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Chapter 11: Anti-slavery orators

George William Curtis, in one of his essays, says that “three speeches have made the places where they were delivered illustrious in our history-three, and there is no fourth.” He refers to the speech of Patrick Henry in Williamsburg, Virginia, of Lincoln in Gettysburg, and the first address of Wendell Phillips in Faneuil Hall.

If it was the purpose of Mr. Curtis to offer the three notable deliverances above mentioned as the best and foremost examples of American oratory, the author cannot agree with him. In his opinion we shall have but little difficulty in picking out the three entitled to that distinction, provided we go to the discussion of the slavery question to find them. That furnished the greatest occasion, being with its ramifications and developments, by far the greatest issue with which Americans have had to deal.

The three speeches to which the writer refers were the more notable because they were altogether impromptu. They were what we call “off hand.” They were delivered in the face of mobs or other bitterly hostile audiences — a circumstance that probably contributed not a little to their effectiveness.

John Quincy Adams, who was unquestionably [89] one of the greatest of American orators, made several speeches in Congress that will always command our highest admiration; but the one to which a somewhat extended reference is made in another chapter, when an attempt was made by the slaveholders to expel him from that body, easily ranks among the first three exhibitions of American eloquence.

I quite agree with Mr. Curtis in giving the Faneuil Hall speech of Wendell Phillips a pre-eminent place. A meeting had been called to denounce the murder of Lovejoy, the Abolitionist editor. The audience was composed in large part of pro-slavery rowdies, who were bent on capturing or breaking up the meeting. One of their leaders — a high official of the State of Massachusetts, by the way-made a speech in which he justified the murderous act. “That speech must be answered here and now,” exclaimed a young man in the audience. “Answer it yourself,” shouted those about him. “I will,” was the reply, “if I can reach the platform.” To the platform he was assisted, and although an attempt was made for a time to howl him down, he persisted, and before long so interested and charmed his hearers that his triumph was complete.

It did not take the country long to realize that in that young man, who was Wendell Phillips, a new oratorical luminary had arisen. He took up the work of lecturing as a profession, treating on other subjects as well as slavery; but when slavery was the subject no charge was made for his services. Said Frederic Hudson, the noted New York editor, in 1860: “It is probable that there is not another [90] man in the United States who is as much heard and read as Henry Ward Beecher, unless the other man be Wendell Phillips.”

The mention of Henry Ward Beecher's name is suggestive of oratory of the very highest order. It will not be denied by any competent and unprejudiced person that his great speech in England — there were five addresses, but the substance was the same-upon the American question (which directly involved the slavery issue) during our Civil War was far and away the finest exhibition of masterful eloquence that is to be credited to any of our countrymen. The world has never beaten it.

Mr. Beecher found himself in England by a fortunate accident at a most critical period in our national affairs. A crisis had there been reached. A powerful party, including a large majority of the public men of Great Britain, favored intervention in behalf of the South. Southern agents were at work all over the kingdom, and were remarkably effective in propagating their views. It looked as if the Rebel interest was on the point of winning, when Mr. Beecher appeared on the scene. He had not gone to England to make public speeches. He was there for health and recreation, but, realizing the situation with his quick perceptiveness, he took up the gage of battle. It was a fearful resolution on his part. The chances seemed to be all against him. It was one man against thousands. His victory, however, was complete. His five great speeches in the business centres of England and Scotland were not only listened to by thousands, but they went all over the country in the public prints. [91] They completely changed the current of public opinion.

Mr. Beecher's first address was in Manchester, which, owing to the interest of the leading business men of that city in the cotton trade and the furnishing of ships and supplies for blockade running, was a seething hot bed of Rebel sentiment. When he arrived in that place on the day he was to speak, he was met at the depot by friends with troubled faces, who informed him that hostile placards — significantly printed in red colors-had been posted all over the city, and, if he persisted in trying to speak, he would have a very uncomfortable reception.

He was asked how he felt about trying to go on. “I am going to be heard,” was his reply.

The best description of the scene that ensued is supplied in Mr. Beecher's own words:

The uproar would come in on this side, and then on that. They would put insulting questions and make all sorts of calls to me, and I would wait until the noise had subsided and then get in about five minutes of talk. The reporters would get that down, and then up would come another noise. Occasionally I would see things that amused me, and I would laugh outright, and the crowd would stop to see what I was laughing at. Then I would sail in with another sentence or two. A good many times the crowd threw up questions that I caught and threw back. I may as well at this point mention a thing that amused me hugely. There were baize doors that opened both ways into side alleys, and there was a huge burly Englishman standing right in front of one of these doors and roaring like a bull of Bashan. One of the policemen swung his elbow round and hit him in the [92] belly and knocked him through the doorway, so that the last part of his bawl was out in the alleyway. It struck me so ludicrously to think how the fellow must have looked when he found himself “ hollering” outside, that I could not refrain from laughing outright. The audience immediately stopped its uproar, wondering what I was laughing at. That gave me another chance, and I caught on to it. So we kept it up for about an hour and a half before the people became so far calmed down that I could go on peaceably with my speech. My audience got to like the pluck I showed. Englishmen like a man that can stand on his feet and give and take, and so for the last hour I had pretty much clear sailing. The next morning every great paper in England had the whole speech down.

And when the vote came to be taken — for in England it is customary for audiences to express their decision on the subject under discussion-you would have thought it was a tropical thunder-storm that swept through the hall as the Ayes were thundered, while the Nays were an insignificant and contemptible minority. It had all gone on our side, and such enthusiasm I never saw.

It has been repeatedly stated, and to this day is generally believed,--is so stated in several of Mr. Lincoln's biographies, I believe,--that Mr. Beecher went to England at the President's request, and for the purpose of making a speaking tour. The best answer is that given by Mr. Beecher himself.

“It has been asked,” said he, “whether I was sent by the government. The government took no stock in --me at that time. I had been pounding Lincoln in the earlier years of the war, and I don't believe there was [93] a man down there. unless it was Mr. Chase, who would have trusted me with anything. At any rate, I went on my own responsibility.”

But in referring to Abolition orators, and especially orators whose experience it was to encounter mobs, the writer desires to pay a tribute to one of them whose name he does not even know.

A meeting that was called to organize an Anti-Slavery society in New York City was broken up by a mob. All of those in attendance made their escape except one negro. He was caught and his captors thought it would be a capital joke to make him personify one of the big Abolitionists. He was lifted to the platform and directed to imagine himself an Anti-Slavery leader and make an Abolition speech. The fellow proved to be equal to the occasion. He proceeded to assert the right of his race to the privileges of human beings with force and eloquence. His hearers listened with amazement, and possibly with something like admiration, until, realizing that the joke was on them, they pulled him from the platform and kicked him from the building.

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