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 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 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,