The greatness and decline of American oratory

This morning we conclude our previews of the new (Summer) issue of the Claremont Review of Books (subscribe here). The issue is up to the CRB’s usual standards and full of good stuff. Even the ads are good. Hillsdale College announces that it is republishing the multivolume authorized biography of Churchill (including the companion document volumes) by Martin Gilbert. The CRB itself announces that it is looking for an assistant editor (text more here).
One of the premier essay/reviews in the issue is Diana Schaub’s review of the two-volumne Library of America set American Speeches. In her review, Professor Schaub notes the decline in American oratory represented in the transition from the first to the second volume and asks what accounts for it:

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.

We will have many occasions over the coming days to behold the decline on which Professor Schaub meditates in her thoughtful essay: “The greatness and decline of American oratory.”
To comment on this post, go here.