Representative Attacks Congress with Thesaurus

Rep. Martin Littleton: He tames the wild denizens of the dictionary. (George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress.)

You might think that a freshman representative would be a little unsure of himself when he gave his first speech before Congress, that he might just take it easy in the beginning until he was more comfortable. Or, if you were Rep. Martin Littleton of New York, your first Congressional speech could be a 3-hour-and-40-minute-long disquisition full of linguistic gymnastics that shine a light in the deepest, darkest corners of the thesaurus.

Martin Littleton’s name isn’t widely known today, but at the beginning of the 20th century, he was a rising star in government and law. Born in Tennessee and raised in Texas, the largely self-taught lawyer moved to The Big Apple in 1896 and soon found himself embroiled in a number of high-profile — and highly lucrative — legal cases. He would eventually become one of the richest lawyers in the world.

Littleton was known for his oratory skills and was said to have a voice like a cello. In 1904, he was tapped to present the Democratic National Convention speech that introduced Alton B. Parker, the party’s eventual presidential nominee who would lose to Theodore Roosevelt. The experience gave him a taste of government life, and a taste wasn’t enough.

After holding a number of positions in local government and in the DNC, in 1910 he won the open congressional seat in New York’s First District despite the fact that the district was home to Theodore Roosevelt and was considered a Republican stronghold. Late in his term, he ran for a seat in the Senate but lost; thus he was a one-term congressman.

But that was all in the future when Littleton delivered his mammoth first speech during a debate about Arizona’s statehood. It caught the ear and imagination of the Post’s editors. In the following “Who’s Who” article about the man’s grandiloquence and badinage, the line between sarcasm and honest praise can be difficult to discern.

Need some help with Rep. Littleton’s multisyllabic lexicon? After the excerpt is a short glossary listing common synonyms for the more elaborate terms.

Who’s Who — And Why: Mellifluous Martin

Originally published July 1, 1911

Martin Littleton put on a show up at the House of Representatives the other afternoon that played to standing room only. He brought into the arena and exhibited it so all could see his unrivaled collection of trained adjectives and awe-inspiring nouns, sending them through various intricate evolutions — driving them single, double, in fours, sixes and tandem; forcing them to eat from his hand; combining them in picturesque pyramids and other palpitating postures; making them do death-defying flipflaps from one gigantic sentence to another, and proving conclusively the remarkable power of the observant mind and the tenacious memory over the wild denizens of the dictionary and the thesaurus.

“Well, well, good people,” said Martin, “here we are again, with our unparalleled aggregation of sibilant synonyms, antonomastic antonyms, contumelious caconyms and tuneful tropes. Nowhere else on earth can be found such a collection of apposite adjectives, adjutory adverbs, novitious nouns, and vorticular verbs. After years of patient exploration in the jeopardous jungles of Webster, the arenaceous acres of Funk-and-Wagnalls, and the refreshing rosetum of Roget, I shall exhibit before you this afternoon the fruits of my toil.”

And he marched them in, two by two, the antithesis and the hullabaloo, the hyperbole and the sweet goo-goo, the metaphor and the rhapsodoo; and everybody said there had been nothing like it since Morris Sheppard chortled for three hours and forty minutes in blank verse about equal rights for all and special privileges for none — which is deuced odd; for Sheppard comes from Texas — and so does Martin Littleton.

Nowhere else on earth can be found such a collection of apposite adjectives, adjutory adverbs, novitious nouns, and vorticular verbs.

However, Texas is an extremely large state — an Empire in Herself, as all Texas orators say — and we needn’t worry about that phase of the subject; for though Texas is producing prose poets, she is also producing steers and onions and cotton and oil and other utilitarian stuff, and maintaining the balance of trade.

To get back to Martin and his show: It seems that Arizona, along about last year, received some three hundred thousand copies of Jonathan Bourne’s speech on representative government, which shows that Jonathan is a liberal young thing when it comes to sending out speeches — a regular speech-thrift — for there are only two hundred and four thousand people in the territory, or thereabout. Influenced, no doubt, by this generosity, the gentlemen who came to be engaged in the construction of a constitution for the state-to-be hastily stuck in the initiative, the referendum, and the recall, which, in turn, caused much debate when said constitution reached Congress.

Right here is where Martin bulged in. He had remained silent during the discussion of those various matters that had occupied the attention of the Democratic House until this moment; but when he saw the judiciary tottering to its fall, because of the recall provision in that constitution, he rushed to the defense of the ermine and brought his flock of apt and ardent — not to say alliterative — adjectives with him.

It was hard to do; but, after we disassociated the libretto of Martin’s argument from the music, we discovered that he feels deeply on the subject of the recall of judges, and is “agin” it to his guying dasp — no! — not that! — his dying gasp!

Alliterative Assistants

Martin’s speech contained a few other words than adjectives and nouns and adverbs, but they were comparatively unimportant. “They cut no signify,” as Charley Potter used to say. Eliminating them, this is the way Martin handled his rhetorical assistants:

“— misguided and malignant passions — recklessly accuse — stainless judge — lying litigant — mendacious effort — fabricated cause — unscrupulous hand — ruthless weapon — culpable confederates of the convicted criminal — irresponsible faction — corporate bandit — incorruptible court — agrarian agitator — substance and symbols of order — crooked creed — venal volunteers — pretentious program — empire of intrigue — deft and secret sign — swarms of satraps — daring demagogue — superficial sentiment — impugned, impeached, outraged and dishonored — shattered fame — foreclosed honor — spineless seeker — idle invertebrate — irresolute timeserver — sibilant hiss — merciless Mob!”

Of course there were many more, especially after Martin, who craftily withheld the effort for revision for several days, had had time to think adjectitiously; but herewith are enough to show what sort of an oratorical hairpin Martin is. I betray no confidence when I tell you Morris Sheppard rushed tumultuously from the hall and was seen throwing fits of jealousy beneath the statue of John J. Ingalls; and that Ollie James, although he appeared calm, was bitterly envious and furtively laughed a poisoned laugh of scorn that showed him to be hard-hit in his most vulnerable point — the vocal cords.

They crowded around Littleton and congratulated him, as well they might; for, since Charley Murphy refused to let New York send Bourke Cockran back to Congress, we have been worrying along with some mighty mediocre word trainers and exhibitors, and Martin seems to fill a longfelt want. And there is no doubt he will get better as he goes along, for he is only 40, or thereabout, and has years and years ahead of him to devote to the collection and exhibition of peerless and passionate phrases. A lot of galoots spend their time mourning because oratory is a lost art — but they needn’t worry. If oratory ever was lost — which every Southern statesman seeks to prove is untrue — Martin Littleton found it and has it safely tucked away in his jeans. Be calm! Martin is the Oratorical Kid.

A most engaging chap, too, is Martin, who has touched a good many high places in a short time and is sure to touch a good many more; for he has a lot of ability, an attractive personality, and is clean, courageous and not without the requisite confidence in himself. He is ambitious, too, and you never can tell where an ambitious man, backed by brains and an individuality, will land. He has a good reputation as a lawyer and as a worker, is an excellent campaigner, and not unversed in politics.

He was born in Tennessee, moved to Texas when he was 11 years old, and went to work. He was a sturdy young chap and did anything that came his way, from plowing to working as a brakeman on a railroad, getting such schooling as he could and studying law as opportunity offered. He was admitted to practice law when he was 19 and stayed in Texas until he was 24. Then he decided they needed him in New York and he went there. He discovered, during the first few years of his New York experience, that if they needed him they were very successful in concealing the fact — but he held on; and, presently, after injecting himself skillfully into local politics, was elected president of the Borough of Brooklyn, which position he held during the years 1904 and 1905.

He had done a considerable amount of plain and fancy orating in New York, but his first national chance was when they put him up to nominate Alton B. Parker for President — in St. Louis in 1904. The nominating part of it was all right, for Littleton made a big speech; but the election part of it was a sad affair. However, that wasn’t Littleton’s fault; and he kept on growing in public estimation in New York, devoting himself to the law, with politics as a side line. Last fall he was nominated for Congress in the First New York District, which is inhabited by Colonel Theodore Roosevelt and was represented by W. W. Cocks. Littleton defeated Cocks by some 6,000 votes and just ripped things up in Oyster Bay, where the Colonel lives and votes.

During the course of the senatorial deadlock in New York State he offered himself as a solution of the problem, but they didn’t solve it that way, and he came to Congress, where they put him on the Committee on Judiciary and the Committee on Patents — and where, as related here, he recently took occasion to make a few remarks concerning the recall of judges.

His debut was a success, and from time to time we may expect him to appear in the arena and make the welkin ring. So far as that first speech is concerned, all will freely admit it was a corker; but it seems to us he slipped just one cog. He referred to the “corporate bandit.” Nix, Martin! You can do better than that. Why not “corporate corsair” or “business bandit”? A rising young orator never should cramp his style with any such harsh combination as “corporate bandit.” Apt alliteration’s artful aid amplifies argument and augments appeal. Giddap! Dobbin, giddap! We must away to town.

Glossary of Synonyms

Adjectitiously: additively, with an eye toward expansion

Adjutory: helpful

Antonomastic: titular, epithetical [Antonomasia is the use of the name of an office in place of a person’s actual name, such as referring to a judge as “your honor”]

Apposite: pertinent, appropriate

Ardent: passionate

Arenaceous: sandy

Badinage: wordplay, repartee

Caconym: (of a word) objectionable

Contumelious: abusive, humiliating

Corker: conclusive argument

Demagogue: disingenuous politician, one who attains power through false promises and manipulation of popular prejudices

Denizen: resident, inhabitant

Dobbin: workhorse

Ermine: the office or dignity of a judge (from the idea that, at least in England, state robes were ornamented with the fur of the ermine, a type of weasel)

Galoot: codger, miser

Grandiloquence: bluster, bravado

Impugn: opposed, attacked verbally

Jeopardous: perilous

Lexicon: vocabulary

Libretto: lyrics, the words of an opera

Mellifluous: sweet, especially of a voice or melody

Mendacious: false, dishonest

Novitious: new, invented

Rosetum: rose garden

Satrap: petty despot

Sibilant: hissing, abundant in s and z sounds

Tumultuously: agitatedly, noisily

Unscrupulous: unethical

Vorticular: whirling (like a vortex)

Welkin: the sky, the dome of heaven