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首页 » 经典英文小说 » From Farm Boy to Senator » CHAPTER XXV. THE ORATION AT PLYMOUTH.
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The three-fold character in which Daniel Webster achieved greatness was as lawyer, orator and statesman. In this respect he must be placed at the head of the immortal three whose names are usually conjoined. Mr. Calhoun did not pretend to be a lawyer, and Mr. Clay, though he practiced law, possessed but a small share of legal erudition, and when he gained cases, was indebted to his eloquence rather than to his mastery of the legal points involved. Both, however, may claim to be orators and statesmen, but even in these respects it is probable that the highest place would be accorded to their great compeer.

Up to the age of thirty-eight Mr. Webster had not vindicated his claim to the title of a great orator. In Congress and in his profession he had shown himself a powerful, eloquent and convincing speaker, but it was not until he delivered at Plymouth his celebrated discourse on the two hundredth anniversary of the settlement that he established his fame as a great anniversary orator.

Probably no better selection of an orator could have been made. The circumstances of his own early career, born and brought up as he was on the sterile soil of one of the original States of New England, trained like the first settlers in the rugged school of poverty and simplicity, wresting a bare subsistence from unwilling nature, he could enter into the feelings of those hardy men who brought the seeds of civilization and civil liberty from the shores of the Old World to find a lodgment for them in the soil of the New. He could appreciate and admire the spirit which actuated them, and no one was more likely to set a proper value on the results they achieved.

So, by a happy conjuncture, the orator fitted the occasion, and the occasion was of a character to draw forth the best powers of the orator. It gave him an opportunity to pay a fitting tribute to the virtues of the stern but conscientious and deeply religious men, who had their faults indeed, but who in spite of them will always receive not only from their descendants but from the world a high measure of respect. Of the oration, the manner in which it was delivered, and its effect upon his audience, we have this account by an eye and ear witness, Mr. Ticknor:

“In the morning I went with Mr. Webster to the church where he was to deliver the oration. It was the old First Church—Dr. Kendall’s. He did not find the pulpit convenient for his purpose, and after making two or three experiments, determined to speak from the deacon’s seat under it. An extemporaneous table, covered with a green baize cloth, was arranged for the occasion, and when the procession entered the church everything looked very appropriate, though when the arrangement was first suggested it sounded rather odd.

“The building was crowded; indeed, the streets had seemed so all the morning, for the weather was fine, and the whole population was astir as for a holiday. The oration was an hour and fifty minutes long, but the whole of what was printed a year afterwards (for a year before it made its appearance) was not delivered. His manner was very fine—quite various in the different parts. The passage about the slave trade was delivered with a power of indignation such as I never witnessed on any other occasion. That at the end when, spreading his arms as if to embrace them, he welcomed future generations to the great inheritance which we have enjoyed, was spoken with the most attractive sweetness, and that peculiar smile which in him was always so charming.

“The effect of the whole was very great. As soon as he got home to our lodgings all the principal people then in Plymouth crowded about him. He was full of animation and radiant with happiness. But there was something about him very grand and imposing at the same time. In a letter which I wrote the same day I said that ‘he seemed as if he were like the mount that might not be touched, and that burned with fire.’ I have the same recollection of him still. I never saw him at any time when he seemed to me to be more conscious of his own powers, or to have a more true and natural enjoyment from their possession.”

The occasion will always be memorable, for on that day it was revealed to the world that America possessed an orator fit to be ranked with the greatest orators of ancient or modern times. A year afterwards John Adams, in a letter to Mr. Webster, said of it: “It is the effort of a great mind, richly stored with every species of information. If there be an American who can read it without tears I am not that American. It enters more perfectly into the genuine spirit of New England than any production I ever read. The observations on the Greeks and Romans; on colonization in general; on the West India Islands; on the past, present and future of America, and on the slave trade are sagacious, profound and affecting in a high degree. Mr. Burke is no longer entitled to the praise, the most consummate orator of modern times. This oration will be read five hundred years hence with as much rapture as it was heard. It ought to be read at the end of every century, and indeed at the end of every year, forever and ever.”

This testimony is the more interesting because the writer less then five years later was himself, with his great contemporary, Mr. Jefferson, to be the subject of an address which will always be reckoned as one of Webster’s masterpieces.

And now, since many of my young readers will never read the Plymouth oration, I surrender the rest of this chapter to two extracts which may give them an idea of its high merits.

“There are enterprises, military as well as civil, which sometimes check the current of events, give a new turn to human affairs, and transmit their consequences through ages. We see their importance in their results, and call them great because great things follow. There have been battles which have fixed the fate of nations. These come down to us in history with a solid and permanent interest, not created by a display of glittering armor, the rush of adverse battalions, the sinking and rising of pennons, the flight, the pursuit and the victory; but by their effect in advancing or retarding human knowledge, in overthrowing or establishing despotism, in extending or destroying human happiness.

“When the traveler pauses on the plain of Marathon, what are the emotions which most strongly agitate his breast? What is that glorious recollection which thrills through his frame and suffuses his eyes? Not, I imagine, that Grecian skill and Grecian valor were here most signally displayed, but that Greece herself was here displayed. It is because to this spot, and to the event which has rendered it immortal, he refers all the succeeding glories of the republic. It is because, if that day had gone otherwise, Greece had perished. It is because he perceives that her philosophers and orators, her poets and painters, her sculptors and architects, her government and free institutions, point backward to Marathon, and that their future existence seems to have been suspended on the contingency whether the Persian or the Grecian banner should wave victorious in the beams of that day’s setting sun. And, as his imagination kindles at the retrospect, he is transported back to the interesting moment, he counts the fearful odds of the contending hosts, his interest for the result overwhelms him, he trembles as if it were still uncertain, and grows to doubt whether he may consider Socrates and Plato, Demosthenes, Sophocles and Phidias, as secure yet to himself and the world.

“‘If God prosper us,’ might have been the appropriate language of our fathers when they landed upon this Rock. If God prosper us, we shall begin a work which shall last for ages; we shall plant here a new society in the principles of the fullest liberty and the purest religion; we shall fill this region of the great continent, which stretches almost from pole to pole, with civilization and Christianity; the temples of the true God shall rise, where now ascends the smoke of idolatrous sacrifice; fields and gardens, the flowers of summer and the waving and golden harvest of autumn shall extend over a thousand hills and stretch along a thousand valleys never yet, since the creation, reclaimed to the use of civilized man.

“We shall whiten this coast with the canvas of a prosperous commerce; we shall stud the long and winding shore with a hundred cities. That which we sow in weakness shall be raised in strength. From our sincere but houseless worship there shall spring splendid temples to record God’s goodness, and from the simplicity of our social unions there shall arise wise and politic constitutions of government, full of the liberty which we ourselves bring and breathe; from our zeal for learning institutions shall spring which shall scatter the light of knowledge throughout the land, and, in time, paying back where they have borrowed, shall contribute their part to the great aggregate of human knowledge; and our descendants through all generations shall look back to this spot, and to this hour, with unabated affection and regard.”

I close with the solemn and impressive peroration in which the orator addresses those who are to come after him.

“Advance then, ye future generations! We would hail you as you rise in your long succession to fill the places which we now fill, and to taste the blessings of existence where we are passing, and soon shall have passed, our own human duration. We bid you welcome to this pleasant land of the fathers. We bid you welcome to the healthful skies and the verdant fields of New England. We greet your accession to the great inheritance which we have enjoyed. We welcome you to the blessings of good government and religious liberty. We welcome you to the treasures of science and the delights of learning. We welcome you to the transcendent sweets of domestic life, to the happiness of kindred and parents and children. We welcome you to the immeasurable blessings of rational existence, the immortal hope of Christianity, and the light of everlasting truth!”


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