A witty illustration or an apt story will accomplish more than columns of argument. The old-time audience demanded a speech of not less than two hours' duration and expected three. The audience of to-day grows restive after the first hour, and is better pleased with forty minutes. It prefers epigrams to arguments and humor to rhetoric. It is still true, however, that the press presents to readers from a speaker who indulges in humor only the funny part of his effort, and he is in serious danger of receiving no credit for ability in the discussion of great questions, no matter how conspicuous that ability may be. The question is always presented to a frequent speaker whether he shall win the applause of the audience and lose the flattering opinion of the critics, or bore his audience and be complimented by readers for wisdom.
When I look back over sixty-five years on the platform in public speaking, and the success of different methods before audiences, political, literary, business, or a legislative committee, or a legislature itself, and especially when I consider my own pleasure in the efforts, the results and compensations have been far greater than the attainment of any office. For, after all, a man might be dull and a bore to himself and others for a lifetime and have the reputation of being a serious thinker and a solid citizen, and yet never reach the presidency.
It was always a delight to listen to George W. Curtis. He was a finished orator of the classic type, but not of the Demosthenian order. His fine personal appearance, his well-modulated and far-reaching voice, and his refined manner at once won the favor of his audience. He was a splendid type of the scholar in politics. In preparing a speech he took as much pains as he did with a volume which he was about to publish.
I accepted under great pressure the invitation to deliver the oration at the unveiling of the Bartholdi Statue of Liberty in New York harbor, because the time was so short, only a few days. Mr. Curtis said to me afterwards: "I was very much surprised that you accepted that invitation. I declined it because there was only a month left before the unveiling. I invariably refuse an invitation for an important address unless I can have three months. I take one month to look up authorities and carefully prepare it and then lay it on the shelf for a month. During that period, while you are paying no attention to the matter, your mind is unconsciously at work upon it. When you resume correcting your manuscript you find that in many things about which you thought well you have changed your mind. Leisurely corrections and additions will perfect the address."
As my orations and speeches have always been the by-product of spare evenings and Sundays taken from an intensely active and busy life, if I had followed any of these examples my twelve volumes of speeches would never have seen the light of day.
One of the greatest orators of his generation, and I might say of ours, was Robert G. Ingersoll. I was privileged to meet Colonel Ingersoll many times, and on several occasions to be a speaker on the same platform. The zenith of his fame was reached by his "plumed-knight" speech, nominating James G. Blaine for president at the national Republican convention in 1876. It was the testimony of all the delegates that if the vote could have been taken immediately at the conclusion of the speech, Mr. Blaine would have been elected.
Colonel Ingersoll carried off the oratorical honors that campaign in a series of speeches, covering the whole country. I say a series of speeches; he really had but one, which was the most effective campaign address I ever heard, but which he delivered over and over again, and every time with phenomenal success, a success the like of which I have never known. He delivered it to an immense audience in New York, and swept them off their feet. He repeated this triumph the next day at an open-air meeting in Wall Street, and again the next day at a great gathering in New Jersey. The newspapers printed the speech in full every day after its delivery, as if it had been a new and first utterance of the great orator.
I spoke with him several times when he was one of the speakers after an important dinner. It was a rare treat to hear him. The effort apparently was impromptu, and that added to its effect upon his auditors. That it was thoroughly prepared I found by hearing it several times, always unchanged and always producing the same thrilling effect.