Story type: Essay
Twenty centuries ago last Christmas there was born in Attica, near Athens, the father of oratory, the greatest orator of whom history has told us. His name was Demosthenes. Had he lived until this spring he would have been 2,270 years old; but he did not live. Demosthenes has crossed the mysterious river. He has gone to that bourne whence no traveler returns.
Most of you, no doubt, have heard about it. On those who may not have heard it, the announcement will fall with a sickening thud.
This sketch is not intended to cast a gloom over your hearts. It was designed to cheer those who read it and make them glad they could read.
Therefore, I would have been glad if I could have spared them the pain which this sudden breaking of the news of the death of Demosthenes will bring. But it could not be avoided. We should remember the transitory nature of life, and when we are tempted to boast of our health, and strength, and wealth, let us remember the sudden and early death of Demosthenes.
Demosthenes was not born an orator. He struggled hard and failed many times. He was homely, and he stammered in his speech; but before his death they came to him for hundreds of miles to get him to open their county fairs and jerk the bird of freedom bald-headed on the Fourth of July.
When Demosthenes’ father died, he left fifteen talents to be divided between Demosthenes and his sister. A talent is equal to about $1,000. I often wish I had been born a little more talented.
Demosthenes had a short breath, a hesitating speech, and his manners were very ungraceful. To remedy his stammering, he filled his mouth full of pebbles and howled his sentiments at the angry sea. However, Plutarch says that Demosthenes made a gloomy fizzle of his first speech. This did not discourage him. He finally became the smoothest orator in that country, and it was no uncommon thing for him to fill the First Baptist Church of Athens full. There are now sixty of his orations extant, part of them written by Demosthenes and part of them written by his private secretary.
When he started in, he was gentle, mild and quiet in his manner; but later on, carrying his audience with him, he at last became enthusiastic. He thundered, he roared, he whooped, he howled, he jarred the windows, he sawed the air, he split the horizon with his clarion notes, he tipped over the table, kicked the lamps out of the chandeliers and smashed the big bass viol over the chief fiddler’s head.
Oh, Demosthenes was business when he got started. It will be a long time before we see another off-hand speaker like Demosthenes, and I, for one, have never been the same man since I learned of his death.
“Such was the first of orators,” says Lord Brougham. “At the head of all the mighty masters of speech, the adoration of ages has consecrated his place, and the loss of the noble instrument with which he forged and launched his thunders, is sure to maintain it unapproachable forever.”
I have always been a great admirer of the oratory of Demosthenes, and those who have heard both of us, think there is a certain degree of similarity in our style.
And not only did I admire Demosthenes as an orator, but as a man; and, though I am no Vanderbilt, I feel as though I would be willing to head a subscription list for the purpose of doing the square thing by his sorrowing wife, if she is left in want, as I understand that she is.
I must now leave Demosthenes and pass on rapidly to speak of Patrick Henry.
Mr. Henry was the man who wanted liberty or death. He preferred liberty, though. If he couldn’t have liberty, he wanted to die, but he was in no great rush about it. He would like liberty, if there was plenty of it; but if the British had no liberty to spare, he yearned for death. When the tyrant asked him what style of death he wanted, he said that he would rather die of extreme old age. He was willing to wait, he said. He didn’t want to go unprepared, and he thought it would take him eighty or ninety years more to prepare, so that when he was ushered into another world he wouldn’t be ashamed of himself.
One hundred and ten years ago, Patrick Henry said: “Sir, our chains are forged. Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston. The war is inevitable, and let it come. I repeat it, sir, let it come!”
In the spring of 1860, I used almost the same language. So did Horace Greeley. There were four or five of us who got our heads together and decided that the war was inevitable, and consented to let it come.
Then it came. Whenever there is a large, inevitable conflict loafing around waiting for permission to come, it devolves on the great statesmen and bald-headed literati of the nation to avoid all delay. It was so with Patrick Henry. He permitted the land to be deluged in gore, and then he retired. It is the duty of the great orator to howl for war, and then hold some other man’s coat while he fights.