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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

The Eloquence of Revolutionary Periods

By Rufus Choate (1799–1859)

[Born in Essex, Mass., 1799. Died at Halifax, N. S., 1859. Lecture delivered in 1857.—From Addresses and Orations of Rufus Choate. 1878.]

IF you bear in mind that the aim of deliberative eloquence is to persuade to an action, and that to persuade to an action it must be shown that to perform it will gratify some one of the desires or affections or sentiments,—you may call them, altogether, passions,—which are the springs of all action, some love of our own happiness, some love of our country, some love of man, some love of honor, some approval of our own conscience, some fear or some love of God, you see that eloquence will be characterized,—first, by the nature of the actions to which it persuades; secondly, by the nature of the desire or affection or sentiment,—the nature of the passion, in other words,—by appeal to which it seeks to persuade to the action; and then, I say, that the capital peculiarity of the eloquence of all times of revolution, as I have described revolution, is that the actions it persuades to are the highest and most heroic which men can do, and the passions it would inspire, in order to persuade to them, are the most lofty which man can feel. “High actions and high passions,”—such are Milton’s words,—high actions through and by high passions; these are the end and these the means of the orator of the revolution.

Hence are his topics large, simple, intelligible, affecting. Hence are his views broad, impressive, popular; no trivial details, no wire-woven developments, no subtle distinctions and drawing of fine lines about the boundaries of ideas, no speculation, no ingenuity; all is elemental, comprehensive, intense, practical, unqualified, undoubting. It is not of the small things of minor and instrumental politics he comes to speak, or men come to hear. It is not to speak or to hear about permitting an Athenian citizen to change his tribe; about permitting the Roman Knights to have jurisdiction of trials equally with the Senate; it is not about allowing a £10 house-holder to vote for a member of Parliament; about duties on indigo, or onion-seed, or even tea.

  • “That strain you hear is of an higher mood.”
  • It is the rallying cry of patriotism, of liberty, in the sublimest crisis of the State,—of man. It is a deliberation of empire, of glory, of existence on which they come together. To be or not to be,—that is the question. Shall the children of the men of Marathon become slaves of Philip? Shall the majesty of the senate and people of Rome stoop to wear the chains forging by the military executors of the will of Julius Cæsar? Shall the assembled representatives of France, just waking from her sleep of ages to claim the rights of man,—shall they disperse, their work undone, their work just commencing; and shall they disperse at the order of the king? or shall the messenger be bid to go, in the thunder-tones of Mirabeau,—and tell his master that “we sit here to do the will of our constituents, and that we will not be moved from these seats but by the point of the bayonet?” Shall Ireland bound upward from her long prostration, and cast from her the last link of the British chain, and shall she advance “from injuries to arms, from arms to liberty,” from liberty to glory?

    Shall the thirteen Colonies become, and be, free and independent States, and come unabashed, unterrified, an equal, into the majestic assembly of the nations? These are the thoughts with which all bosoms are distended and oppressed. Filled with these, with these flashing in every eye, swelling every heart, pervading electric all ages, all orders, like a visitation, “an unquenchable public fire,” men come together,—the thousands of Athens around the Bema, or in the Temple of Dionysius,—the people of Rome in the forum, the Senate in that council-chamber of the world,—the masses of France, as the spring-tide, into her gardens of the Tuileries, her club-rooms, her hall of the convention,—the representatives, the genius, the grace, the beauty of Ireland into the Tuscan Gallery of her House of Commons,—the delegates of the Colonies into the Hall of Independence at Philadelphia,—thus men come, in an hour of revolution, to hang upon the lips from which they hope, they need, they demand, to hear the things which belong to their national salvation, hungering for the bread of life.

    And then and thus comes the orator of that time, kindling with their fire; sympathizing with that great beating heart; penetrated, not subdued; lifted up rather by a sublime and rare moment of history made real to his consciousness; charged with the very mission of life, yet unassured whether they will hear or will forbear; transcendent good within their grasp, yet a possibility that the fatal and critical opportunity of salvation will be wasted; the last evil of nations and of men overhanging, yet the siren song of peace—peace when there is no peace—chanted madly by some voice of sloth or fear,—there and thus the orators of revolutions come to work their work! And what then is demanded, and how it is to be done, you all see; and that in some of the characteristics of their eloquence they must all be alike. Actions, not law or policy, whose growth and fruits are to be slowly evolved by time and calm; actions daring, doubtful but instant; the new things of a new world,—these are what the speaker counsels; large, elementary, gorgeous ideas of right, of equality, of independence, of liberty, of progress through convulsion,—these are the principles from which he reasons, when he reasons,—these are the pinions of the thought on which he soars and stays; and then the primeval and indestructible sentiments of the breast of man,—his sense of right, his estimation of himself, his sense of honor, his love of fame, his triumph and his joy in the dear name of country, the trophies that tell of the past, the hopes that gild and herald her dawn,—these are the springs of action to which he appeals,—these are the chords his fingers sweep, and from which he draws out the troubled music, “solemn as death, serene as the undying confidence of patriotism,” to which he would have the battalions of the people march! Directness, plainness, a narrow range of topics, few details, few but grand ideas, a headlong tide of sentiment and feeling; vehement, indignant, and reproachful reasonings,—winged general maxims of wisdom and life; an example from Plutarch; a pregnant sentence of Tacitus; thoughts going forth as ministers of nature in robes of light, and with arms in their hands; thoughts that breathe and words that burn,—these vaguely, approximately, express the general type of all this speech.