the offenders, who were accordingly sentenced to death; and the unhappy objects would have been actually executed, if the magistrates at Oneida and the officers of the garrison at Niagara had not interfered. This was considered an artful expedient to render his enemies the objects of general abhorrence, if not the victims of an ignominious death. Emboldened by success, he proceeded, finally, to execute the views of his brother, and Red Jacket was publicly denounced at a great council of Indians, held at Buffalo Creek, and was put upon his trial. At this crisis he well knew that the future color of his life depended upon the powers of his mind. He spoke in his defence for near three hours. The iron brow of superstition relented under the magic of his eloquence; he declared the prophet an impostor and a cheat. He prevailed: the Indians divided, and a small majority appeared in his favor. Perhaps the annals of history cannot furnish a more conspicuous instance of the triumph and power of oratory, in a barbarous nation, devoted to superstition, and looking up to the accuser as a delegated minister of the Almighty.