Robert Ingersoll, the 19th-century American thinker and speaker, was born on this day in 1833. Long before talking heads began bloviating nonstop on cable news, the public would line up to see the most impressive orators of the day. Despite social sea changes in the 20th century, this Post article from more than 90 years ago shows that the makings of a good public speech are timeless.
In “The Art of Public Speaking,” a 1924 analysis of oratory, Albert J. Beveridge outlines the traits of an effective speaker. According to Beveridge, an aptitude for communication enters into it, but — as with any art — orators must gain an understanding of the form and its history if they wish to be successful.
As to composition and structure of the speech, the rules of that art may be summarized thus:
Speak only when you have something to say.
Speak only what you believe to be true.
Stick to your subject.
Beveridge commends Robert Ingersoll as a “master of the art” and recalls seeing the Civil War veteran speak as a 20-year-old: “In short, everything about Colonel Ingersoll was pleasing, nothing was repellent — a prime requisite to the winning of a cordial hearing from any audience, big or little, rough or polite.” The writer applauds Ingersoll’s conversational tone and natural gestures.
Beveridge omits the topic of Ingersoll’s oration. In fact, Ingersoll was known as “The Great Agnostic” who often criticized religion and spoke on history and humanism. Few sound recordings of Ingersoll exist, but a short speech, “On Hope,” was recorded on gramophone by Emile Berliner in 1897. Ingersoll speaks in a casual, steady rhythm, saying,
I am not trying to destroy another world, but I am endeavoring to prevent the theologians from destroying this. The hope of another life was in the heart long before the sacred books were written and will remain there long after all the sacred books are known to be the work of savage and superstitious men.
Ingersoll’s ideas about secular humanism were not always received well, but his style of calm oration afforded him the best possible response from a 19th-century Midwestern audience. Along with Daniel Webster, Wendell Phillips, and Patrick Henry, Beveridge named Ingersoll “one of the four greatest public speakers America has produced.”
The weightiest advice in Beveridge’s article is his insistence on sincerity and honesty from a speaker, because “ignorance is dangerous:”
First, last and above all else, the public speaker is a teacher. The man or woman who presumes to talk to an audience should know more about the subject discussed than anybody and everybody in that audience. Otherwise, why speak at all? How dismal an uninformed speech! When coupled with sincerity, how pitiable! And how poisonous! For that very ingenuousness often causes the hearers to believe, for the time being, that the speaker knows what he is talking about.
Beveridge’s emphasis on honesty and research came before instant fact-checking and smart phones, yet the importance of his words endures. Whether oration is given on a soapbox, into a gramophone, or livestreamed online, words still matter.
In the October 31, 1914, issue: The Post publishes its first piece of world war fiction, a war reporter’s shares his experiences in Belgium, and a U.S. senator predicts an economic boom.
The Miller of Ostend
By Melville Davisson Post
In its first piece of World War fiction, the Post brought up a topic that would become one of the major controversies of the war: civilian atrocities.
For weeks, stories about German brutalities against Belgians had been circulating in the media. The stories would become more violent and more numerous as the war settled into a frustrating stalemate. And when the U.S. entered the war, the stories would be revived and embellished to build American support for the war.
Did they actually occur? Did German soldiers really butcher helpless Belgians? What about the story of Germans cutting off the hands of Belgian children?
Were Germans murdered in their sleep or poisoned by the people of Belgium, or ambushed by isolated squads of partisans? In this story, an elderly miller exacts vengeance for a granddaughter killed in a German air attack.
It’s a brutal little story unlike the polite fiction usually run by the Post. But it’s possible the editors chose it out of sympathy for inoffensive Belgium or out of a desire to see Germany punished for violating this neutral country.
Melville Post (no relation) continued to write after the war and, in time, became an early and influential author of mystery stories.
“Presently, far away toward Brussels, a thing like a wingless goose appeared in the sky. It traveled at great speed and soon took form and outline. It came on like a projectile toward Ostend. One could distinguish now its long aluminum cylinder and the strange equipment of the Zeppelin, all painted gray like a warship.
“There was a long, dull roar, and the glass-enclosed terrace of the Kursaal that bowed out toward the promenade of Leopold south along the Digue de Mer flew into a cloud of dust and broken tiles.
“Meanwhile, as though signaled of the approach of the Zeppelin, an English submarine arose like some fabled sea-thing out of the slime of the harbor. A figure emerged from the turret, seized a lever, and a gun that was folded into the back of the monster swung up into place, other figures appeared, and the gun lifting perpendicular opened fire on the dirigible. …
“Finally the Zeppelin, driving dead away toward Brussels, was seen suddenly to list. It hung for a moment half balanced over, then it glided slowly down. A shot traveling parallel with the cylinder had ripped open the gas compartments along the whole side. …
“It did not fall — the gas chambers on the other side of the long aluminum envelope were enough to prevent that, but not enough to hold it in the air, and listing heavily it descended slowly into the fields. The detachment of Belgian cavalry riding the Brussels road raced toward it.
“At the dull boom of the first explosion the old miller, sitting on his door step, arose and started to return to Ostend. … He knew the city, and the direction of the sound located for him where the deadly thing had struck.
“His awful fear was justified. Under the wrecked glass of the Kursaal, among the scattered cots and the wounded—now mangled dead men—a little broken thing, with a red cross stitched to her sleeve and the sun still nestling in her hair, lay motionless across the sill of a door.”
Marsch, Marsch, Marsch, So Geh’n Wir Weiter
(the German translation of the American Civil War song lyric “Tramp, tramp, tramp, the boys are marching”)
By Irvin S. Cobb
Cobb reported he’d seen none of the atrocities that others had reported in Belgium. But in this installment, he sees several examples of the German’s stern military justice.
The German army developed a harsh attitude toward the Belgians. They had originally expected Belgium would permit them to march through the country to invade France. They were surprised, then angered, when the Belgians not only refused German demands to pass through, but resisted their advance with force.
The first stories of atrocities, it seems, came from the Germans, who reported that Belgian civilians were waging a guerilla war, ambushing prisoners and sabotaging equipment. As Cobb reports, German officers believed these stories and used them as justification for executing people they considered dangerous to their army. The colonel who kept him under guard told Cobb he could not cross the front lines to reach Brussels for fear of what his own men might do.
“‘For your own sakes … I dare not let you gentlemen go. Terrible things have happened. Last night a colonel of infantry was murdered while he was asleep; and I have just heard that fifteen of our soldiers had their throats cut, also as they slept. From houses our troops have been fired on, and between here and Brussels there has been much of this guerilla warfare on us. To those who do such things and to those who protect them we show no mercy. We shoot them on the spot and burn their houses to the ground.
“‘We make no attempt to disguise our methods of reprisal. We are willing for the world to know it; and it is
not because I wish to cover up or hide any of our actions from your eyes, and from the eyes of the American people, that I am refusing you passes for your return to Brussels today. But, you see, our men have been terribly excited by these crimes of the Belgian populace, and in their excitement they might make serious mistakes.’
“On the second morning of our enforced stay … we watched a double file of soldiers going through a street. … Two roughly clad natives walked between the lines of bared bayonets. One was an old man who walked proudly with his head erect. The other was bent almost double, and his hands were tied behind his back.
“A few minutes afterward a barred yellow van, under escort, came through the square fronting the railroad station and disappeared behind a mass of low buildings. From that direction we presently heard shots. Soon the van came back, unescorted this time; and behind it came Belgians with Red Cross arm badges, bearing on their shoulders two litters on which were still figures covered with blankets, so that only the stockinged feet showed.
“Along toward five o’clock a goodish string of cars was added to our train, and into these additional cars seven hundred French soldiers, who had been collected at Gembloux, were loaded. With the Frenchmen as they marched under our window went, perhaps, twenty civilian prisoners, including two priests and three or four subdued little men who looked as though they might be civic dignitaries of some small Belgian town. In the squad was one big, broad-shouldered peasant in a blouse, whose arms were roped back at the elbows with a thick cord.
“‘Do you see that man?’ said one of our guards excitedly, and he pointed at the pinioned man. ‘He is a grave robber. He has been digging up dead Germans to rob the bodies. They tell me that, when they caught him, he had in his pockets ten dead men’s fingers which he had cut off with a knife because the flesh was so swollen he could not slip the rings off. He will be shot, that fellow.’
“We looked with a deeper interest then at the man whose arms were bound, but privately we permitted ourselves to be skeptical regarding the details of his alleged ghoulishness. We had begun to discount German stories of Belgian atrocities and Belgian stories of German atrocities. I might add that I am still discounting both varieties. I hear of them daily, almost hourly, but usually the proof is lacking.”
By Albert J. Beveridge
Not only did former U.S. Indiana Senator Beveridge (R) expect the war would bring an economic boom to the United States, he thought it could last even beyond the war. But it would require the government keeping politics out of its economic policy.
“Every day we hear of the great material prosperity the present world war will bring us. … We are adjured to lament this tragedy of the nations and to pray for its ending, nevertheless we are advised to make the most of the situation and to fill our pockets while we can, and as full as we can.
“Without any foreign war, and purely from our natural advantages, handled in a common-sense manner, we ought to have a much greater prosperity in the United States than we ever have had. … Why, then, is this not the case? … Partisan politics.
“[It] turns the crank, which runs the endless chain of tariff ups and tariff downs; of business fever and business chill; of a diseased prosperity and a diseased depression. Thus it is that tariff earthquakes periodically shake and shatter American business. Thus it is that we have not and never have had steady and normal business conditions. Thus it is that such a thing as permanent prosperity is unknown in America. And steady normal business and permanent prosperity never can be had so long as we allow partisan politicians to make our tariff the football of partisan politics.”
Step into 1914 with a peek at these pages from The Saturday Evening Post 100 years ago.