The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

II. Political Writers and Speakers

§ 14. Orators

The forms of political literature which have been described—verse and prose, solemn treatise, pamphlet or weekly essay—all possess one advantage over oratory. We can judge of their effectiveness from themselves, as well as from what we are told about them. Something we may miss in atmosphere which the contemporary reader enjoyed; but, in all things else, we are under the same conditions as his. In oratory, however, the case is different. We have to piece together scattered reminiscences of those who heard the speaker, and to imagine, as well as we can, the effective delivery, the charm of voice and gesture, and, still more, the momentary appropriateness of argument, phrase and manner which gave life and force to what is now dead or semi-animate matter. It is hardly possible, in fact, to do justice, long after, in cold blood, to debating points, for, unlike the hearers, unlike the speaker himself, we are not strung up, waiting for the retort to an argument or invective. The necessary medium of interest and excitement is not to be conjured up. These considerations, however, represent the least of the disadvantages we are under in estimating English oratory at the close of the eighteenth century. We do not even possess the great speeches of that day in anything like completeness. The merest fragments remain of the elder Pitt, perhaps the first among all English orators. And we do not, apparently, find lengthy reports till about the year 1800, while even these are, possibly, somewhat curtailed. Of some of the greatest triumphs in debate of Fox, of the younger Pitt and of Sheridan, we have only mangled remnants. One doubtful merit alone seems left; in contradistinction to an orator’s published version of his speech, inevitably different from its spoken form and addressed to a reading audience in another mood than that of an excited assembly, they give us, at their best, what was actually said, although in mere fragments, with the reasoning maimed and the fire extinct.