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Thu Nov 12, 2020, 08:53 AM

When People Knew How to Speak: Oratory in the 19th Century

At a time when the quality of public discourse is often complained of, it’s interesting to look back to when people took oratory, or eloquence in public speaking, seriously. One such period was 200 years ago, in the early 19th century. Inspired by Greek and Roman ideals, politicians, lawyers, religious leaders and other public speakers sought to stir emotions, change minds and inspire action by speaking so masterfully that people would pack rooms just to hear what they said.

Oratory an ancient skill

Orators were held in high esteem in ancient Greece and ancient Rome, where citizens participated in government. Rhetoric (the art of persuasive speaking) was formally taught to boys, and politicians were expected to be good speakers. Cicero, one of Rome’s most famous orators, wrote of the “incredible magnitude and difficulty of the art” of oratory.

A knowledge of a vast number of things is necessary, without which volubility of words is empty and ridiculous; speech itself is to be formed, not merely by choice, but by careful construction of words; and all the motions of the mind, which nature has given to man, must be intimately known; for all the force and art of speaking must be employed in allaying or exciting the feelings of those who listen. To this must be added a certain portion of grace and wit, learning worthy of a well-bred man, and quickness and brevity in replying as well as attacking, accompanied with a refined decorum and urbanity. Besides, the whole of antiquity and a multitude of examples is to be kept in the memory; nor is the knowledge of laws in general, or of the civil law in particular, to be neglected. And why need I add any remarks on delivery itself, which is to be ordered by action of body, by gesture, by look, and by modulation and variation of the voice, the great power of which, alone and itself, the comparatively trivial art of actors and the stage proves, on which though all bestow their utmost labour to form their look, voice, and gesture, who knows not how few there are, and have ever been, to whom we can attend with patience? What can I say of that repository for all things, the memory, which, unless it be made the keeper of the matter and words that are the fruits of thought and invention, all the talents of the orator, we see, though they be of the highest degree of excellence, will be of no avail? (1)

Oratory was a less useful skill in the feudal, monarchical and oligarchical governments of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The Enlightenment, and the American and French Revolutions, occasioned a revival of interest in Greek and Roman democratic and republican traditions, including civic eloquence. Oratory again became regarded as an important practice of a free people.

https://shannonselin.com/2020/10/oratory-19th-century/

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Reply When People Knew How to Speak: Oratory in the 19th Century (Original post)
Sherman A1 Nov 12 OP
FakeNoose Nov 12 #1
abqtommy Nov 12 #2
JanMichael Nov 12 #3

Response to Sherman A1 (Original post)

Thu Nov 12, 2020, 09:12 AM

1. Another important point is this

Unlike today, those who lacked oratorial training in the 19th century, had no way to record their worthless babble for posterity. There were no cellphones, no Twitter, no internet, no television, and "freedom of the press" was controlled by those who owned and managed the printing presses.

Oratory in the 19th Century was the fleeting, temporary, word of mouth occasions that rarely got recorded at all. What if Abraham Lincoln hadn't kept that envelope on which he jotted his notes for the Gettysburg Address? One of the greatest speeches ever given by a President would have been heard by the few lucky people who happened to be there, and not read or heard ever again.

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Response to Sherman A1 (Original post)

Thu Nov 12, 2020, 09:44 AM

2. I'm sure the 19th century would be an interesting place to visit but I wouldn't want to live there.

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Response to Sherman A1 (Original post)

Thu Nov 12, 2020, 09:54 AM

3. Robert Ingersoll The Great Agnostic

"The 1876 convention created demand for him as a speaker and he spoke all over the country. He delivered around 1,500 lectures in thirty years. One speech in Chicago attracted 50,000 people. The introductory video at the Ingersoll Birthplace Museum claims he was “seen and heard by more Americans than any human being prior to the advent of motion pictures and radio.” He spoke on politics, literature, patriotism, morality, and women’s rights. He attracted admirers such as Frederick Douglas, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Walt Whitman, Andrew Carnegie, and Thomas Edison. Mark Twain attended an Ingersoll lecture in Chicago in 1879 and later wrote that “the organ of human speech was played by a master.”

Some of his speeches are available online. They were pretty amazing.

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