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Outlines of English and American Literature
Orators and Statesmen
by Long, William J.

For a full century, or from the Stamp Act to the Civil War, oratory was a potent influence in molding our national life; and unlike other influences, which grow by slow degrees, it sprang into vigorous life in the period of intense agitation that preceded the Revolution. Never before or since has the power of the spoken word been more manifest than during the years when questions of state were debated, not by kings or counselors behind closed doors, but by representative men in open assembly, by farmers and artisans in town halls fronting a village green, by scholarly ministers in the pulpits of churches whose white steeples with their golden vanes spoke silently, ceaselessly, of God and Freedom as the two motives which had inspired the fathers to brave the perils of a savage wilderness.

Among the most famous addresses of the age were the speech of James Otis in the town hall at Boston (1761) and the "Liberty or Death" speech of Patrick Henry to the Virginia burgesses assembled in St. John's church in Richmond (1775). To compare these stirring appeals to patriotism with the parliamentary addresses of a brilliant contemporary, Edmund Burke, is to note a striking difference between English and American oratory of the period, the one charming the ear by its eloquence, the other rousing the will to action like a bugle call.

The statesmen of the Revolution, that glorious band whom Washington led, were also voluminous writers and masters of a clear, forceful style; but it would probably surprise them now to find themselves included in a history of literature. In truth, they hardly belong there; for they wrote not with any artistic impulse to create a work of beauty that should please their readers; their practical aim was to inculcate sound political principles or to move their readers to the right action. If we contrast them with certain of their British contemporaries, with Goldsmith and Burns for example, the truth of the above criticism will be evident. Nevertheless, these statesmen produced a body of so-called citizen literature, devoted to the principles and duties of free government, which has never been rivaled in its own field and which is quite as remarkable in its own way as the nature poetry of Bryant or the romances of Cooper or any other purely literary work produced in America.

Hamilton and Jefferson

These two statesmen, who became bitter antagonists during the struggle over the Constitution, may be selected as typical of all the rest. The story of their splendid services in the cause of liberty cannot be told here; such men belong to history rather than to literature; but we may at least note that they deserve more careful and unprejudiced study than rival political parties have thus far given them. Their work has a broad human interest which extends far beyond the borders of America, since they stand for two radically different conceptions of life, one aristocratic, the other democratic, which appear in every age and explain the political and social divisions among free peoples. Hamilton (the Federalist) denied the right and the ability of common men to govern themselves; he was the champion of aristocracy, of class privilege, of centralized power in the hands of the few whom he deemed worthy by birth or talent to govern a nation. The most significant trait of Jefferson (the Anti-Federalist) was his lifelong devotion to democracy. He believed in common men, in their ability to choose the right and their purpose to follow it, and he mightily opposed every tendency to aristocracy or class privilege in America. In the struggle over the Constitution he was fearful that the United States government would become monarchical if given too much authority, and aimed to safeguard democracy by leaving the governing power as largely as possible in the hands of the several states. To readers who are not politicians the most interesting thing concerning these two leaders is that Hamilton, the champion of aristocracy, was obscurely born and appeared here as a stranger to make his own way by his own efforts; while Jefferson, the uncompromising democrat, came from an excellent Virginia family and was familiar from his youth with aristocratic society.

Typical Writings

The best-known work of Hamilton (to which Madison and Jay contributed liberally) is The Federalist (1787). This is a remarkable series of essays supporting the Constitution and illuminating the principles of union and federation. The one work of Jefferson which will make his name remembered to all ages is the Declaration of Independence. Besides this document, which is less a state paper than a prose chant of freedom, he wrote a multitude of works, a part of which are now collected in ten large volumes. These are known only to historians; but the casual reader will find many things of interest in Jefferson's Letters, in his Autobiography and in his Summary View of the Rights of America (1774). The last-named work gave Burke some information and inspiration for his famous oration "On Conciliation with America" and was a potent influence in uniting the colonies in their struggle for independence.


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