A review of American Speeches: Political Oratory from the Revolution to the Civil War  
American Speeches: Political Oratory from Abraham Lincoln to Bill Clinton , edited by Ted Widmer


To keep silent is the most useful service that a mediocre talker can render to the public." So says Tocqueville in his chapter "On Parliamentary Eloquence in the United States." Unfortunately, democratic assemblies encourage the mediocre to sound off—often and at length. There are no back-benchers in the American political system. The result of this universal striving for something to say is not eloquentia perfecta but bombast. Tocqueville explains that when Americans talk about matters within the small circuit of their daily lives their speech is simple, direct, and dull. When they are forced out of their accustomed range, however, as public figures are, they have nothing to latch onto but glittering generalities. Tocqueville says of democratic man: "He has only very particular and very clear ideas, or very general and very vague notions; the intermediate space is empty."

Anthony Trollope, who like Tocqueville wrote a two-volume account of his visit to the United States, noted the same phenomenon of the bombastic blowhard:

He was master of that wonderful fluency which is peculiarly the gift of an American. He went on from one sentence to another with rhythmic tones and unerring pronunciation. He never faltered, never repeated his words, never fell into those vile half-muttered hems and haws by which an Englishman in such a position so generally betrays his timidity. But during the whole time of my remaining in the room he did not give expression to a single thought. He went on from one soft platitude to another, and uttered words from which I would defy any one of his audience to carry away with them anything. And yet it seemed to me that his audience was satisfied.

While Trollope is disgusted by this spectacle, Tocqueville regards the tolerance that Americans show toward bad speechifying as a mark of their democratic sophistication. They accept these verbal parades as an evil inseparable from the good of representative government.

Moreover, for Tocqueville, the flip side of the democratic vice of bloviation is genuine oratorical virtue: "I see nothing more admirable or more powerful than a great orator discussing great affairs within a democratic assembly." Tocqueville explains how the democratic proclivity for general notions can enlarge and elevate rhetoric. Such speeches can appeal even beyond national borders: "from the first debates that took place in the little colonial assemblies of America in the period of the Revolution, Europe was moved." Democratic orators, relying on "verities drawn from human nature," speak to all mankind.

American Speeches, a two-volume collection from the Library of America, very successfully winnows out the petty and the dry, and mostly winnows out the pretentious and pompous, leaving a selection of mighty speeches on the twin themes of liberty and equality. Most of the names one would expect are here, along with some lesser known worthies. Those garnering the most selections are Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt with eight apiece, Martin Luther King, Jr., with six, and John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan with five each. In both volumes there is a mix of elected officials and what might be called outside agitators—individuals who seek to reach public opinion directly through moral suasion rather than indirectly through the medium of law and legislation. In both volumes, the agitators are usually, but not uniformly, women and blacks. Volume I has Frances Wright, Angelina Grimké Weld, Henry Highland Garnet, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sojourner Truth, and Frederick Douglass, along with the radical abolitionists Wendell Phillips and John Brown. Volume II has Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Ida B. Wells, Booker T. Washington, Mary Church Terrell, Carrie Chapman Catt, Betty Friedan, Malcolm X (the only speaker to address "enemies" as well as friends), and Martin Luther King, Jr., along with the radical socialist Eugene V. Debs and free speech activist Mario Savio.

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Each volume also has one speech by a Native American. These are painful pieces to read. Although the movements for political inclusion by blacks and women involved suffering and tragedy, they were ultimately successful. By contrast, the Native American struggle was never about inclusion. It was an encounter between incompatible ways of life. In addressing "the Chief Warrior of the United States" (George Washington), the Seneca leader Red Jacket pleads:

We wish to see your words [of peace] verified to our children, and children's children. You enjoy all the blessings of this life; to you, therefore, we look to make provision that the same may be enjoyed by our children. This wish comes from our heart; but we add that our happiness cannot be great if in the introduction of your ways we are put under too much constraint.

Despite the efforts of Washington and other American statesmen to set our relations with the Indians upon a foundation of justice, in less than a century, the Nez Percé leader Chief Joseph speaks these words of surrender:

He who led on the young men is dead. It is cold, and we have no blankets; the little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are—perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children, and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.

Since Cain and Abel, farmers and nomads have been at odds. Coexistence is not possible and the land-hungry farmers who build fences almost always conquer or kill the unsettled and uncivilized, be they shepherds or hunters. Tocqueville, who witnessed the spreading destruction, regarded the extinction of the Indian peoples as inevitable and inexpressibly sad.

Despite occupying only seven of 1,682 pages, these two speeches capture something essential about that extra-constitutional, indeed pre-constitutional conflict. The nation's other "irrepressible conflict" (the phrase is William Seward's from an 1858 speech) provoked a constitutional crisis. Because the institution of African slavery raised fundamental questions about the national self-understanding, it looms much larger in the collective conscience and in the pages of these volumes, confirming Frederick Douglass's claim that "the destiny of the nation has the Negro for its pivot, and turns upon the question as to what shall be done with him." The issue of slavery absolutely dominates the first volume; the problem of the color-line is prominent in the second volume, though not quite to the same degree, testimony perhaps to the nation's confirmed trajectory towards equality. Thus, we move from the crisis over slavery to the controversy over civil rights and finally to the platitudes of political correctness. The last speech in this collection is Clinton's commemoration of the Little Rock Nine on the 40th anniversary of the desegregation of Central High. While the speech is (as a blurb on the inside flap helpfully says) "a heartfelt tribute," it certainly did not require any moral courage to draft and deliver, unlike, say, Lincoln's House Divided speech or King's Montgomery speech. Although Clinton hinted at a particularly insidious version of lingering race prejudice ("We must not replace the tyranny of segregation with the tragedy of low expectations"), he resolutely refused to examine the connection between this characteristically liberal condescension (which fails to recognize itself as bigotry) and paternalistic policies like affirmative action and racial set-asides. The speech is a disappointing close to the two volumes. Pabulum does not sustain progress.

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Astonishingly, although these volumes were published in 2006, they take no account of September 11 or the war on terrorism. The first volume is subtitled: Political Oratory from the Revolution to the Civil War. It opens with James Otis in 1761 and closes with Lincoln's Second Inaugural in 1865. The second volume is subtitled: Political Oratory from Abraham Lincoln to Bill Clinton (not William Jefferson Clinton, mind you, but "Bill"). It opens with Lincoln's speech on Reconstruction given just four days before his death and closes with the Little Rock commemoration in 1997. I suppose one could justify an editorial decision to end the volume there for thematic or even chronological reasons (closing out the millennium), but it can't help seeming blatantly and inexcusably partisan—refusing to acknowledge September 11 so as not to have to include President Bush's remarks at the National Cathedral on September 14th (the National Day of Prayer and Remembrance), or his remarks to Congress on September 20th, or his 2002 State of the Union address (the "axis of evil" speech). If the editor didn't want to entitle the second volume Political Oratory from Abraham Lincoln to George W. Bush, alternatives could have been found: Political Oratory from Reconstruction to the War on Terrorism or better just Political Oratory from Reconstruction to September 11 (better because the outcome of the war is in doubt, while the catalyzing event and its significance are not). It comes as no surprise to learn that the editor, Ted Widmer, was a Clinton speechwriter. I can sympathize with the temptation to plump for one's boss and oneself (isn't Political Oratory from Abraham Lincoln to Bill Clinton another way of saying Political Oratory from Abraham Lincoln to Ted Widmer?), but the editors of the Library of America should not have allowed such transparent egocentrism and partisanship.

Aside from Bill and Ted's excellent adventure, there are a handful of other questionable choices. There are two powerful anti-Vietnam speeches, both from King, but there is no speech setting forth the rationale for our involvement; the most likely candidate would be Nixon's "silent majority" speech of November 3, 1969. (Incidentally, Nixon does have two entries, his Checkers speech and his remarks to his staff on leaving the White House—both startlingly self-revelatory.) While there are seven Democratic National Convention speeches, there is only one Republican National Convention speech (Goldwater's in 1964). Even then, the second volume does not include the likeliest Democratic choices, such as Barbara Jordan's 1976 speech. Instead, we are given Jordan's remarks to the House Judiciary Committee during the Nixon impeachment proceedings. But there is no equivalent speech from Clinton's impeachment, say from Henry Hyde. And finally, there is nothing on the culture wars (no reference whatever to the controversy over abortion or the "naked public square"). A good choice would have been Reagan's March 8, 1983, speech to the National Association of Evangelicals.

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Juxtaposing the two volumes reveals striking changes in the locus and character of American political rhetoric. The cover art epitomizes the shift. Volume I has a painting of a robed Patrick Henry declaiming before the Virginia House of Burgesses. It is clear he is speaking to a body of distinguished equals, men who will have their own thoughts on the matter at hand, and one suspects, rather high standards for persuasive speech. The second volume has a photo of President Kennedy speaking in front of three microphones to an undepicted, but one assumes mass, audience. In the first volume there are only seven speeches by sitting presidents, including three from Lincoln. In the second volume, there are 34. Even more telling is that from the Revolution through World War I, there are 19 congressional floor speeches, mostly by senators. After Henry Cabot Lodge's speech in opposition to the League of Nations, there is not a single floor speech (though there are two brief statements made in committee). Oratory and Congress have declined in tandem. The erudite Lodge was the last to employ extensive Latin in a speech; there is one simple Latin phrase in Kennedy's "ich bin ein Berliner" speech, but nothing like the full sentences from men steeped in literature and history.

The only compensation for the decline is that as the speeches get worse, they mostly get shorter. When all you have are bullet-points, your ammunition is pretty quickly spent. Modern presidential speeches are composed of dry, detailed lists of promised programs sandwiched between warmed-over boilerplate. It's the very combination that Tocqueville predicted: the boring particulars and the vapid generalizations; "the intermediate space is empty." The richness of earlier rhetoric, particularly in the Senate, is on display in the great triumvirate of Clay, Calhoun, and Webster. Volume I contains the speech each made in the Senate on the Compromise of 1850. Clay's speech alone is 67 pages long and must have taken at least six hours to deliver. This is not filibustering where a senator reads aloud names from the phone book. This is closely reasoned argumentation on the constitutional powers of the federal government with respect to slavery. Seeing the length of these speeches, I intended to skim them but couldn't. They were gripping precisely because they made demands on the listener.

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A more concentrated exhilaration is experienced in reading Lincoln's speeches. Lincoln managed to accomplish his aims in dramatically shorter compass while speaking to a broad audience. You know you're in the presence of sustained dialectics because the paragraphs can't be reshuffled without loss of meaning. By contrast, there is no logical sequence in the following all-too-typical passage from Lyndon Johnson:

I want to be the President who educated young children to the wonders of their world. I want to be the President who helped to feed the hungry and to prepare them to be taxpayers instead of taxeaters.

I want to be the President who helped the poor to find their own way and who protected the right of every citizen to vote in every election.

I want to be the President who helped to end hatred among his fellow men and who promoted love among the people of all races and all regions and all parties.

I want to be the President who helped to end war among the brothers of this earth.

You could play pick-up-sticks with that collection of indistinguishable banalities. Ordered thought has a different structure. Listen to just the opening phrases of successive paragraphs from Lincoln's First Inaugural:

I hold, that in contemplation of universal law, ….

Again, if the United States be not a government proper, ….

Descending from these general principles, we find the proposition ….

But if the destruction of the Union, ….

It follows from these views that no State, ….

I therefore consider that, ….

In doing this there needs to be no bloodshed or violence; ….

Hierarchy may be antithetical to democracy, but it is essential to logic. The replacement of paragraphs with bullet-points indicates the democratization or leveling or atomization of logic. The equality of all sentences destroys the connectedness of thought. This scattershot technique of contemporary speechmaking can bowl you over, if the speaker has sufficient force of personality, but it can't pierce your mind or heart, and it certainly can't do it as written rather than spoken. Like Shakespeare's plays, Lincoln's speeches are as powerful in the study as on the stage.

So it is fitting that Lincoln is the fulcrum of these volumes. The first volume culminates in him; the second volume begins with him and is filled with subsequent references to him by both Democrats and Republicans who, unfortunately, invoke his memory more than they imitate his mode of analysis and presentation. Of the invocations, the most interesting is Oppenheimer's 1945 "Speech to the Association of Los Alamos Scientists" comparing the evil of slavery to the new evil of atomic weapons and suggesting a Lincolnian (rather than abolitionist) strategy to address the problem of nuclear proliferation. Oppenheimer remarks how Lincoln saw "that beyond the issue of slavery was the issue of the community of the people of the country, and the issue of the Union."

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The multilayered, comprehensive vision of Lincoln is on display through the juxtaposing of Lincoln's carefully calibrated House Divided speech with Seward's more extreme and simplistic "Irrepressible Conflict" speech and again through the juxtaposing of Lincoln's generous (and even delicately humorous) "Speech on Reconstruction" with Thaddeus Stevens's violently anti-Southern "Speech in Congress on Reconstruction." Lincoln demonstrated what "charity for all" meant when he said:

We all agree that the seceded States, so called, are out of their proper practical relation with the Union; and that the sole object of the government, civil and military, in regard to those States is to again get them into that proper practical relation. I believe it is not only possible, but in fact, easier, to do this, without deciding, or even considering, whether these states have even been out of the Union, than with it. Finding themselves safely at home, it would be utterly immaterial whether they had ever been abroad. Let us all join in doing the acts necessary to restoring the proper practical relations between these states and the Union; and each forever after, innocently indulge his own opinion whether, in doing the acts, he brought the States from without, into the Union, or only gave them proper assistance, they never having been out of it.

Stevens, by contrast, insists that the former rebel States are either out of the Union, in the same situation as a defeated foreign belligerent, or "dead carcasses lying within the Union" having "no more existence than the revolted cities of Latium, two thirds of whose people were colonized and their property confiscated, and their right of citizenship withdrawn by conquering and avenging Rome." In either case, Stevens recommends rigorous rehabilitation: "As there are no symptoms that the people of these provinces will be prepared to participate in constitutional government for some years, I know of no arrangement so proper for them as territorial governments. There they can learn the principles of freedom and eat the fruit of foul rebellion."

Although invocations of Lincoln are standard, only Frederick Douglass in his 1876 "Oration in Memory of Abraham Lincoln," reaches beyond reverence and acknowledgment to a critical consideration of Lincoln's statesmanship. His address is a deeply insightful and appreciative (but far from fawning) account of Lincoln's relation to African-Americans. Douglass was a radical who understood and respected the intransigent moderation of Lincoln. Douglass sums up the paradoxical combination of restraint and resolve in Lincoln's policy, and the underlying reasons for it:

Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.

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In the second volume, the lecture platform addresses, like Douglass's, are in general less commonplace and more refreshingly idiosyncratic than those by elected figures. One of the most interesting is a speech by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, appearing before the Judiciary Committee in 1892 on behalf of the women's suffrage amendment (then slated to be the 16th; when finally approved, the 19th). Rather than rehash her case (after 20 years of such appearances, "all the arguments…are familiar to all you gentlemen"), she instead draws out the basic attitude toward life implicit in feminism. Her talk is accurately entitled "The Solitude of Self," and it is unflinchingly grim. The adjectives she attaches to this solitude are "immeasurable," "awful," "bitter," and "solemn." Human beings live in radical isolation from one another:

We ask no sympathy from others in the anxiety and agony of a broken friendship or shattered love. When death sunders our nearest ties, alone we sit in the shadows of our affliction. Alike mid the greatest triumphs and darkest tragedies of life we walk alone. On the divine heights of human attainments, eulogized and worshiped as a hero or saint, we stand alone. In ignorance, poverty, and vice, as a pauper or criminal, alone we starve or steal; … Seeing then that life must ever be a march and a battle, that each soldier must be equipped for his own protection, it is the height of cruelty to rob the individual of a single natural right.

Women require full opportunities for individual development to enable them to face (or even better to outface) the horrors of existence. There is some truth in her existential Hobbesianism, but not the whole truth. She misses the better half of truth, and no more so than when she speaks of motherhood:

Whatever the theories may be of woman's dependence on man, in the supreme moments of her life he can not bear her burdens. Alone she goes to the gates of death to give life to every man that is born into the world. No one can share her fears, no one can mitigate her pangs; and if her sorrow is greater than she can bear, alone she passes beyond the gates into the vast unknown.

Whether or not man can bear (or at least lighten) woman's burdens, the fact that she bears him is testament to the naturalness of human connection—connection that Stanton denies. She declares the relations of mother, wife, sister, and daughter to be "incidental" and points out that "a large class of women may never assume" some of these relations. She's right that not all women become mothers, wives, or sisters, but each and every woman is a daughter, as each and every man is a son—even if abandoned or orphaned. The generational link is inescapable and constitutive of our humanity. It is strange indeed when mothers, who have nursed mewling and puking infants, speak of human self-sovereignty.

Interestingly, Teddy Roosevelt's famous talk on "The Strenuous Life" overlaps with Stanton in certain fundamentals, especially the emphasis on "those virile qualities necessary to win [or for Stanton, to endure] in the stern strife of actual life." T.R., though, wants female hardiness to be directed towards traditional (i.e., natural) female pursuits. Accordingly, his version of human striving has room for shared struggle and joint action:

The woman must be the housewife, the helpmeet of the homemaker, the wise and fearless mother of many healthy children. In one of Daudet's powerful and melancholy books he speaks of "the fear of maternity, the haunting terror of the young wife of the present day." When such words can be truthfully written of a nation, the nation is rotten to the heart's core. When men fear work or fear righteous war, when women fear motherhood, they tremble on the brink of doom; and well it is that they should vanish from the earth, where they are fit subjects for the scorn of all men and women who are themselves strong and brave and high-minded.

Whatever one thinks of Stanton and Roosevelt, their words are their own, bodying forth their inner convictions. Two speeches that seem to offer even more unmediated expressions of self are Sojourner Truth's wondrous 1851 "Speech to Woman's Rights Convention" and George S. Patton's vulgarity-laced "Speech to Third Army Troops." About the middle of the 20th century, despite all the trumpeting of individualism, the individuality of speech seems to lessen. One begins to sense the homogenizing effects of writing by committee. Of course, from the nation's beginnings, public figures have had the benefit of apprentices and editors. Washington asked Hamilton to prepare a draft of his Farewell Address (an address which is not included here since it was published rather than delivered—leading one to wonder how complete a national picture can be gained from the spoken word); Lincoln had Seward's assistance on his First Inaugural; and Benjamin Franklin suggested key changes in Jefferson's draft of the Declaration of Independence. Nonetheless, speechwriting was not the group-work guild that it is now. Just as the great floor speeches vanish post-World War I, so too apparently do the Lyceum-type speeches. I suspect, however, that one could discover impressive performances at newer venues, such as think tanks and similar associations. There is still an active—though more ideologically fractured-lecture circuit.

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The fracturing of public speech is seen in the increasing distance between the partisans of liberty and the partisans of equality, crystallized particularly in presidential and would-be presidential rhetoric. Goldwater's 1964 "Speech to the Republican National Convention" is a paean to freedom: "And this party, with its every action, every word, every breath and every heart beat, has but a single resolve, and that is freedom." Reagan's speeches follow the path cut by Goldwater, defending freedom against centralization at home and tyranny abroad. Equality finds its spokesmen in Johnson, the Kennedys (Robert and Edward, who are both here, more than John), and Jesse Jackson. Johnson's 1965 "Address at Howard University" is the most forthright in that he actually downplays freedom's part in justice:

That beginning is freedom; and the barriers to that freedom are tumbling down…. But freedom is not enough…. We seek not just legal equity but human ability, not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result…. To this end equal opportunity is essential, but not enough, not enough…. The Negro, like these others [American minorities], will have to rely mostly upon his own efforts. But he just can not do it alone.

Tocqueville worried that democratic man would be inclined to sacrifice liberty in the quest for ever greater equality of condition. For Americans, the danger of democratic despotism is peculiarly aggravated when the subject is racial equality. Where race is involved, we are sorely tempted to jettison our principles. For centuries this country refused to acknowledge and protect the equality of rights. Once the nation determined to make amends, instead of simply ensuring equal rights and non-discrimination, we went searching for more expedient routes by which to expiate our national sins. In 1865, a full century before Johnson's Great Society programs, Frederick Douglass warned against such well-intentioned projects:

In regard to the colored people there is always more that is benevolent, I perceive, than just, manifested towards us. What I ask for the Negro is not benevolence, not pity, not sympathy, but simply justice. The American people have always been anxious to know what they shall do with us…. I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us. Do nothing with us! If the apples will not remain on the tree of their own strength, if they are worm-eaten at the core, if they are early ripe and disposed to fall, let them fall! … And if the Negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall also. All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone! If you see him on his way to school, let him alone, don't disturb him! If you see him going to the dinner-table at a hotel, let him go! If you see him going to the ballot-box, let him alone, don't disturb him! If you see him going into a work-shop, just let him alone,-your interference is doing him a positive injury. Gen. Banks' "preparation" is of a piece with this attempt to prop up the Negro. Let him fall if he cannot stand alone!

The task of government is to assure that schools and hotels, ballot-boxes and workshops, are accessible to all Americans. Beyond that, Frederick Douglass had faith—the democratic-republican faith—that all individuals are capable of self-government.

At the close of his Cooper Union Address, Lincoln warns against "invocations to Washington, imploring men to unsay what Washington said, and undo what Washington did." One step toward the improvement of political oratory today—both in substance and style—might be for our candidates for elective office (and their speechwriters) to stop talking long enough to read these volumes of American Speeches, especially the first. We need to be reminded of what those we are forever invoking really said. Perhaps someone might raise again the banner of "Liberty and equal rights, one and inseparable!" According to an 1859 speech by Carl Schurz, that pairing is the essence of "True Americanism."