The relationship between a people’s eloquence and their prosperity

"It is a bad sign for a republic when Oratory is slighted or undervalued," said Epes Sargent, in 1852.

“We see [Oratory] flourish or decay according to the degree of freedom among the people, and it is a bad sign for a republic when Oratory is slighted or undervalued.” —Epes Sargent, The Standard Speaker (1852)

Epes Sargent was a New Englander who, starting from an early age, enjoyed great bursts of literary energy. In 1864, for instance, he published Peculiar, a novel about the US Civil War (which includes, for those who are interested, memorable portraits of both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis).

Sargent’s literary estate includes plays, biographies and articles for popular magazines and newspapers—and he worked up to the end of his life in 1880 to complete a 1,000-page-long compilation of popular poems, posthumously published in 1882.

Sargent also produced a series of school texts—one of which was the Standard Speaker, a collection of hundreds of extracts from famous speeches that aspiring public speakers could study as models, and use for recitation practice.

Speech anthologies were not new to American audiences—see, for example, Hezekiah Niles’ 1822 anthology of speeches delivered at the time of the US War of Independence—but the Standard Speaker stands out as a unique achievement for its time, in terms of the variety of speeches it covers.

The introduction to the Standard Speaker (which itself would be later anthologized by William Vincent Byars) draws an intuitive connection between a particular country’s degree of political freedom and the general quality of its oratory:

The little opportunity afforded for the cultivation of… eloquence by the different governments of Germany has almost entirely checked its growth in that country; and we may say the same of Italy, Spain and Portugal, and most of the other countries of Europe… [I]n forensic and senatorial eloquence, France has not been surpassed by any modern nation. But it is only in her intervals of freedom that her senatorial eloquence reaches its high note.

And then Sargent goes on to make a prediction about the future course of American eloquence:

The growth of eloquence in the United States has been such as to inspire the hope that the highest triumphs of Oratory are here to be achieved. Already we have produced at least two orators, Patrick Henry and Daniel Webster, to whom none, since Demosthenes, in the authority, majesty and amplitude, of their eloquence, can be pronounced superior.

In proportion to the extent of our cultivation of Oratory, as an art worthy of our entire devotion, must be our success in enriching it with new and precious contributions. And of the power of a noble Oratory, beyond its immediate circle of hearers, who can doubt?

Sargent’s Standard Speaker was first published in 1852, by the way. In 1863, at Gettysburg, President Lincoln made a “new and precious” contribution to eloquence that echoes, to this day, far beyond “its immediate circle of hearers.”

Sargent couldn’t have anticipated a more spectacular vindication of his prediction than this.

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