I have been reading through the Library of America’s two new volumes of American Speeches, edited by Ted Widmer (NB: I gave some advice early on in the project).
Early reax: You can tell why people admired Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, but it’s hard to share the full force of that admiration. There is a lot of senatorial bumble-rumble; Clay seems more supple. John Calhoun is more to our taste–shorter and sharper. Alexander Stephens’s ”Corner Stone” speech (March 1861), powerful and evil, deserves to be better known. Huey Long’s “Share the Wealth” is idiocy brightened by Scripture. George Patton’s talk to the Third Army in 1944 is terrific (the movie with George Scott cleaned him up big time).
The two best so far: Patrick Henry (“give me liberty or give me death”) still blazes, 230 years later. Jefferson, who didn’t like him, said he spoke as Homer wrote. Wendell Phillips on the murder of the abolitionist editor Elijah Lovejoy also crackles.