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An essay by George William Curtis

Edward Everett In 1862

Title:     Edward Everett In 1862
Author: George William Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]

The house was full, and murmurous with the pleasant chat and rustling movement of well-dressed persons of both sexes who waited patiently the coming of the orator, looking at the expanse of stage, which was carpeted, and covered with rows of settees that went backward from the footlights to a landscape of charming freshness of color, that might have been set for the "Maid of Milan" or the pastoral opera. Between the seats and the foot-lights was a broad space, upon which stood a small table and two or three chairs; and if the orator of the evening, like a _primo tenore_, had been surveying the house through the friendly chinks of the pastoral landscape, he would have felt a warm suffusion of pleasure that his name should be the magic spell to summon an audience so fair, so numerous, and so intelligent.

There were ushers who showed ladies to seats, and with their dress-coats and bright badges looked like a milder Metropolitan police. But no greater force was presumed to be required of them than pressing aside a too discursive crinoline. In the soft, ample light, as the audience sat with fluttering ribbons and bright gems and splendid silks and shawls, so tranquilly expectant, so calmly smiling, so shyly blushing (if, haply, in all that crowd there were a pair of lovers!), it was hard to believe that civil war was wasting the land, and that at the very moment some of those glad hearts were broken--but would not know it until the sad news came. Yet it was easy, in the same glance, to feel that even the terrible shape that we thought we had eluded forever did not seem, after all, so terrible; that even civil war might be shaking the gates and the guests still smile in the chambers.

But while leaning against the wall, under the balcony, the Easy Chair looks around upon the humming throng and thinks of camps far away, and beating drums and wild alarms and sweeping squadrons of battle, there is a sudden hush and a simultaneous glance towards one side of the house, and there, behind the seats at the side, and making for the stage door, marches a procession, two and two, very solemn, very bald, very gray, and in evening dress. They are the invited guests, the honored citizens of Brooklyn, the reverend clergy, and others; a body of substantial, intelligent, decorous persons. They disappear for a moment within the door, and immediately emerge upon the stage with a composed bustle, moving the seats, taking off their coats, sedately interchanging little jests, and finally seating themselves, and gazing at the audience evidently with a feeling of doubt whether the honor of the position compensates for its great disadvantage; for to sit behind an orator is to hear, without seeing, an actor.

The audience is now waiting, both upon the stage and in the boxes, with patient expectation. There is little talking, but a tension of heads towards the stage. The last word is spoken there, the last joke expires; all attention is concentrated upon an expected object. The edge of eagerness is not suffered to turn, but precisely at the right moment a figure with a dark head and another with a gray head are seen at the depth of the stage, advancing through the aisle towards the foot-lights and the audience. They are the president of the society and the orator. The audience applauds. It is not a burst of enthusiasm; it is rather applausive appreciation of acknowledged merit. The gray-headed orator bows gravely and slightly, lays a roll of MS. upon the table, then he and the president seat themselves side by side. For a moment they converse, evidently complimenting the brilliant audience. The orator, also, evidently says that the table is right, that the light is right, that the glass of water is right, and finally that he is ready.

In a few neat words "the honored son of Massachusetts" is introduced, and he rises and moves a few steps forward. Standing for a moment, he bows to the applause. He is dressed entirely in black; wearing a dress-coat, and not a frock. Before he says a word, although it is but a moment, a sudden flash of memory reveals to the attentive Easy Chair all that he has heard and read of the orator before him; how he returned an accomplished scholar from Germany, graced with a delicacy of culture hitherto unknown to our schools; how the youthful professor of Greek at Harvard, transferred to the pulpit of Brattle Street, in Boston, held men and women in thrall by the splendor of his rhetoric and the pleading music of his voice, drawing the young scholars after him, who are now our chief glory and pride; how his Phi Beta Kappa oration in 1824 and its apostrophe to Lafayette, who was present, is still the fond tradition of those who heard it; and how as he passed on from triumph to triumph in his art of oratory, the elegance, the skill, the floridity, the elaboration, the unfailing fitness and severe propriety of his art, with all its minor gifts, consoled Boston that it was not Athens or Rome, and had not heard Demosthenes or Cicero.

If you ventured curiously to question this fond recollection, to ask whether the eloquence was of the heart and soul, or of the mind and lips; whether it were impassioned oratory, burning, resistless, such as we suppose Demosthenes and Patrick Henry poured out; or whether it were polished and skilful declamation--those old listeners were like lovers. They did not know; they did not care. They remembered the magic tone, the witchery of grace, the exuberant rhetoric; they recalled the crowds clustering at his feet, the gusts of emotion that in the church swept over the pews, the thrills of delight that in the hall shook the audience; their own youth was part of it; they saw their own bloom in the flower they remembered, and they could not criticise or compare.

All this recollection flashed through the mind of the Easy Chair before the orator had well opened his lips. The tradition was overpowering. It was not fair, but it was inevitable. If we could see and hear Patrick Henry, with uplifted finger, shouting, "Charles First had his Cromwell, and George Third--may take warning by his example!" would it be, could it be, even with all our expectation, what we believe it to have been? After the tremendous blare of trumpets in advance that shake our very souls within us, no ordinary mortal can satisfy the transcendent anticipation. We lift the leathern curtain of St. Peter's, and catching our breath, look in. Alas! we see plainly the other end of the great church, but with secret disappointment, because we imagined there would be but a dim immensity of space. For the first time we behold Niagara, and resentfully we ask, "Is that all?" The illimitable expectation is too bewildering an overture. So the eyes with which the Easy Chair saw were touched with glamour. The ears with which it heard were full of eloquence beyond that of mortal lips. And there was the orator just beginning to speak. It was not fair; no, it was not fair.

The first words were clearly cut, simply and perfectly articulated. "It is often said that the day for speaking has passed, and that of action has arrived." It was a direct, plain introduction; not a florid exordium. The voice was clear and cold and distinct; not especially musical, not at all magnetic. The orator was incessantly moving; not rushing vehemently forward or stepping defiantly backward, with that quaint planting of the foot, like Beecher; but restlessly changing his place, with smooth and rounded but monotonous movement. The arms and hands moved harmonious with the body, not with especial reference to what was said, but apparently because there must be action. The first part of the discourse was strictly a lucid narrative of events and causes: a compact and calm chapter of our political history by a man as well versed in it as any man in the country; and it culminated in a description of the fall of Sumter. This was an elaborate picture in words of a perfectly neutral tint. There was not a single one which was peculiarly picturesque or vivid; no electric phrase that sent the whole striking scene shuddering home to every hearer; no sudden light of burning epithet, no sad elegiac music. The passage was purely academic. Each word was choice; each detail was finished; it was properly cumulative to its climax; and when that was reached, loud applause followed. It was general, but not enthusiastic. No one could fail to admire the skill with which the sentence was constructed; and so elaborate a piece of workmanship justly challenged high praise. But still--still, do you get any thrill from the most perfect mosaic?

Then followed a caustic and brilliant sketch of the attitude of Virginia in this war. In this part of his discourse the orator was himself an historic personage; for it was to him, when editor of the _North American Review_, that James Madison wrote his letter explanatory of the Virginia resolutions of '98. The wit that sparkled then in the pages of the _Review_ glittered now along the speech. Here was Junius turned gentleman and transfixing a State with satire. The action of the orator was unchanged. But, in one passage, after describing the wrongs wrought by rebels upon the country, he turned, with upraised hand, to the rows of white-cravated clergymen who sat behind him, and apostrophized them: "Tell me, ministers of the living God, may we not without a breach of Christian charity exclaim,

"'Is there not some hidden curse,
Some chosen thunder in the stores of heaven,
Red with uncommon wrath to blast the man
That seeks his greatness in his country's ruin?'"

This passage was uttered with more force than any in the oration. The orator's hands were clasped and raised; he moved more rapidly across the stage; the words were spoken with artistic energy, and loudly applauded.

Thus far the admirable clearness of statement and perfect propriety of speech, added to the personal prestige which surrounds any man so distinguished as the orator, had secured a well-bred attention. But there was not yet that eager, fixed intentness, sensitive to every tone and shifting humor of the speaker, which shows that he thoroughly possesses and controls the audience. There was none of that charmed silence in which the very heart and soul seem to be listening; and at any moment it would have been easy to go out.

But when leaving the purely historical current the orator struck into some considerations upon the views of our affairs taken by foreign nations, the vivacious skill of his treatment excited a more vital attention. There was a truer interest and a heartier applause. And when still pressing on, but with unchanged action, he glanced at the consequences of a successful rebellion, the audience was, for the first time, really aroused.

Let us suppose, said the orator, that secession is successful, what has been gained? How are the causes of discontent removed? Will the malcontents have seceded because of the non-rendition of fugitive slaves? But how has secession helped it? When, in the happy words of another, Canada has been brought down to the Potomac, do they think their fugitives will be restored? No: not if they came to its banks with the hosts of Pharaoh, and the river ran dry in its bed.

Loud applause here rang through the building.

Or, continued the orator, more vehemently, do they think, in that case, to carry their slaves into territories now free? No, not if the Chief-justice of the United States--and here a volley of applause rattled in, and the orator wiped his forehead--not if the venerable Chief-justice Taney should live yet a century, and issue a Dred Scott decision every day of his life.

Here followed the sincerest applause of the whole evening; and the Easy Chair pinched his neighbor to make sure that all was as it seemed; that these were words actually spoken, and that the orator was Edward Everett.

The hour and a half were passed. The peroration was upon the speaker's tongue, closing with an exhortation to old men and old women, young men and maidens, each in his kind and degree, to come as the waves come when navies are stranded--to come as the winds come when forests are rended--to come with heart and hand, with purse and knitting-needle, with sword and gun, and fight for the Union.

He bowed: the audience clapped for a moment, then rose and bustled out.

--It was not fair; no, it was not fair. The Easy Chair did not find--how could it find?--the charm which those of another day remembered. The oration was an admirable and elaborate address, full of instruction and truth and patriotism, the work of a remarkably accomplished man of great public experience. It was written in the plainest language, and did not contain an obscure word. It was delivered with perfect propriety, with the confidence that comes from the habit of public speaking, and with artistic skill of articulation and emphasis. As an illustration of memory it was remarkable, for it was but the second time that the address had been spoken. It occupied an hour and a half in the delivery, and yet the manuscript lay unopened upon the table. Only three or four times was there any hesitation which reminded the hearer that the speaker was repeating what he had already written. His power in this respect has been often mentioned. He is understood to have said that, if he reads anything once, he can repeat it correctly; but if he has written it out, he can repeat it exactly and always. This unusual facility secures to all his addresses a completeness and finish which very few orators command. He can say exactly what he means, and nothing more, being never betrayed by confusion or sudden emotion to say, as so many speakers say, more than they really think.

But, on the other hand, it is doubtful whether all that electric eloquence by which the hearer is caught up as by a whirlwind and swept onward at the will of the orator, is not now a tradition in the speeches of the orator. The glow of feeling, the rush of rhetoric, the fiery burst of passionate power--the overwhelming impulse which makes senates adjourn and men spring to arms--were they in the orator or in the fascinated youth of those who remember the sermon in Brattle Street, the apostrophe to Lafayette?

[The end]
George William Curtis's essay: Edward Everett In 1862