Writing in the Claremont Review of Books, Diana Schaub delivers a fine review of a new two-volume collection called American Speeches, published by the Library of America. The effect of reading this essay is to induce at once pride and sadness; for America was once a land of great orators, in our Congress most of all, but today the quality of her rhetoric has fallen into grave decline. Professor Schaub effectively demonstrates this decline by contrasting the two volumes, the one consisting of oratory up through the Civil War, the other after the war.
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. [. . .]
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.
Rhetoric is the art of persuasion. It is the quintessential public craft of a healthy self-governing republic — that system of politics where, according to Publius, government by “reflection and choice,” may supplant the ancient curse of government by “accident and force.” Rhetoric, as Richard Weaver argued, appeals to the whole man: a creature who both reasons and feels, who is tethered inevitably to the natural world of passions, but who may transcend these passions — discipline not eradicate them — toward that higher reason, that logos, which is his joy and his challenge.
One cannot help but wonder whether as our oratory goes, so goes the vigor and honor of our beloved republic. The method of rhetoric that consists of “dry, detailed lists of promised programs sandwiched between warmed-over boilerplate,” is a rhetoric of passion and desire merely, an appeal to the animal nature of man at the expense of his higher nature. It is, in truth, the perfect rhetoric of Liberalism, which has given us a politics fit for animals.