The great orators of the world did not regard eloquence as simply an endowment of nature, but applied themselves diligently to cultivating their powers of expression. In many cases there was unusual natural ability, but such men knew that regular study and practise were essential to success in this coveted art.
The oration can be traced back to Hebrew literature. In the first chapter of Deuteronomy we find Moses' speech in the end of the fortieth year, briefly rehearsing the story of God's promise, and of God's anger for their incredulity and disobedience.
The four orations in Deuteronomy, by Moses, are highly commended for their tenderness, sublimity and passionate appeal. You can advantageously read them aloud.
The oration of Pericles over the graves of those who fell in the Peloponnesian War, is said to have been the first Athenian oration designed for the public.
The agitated political times and the people's intense desire for learning combined to favor the development of oratory in ancient Greece. Questions of great moment had to be discust and serious problems solved. As the orator gradually became the most powerful influence in the State, the art of oratory was more and more recognized as the supreme accomplishment of the educated man.
Demosthenes stands preeminent among Greek orators. His well-known oration "On the Crown," the preparation of which occupied a large part of seven years, is regarded as the oratorical masterpiece of all history.
It is encouraging to the student of public speaking to recall that this distinguished orator at first had serious natural defects to overcome. His voice was weak, he stammered in his speech, and was painfully diffident. These faults were remedied, as is well-known, by earnest daily practise in declaiming on the sea-shore, with pebbles in the mouth, walking up and down hill while reciting, and deliberately seeking occasions for conversing with groups of people.
The chief lesson for you to draw from Demosthenes is that he was indefatigable in his study of the art of oratory. He left nothing to chance. His speeches were characterized by deliberate forethought. He excelled other men not because of great natural ability but because of intelligent and continuous industry. He stands for all time as the most inspiring example of oratorical achievement, despite almost insuperable difficulties.
The fame of Roman oratory rests upon Cicero, whose eloquence was second only to that of Demosthenes. He was a close student of the art of speaking. He was so intense and vehement by nature that he was obliged in his early career to spend two years in Greece, exercising in the gymnasium in order to restore his shattered constitution.
His nervous temperament clung to him, however, since he made this significant confession after long years of practise in public speaking. "I declare that when I think of the moment when I shall have to rise and speak in defense of a client, I am not only disturbed in mind, but tremble in every limb of my body."
It is well to note here that a nervous temperament may be a help rather than a hindrance to a speaker. Indeed, it is the highly sensitive nature that often produces the most persuasive orator, but only when he has learned to conserve and properly use this valuable power.
Cicero was a living embodiment of the comprehensive requirements laid down by the ancients as essential to the orator. He had a knowledge of logic, ethics, astronomy, philosophy, geometry, music, and rhetoric. Little wonder, therefore, that his amazing eloquence was described as a resistless torrent.
Martin Luther was the dominating orator of the Reformation. He combined a strong physique with great intellectual power. "If I wish to compose, or write, or pray, or preach well," said he, "I must be angry. Then all the blood in my veins is stirred, my understanding is sharpened, and all dismal thoughts and temptations are dissipated." What the great Reformer called "anger," we would call indignation or earnestness.
John Knox, the Scotch reformer, was a preeminent preacher. His pulpit style was characterized by a fiery eloquence which stirred his hearers to great enthusiasm and sometimes to violence.
Bossuet, regarded as the greatest orator France has produced, was a fearless and inspired speaker. His style was dignified and deliberate, but as he warmed with his theme his thought took fire and he carried his hearers along upon a swiftly moving tide of impassioned eloquence. When he spoke from the text, "Be wise, therefore, O ye Kings! be instructed, ye judges of the earth!" the King himself was thrilled as with a religious terror.
To ripe scholarship Bossuet added a voice that was deep and sonorous, an imposing personality, and an animated style of gesture. Lamartine described his voice as "like that of the thunder in the clouds, or the organ in the cathedral."
Louis Bourdaloue, styled "the preacher of Kings, and the King of preachers," was a speaker of versatile powers. He could adapt his style to any audience, and "mechanics left their shops, merchants their business, and lawyers their court house" in order to hear him. His high personal character, simplicity of life, and clear and logical utterance combined to make him an accomplished orator.
Massillon preached directly to the hearts of his hearers. He was of a deeply affectionate nature, hence his style was that of tender persuasiveness rather than of declamation. He had remarkable spiritual insight and knowledge of the human heart, and was himself deeply moved by the truths which he proclaimed to other men.
Lord Chatham's oratorical style was formed on the classic model. His intellect, at once comprehensive and vigorous, combined with deep and intense feeling, fitted him to become one of the highest types of orators. He was dignified and graceful, sometimes vehement, always commanding. He ruled the British parliament by sheer force of eloquence.
His voice was a wonderful instrument, so completely under control that his lowest whisper was distinctly heard, and his full tones completely filled the House. He had supreme self-confidence, and a sense of superiority over those around him which acted as an inspiration to his own mind.
Burke was a great master of English prose as well as a great orator. He took large means to deal with large subjects. He was a man of immense power, and his stride was the stride of a giant. He has been credited with passion, intensity, imagination, nobility, and amplitude. His style was sonorous and majestic.
Sheridan became a foremost parliamentary speaker and debater, despite early discouragements. His well-known answer to a friend, who adversely criticized his speaking, "It is in me, and it shall come out of me!" has for years given new encouragement to many a student of public speaking. He applied himself with untiring industry to the development of all his powers, and so became one of the most distinguished speakers of his day.
Charles James Fox
Charles James Fox was a plain, practical, forceful orator of the thoroughly English type. His qualities of sincerity, vehemence, simplicity, ruggedness, directness and dexterity, combined with a manly fearlessness, made him a formidable antagonist in any debate. Facts, analogies, illustrations, intermingled with wit, feeling, and ridicule, gave charm and versatility to his speaking unsurpassed in his time.
Lord Brougham excelled in cogent, effective argument. His impassioned reasoning often made ordinary things interesting. He ingratiated himself by his wise and generous sentiments, and his uncompromising solicitude for his country.
He always succeeded in getting through his protracted and parenthetical sentences without confusion to his hearers or to himself. He could see from the beginning of a sentence precisely what the end would be.
John Quincy Adams
John Quincy Adams won a high place as a debater and orator in his speech in Congress upon the right of petition, delivered in 1837. A formidable antagonist, pugnacious by temperament, uniformly dignified, a profound scholar, -- his is "a name recorded on the brightest page of American history, as statesman, diplomatist, philosopher, orator, author, and, above all a Christian."
Patrick Henry was a man of extraordinary eloquence. In his day he was regarded as the greatest orator in America. In his early efforts as a speaker he hesitated much and throughout his career often gave an impression of natural timidity. He has been favorably compared with Lord Chatham for fire, force, and personal energy. His power was largely due to a rare gift of lucid and concise statement.
The eloquence of Henry Clay was magisterial, persuasive, and irresistible. So great was his personal magnetism that multitudes came great distances to hear him. He was a man of brilliant intellect, fertile fancy, chivalrous nature, and patriotic fervor. He had a clear, rotund, melodious voice, under complete command. He held, it is said, the keys to the hearts of his countrymen.
The eloquence of John Caldwell Calhoun has been described by Daniel Webster as "plain, strong, terse, condensed, concise; sometimes impassioned, still always severe. Rejecting ornament, not often seeking far for illustrations, his power consisted in the plainness of his propositions, in the closeness of his logic, and in the earnestness and energy of his manner."
He exerted unusual influence over the opinions of great masses of men. He had remarkable power of analysis and logical skill. Originality, self-reliance, impatience, aggressiveness, persistence, sincerity, honesty, ardor, -- these were some of the personal qualities which gave him dominating influence over his generation.
Daniel Webster was a massive orator. He combined logical and argumentative skill with a personality of extraordinary power and attractiveness. He had a supreme scorn for tricks of oratory, and a horror of epithets and personalities. His best known speeches are those delivered on the anniversary at Plymouth, the laying of the corner-stone of Bunker Hill monument, and the deaths of Jefferson and Adams.
Edward Everett was a man of scholastic tastes and habits. His speaking style was remarkable for its literary finish and polished precision. His sense of fitness saved him from serious faults of speech or manner. He blended many graces in one, and his speeches are worthy of study as models of oratorical style.
Rufus Choate was a brilliant and persuasive extempore speaker. He possest in high degree faculties essential to great oratory -- a capacious mind, retentive memory, logical acumen, vivid imagination, deep concentration, and wealth of language. He had an extraordinary personal fascination, largely due to his broad sympathy and geniality.
Charles Sumner was a gifted orator. His delivery was highly impressive, due fundamentally to his innate integrity and elevated personal character. He was a wide reader and profound student. His style was energetic, logical, and versatile. His intense patriotism and argumentative power, won large favor with his hearers.
William E. Channing
William Ellery Channing was a preacher of unusual eloquence and intellectual power. He was small in stature, but of surpassing grace. His voice was soft and musical, and wonderfully responsive to every change of emotion that arose in his mind. His eloquence was not forceful nor forensic, but gentle and persuasive.
His monument bears this high tribute: "In memory of William Ellery Channing, honored throughout Christendom for his eloquence and courage in maintaining and advancing the great cause of truth, religion, and human freedom."
Wendell Phillips was one of the most graceful and polished orators. To his conversational style he added an exceptional vocabulary, a clear and flexible voice, and a most fascinating personality.
He produced his greatest effects by the simplest means. He combined humor, pathos, sarcasm and invective with rare skill, yet his style was so simple that a child could have understood him.
George William Curtis
George William Curtis has been described in his private capacity as natural, gentle, manly, refined, simple, and unpretending. He was the last of the great school of Everett, Sumner, and Phillips.
His art of speaking had an enduring charm, and he completely satisfied the taste for pure and dignified speech. His voice was of silvery clearness, which carried to the furthermost part of the largest hall.
Gladstone was an orator of preeminent power. In fertility of thought, spontaneity of expression, modulation of voice, and grace of gesture, he has had few equals. He always spoke from a deep sense of duty. When he began a sentence you could not always foresee how he would end it, but he always succeeded. He had an extraordinary wealth of words and command of the English language.
Gladstone has been described as having eagerness, self-control, mastery of words, gentle persuasiveness, prodigious activity, capacity for work, extreme seriousness, range of experience, constructive power, mastery of detail, and deep concentration. "So vast and so well ordered was the arsenal of his mind, that he could both instruct and persuade, stimulate his friends and demolish his opponents, and do all these things at an hour's notice."
He was essentially a devout man, and unquestionably his spiritual character was the fundamental secret of his transcendent power. A keen observer thus describes him:
"While this great and famous figure was in the House of Commons, the House had eyes for no other person. His movements on the bench, restless and eager, his demeanor when on his legs, whether engaged in answering a simple question, expounding an intricate Bill, or thundering in vehement declamation, his dramatic gestures, his deep and rolling voice with its wide compass and marked northern accent, his flashing eye, his almost incredible command of ideas and words, made a combination of irresistible fascination and power."
John Bright won a foremost place among British orators largely because of his power of clear statement and vivid description. His manner was at once ingratiating and commanding.
His way of putting things was so lucid and convincing that it was difficult to express the same ideas in any other words with equal force. One of the secrets of his success, it is said, was his command of colloquial simile, apposite stories, and ready wit.
Mr. Bright always had himself well in hand, yet his style at times was volcanic in its force and impetuosity. He would shut himself up for days preparatory to delivering a great speech, and tho he committed many passages to memory, his manner in speaking was entirely free from artifice.
Lincoln's power as a speaker was due to a combination of rugged gifts. Self-reliance, sympathy, honesty, penetration, broad-mindedness, modesty, and independence, -- these were keynotes to his great character.
The Gettysburg speech of less than 300 words is regarded as the greatest short speech in history.
Lincoln's aim was always to say the most sensible thing in the clearest terms, and in the fewest possible words. His supreme respect for his hearers won their like respect for him.
There is a valuable suggestion for the student of public speaking in this description of Lincoln's boyhood: "Abe read diligently. He read every book he could lay his hands on, and when he came across a passage that struck him, he would write it down on boards if he had no paper, and keep it there until he did get paper. Then he would rewrite it, look at it, repeat it. He had a copy book, a kind of scrap-book, in which he put down all things, and thus preserved them."
Daniel O'Connell was one of the most popular orators of his day. He had a deep, sonorous, flexible voice, which he used to great advantage. He had a wonderful gift of touching the human heart, now melting his hearers by his pathos, then convulsing them with his quaint humor. He was attractive in manner, generous in feeling, spontaneous in expression, and free from rhetorical trickery.
As you read this brief sketch of some of the world's great orators, it should be inspiring to you as a student of public speaking to know something of their trials, difficulties, methods and triumphs. They have left great examples to be emulated, and to read about them and to study their methods is to follow somewhat in their footsteps.
Great speeches, like great pictures, are inspired by great subjects and great occasions. When a speaker is moved to vindicate the national honor, to speak in defense of human rights, or in some other great cause, his thought and expression assume new and wonderful power. All the resources of his mind -- will, imagination, memory, and emotion, -- are stimulated into unusual activity. His theme takes complete possession of him and he carries conviction to his hearers by the force, sincerity, and earnestness of his delivery. It is to this exalted type of oratory I would have you aspire.