William C. Preston, The Inspired Declaimer

E.L. Magoon

Citation Information:E.L. Magoon, “William C. Preston, The Inspired Declaimer,” Living Orators in America. New York: Baker and Scribner, 1850. 347-363.

  1. WE love good speaking, and will make almost any sacrifice to enjoy the best. Ten years ago, we performed a long and expensive journey to Washington, on purpose to hear the lions roar. At that time, what an array of talent there was in Congress! The morning after our arrival, we hurried to the Capitol, glanced at the works of art and the elegant grounds, waiting for the doors to open, when we immediately ensconced ourself in the Senate gallery. The dignitaries soon began to drop into their seats. Some of them we had seen elsewhere, and the most were recognized at once, from prints or verbal descriptions. But there was one in particular whom we were anxious to see and hear. Newspaper accounts of his matter and manner had excited the liveliest curiosity, and we had come a weary way to seek its gratification
  2. “Pray, sit,” said we to a reporter, “which is Mr. Preston ?”
  3. “That’s him,” was the reply, pointing to a somewhat large and decidedly heavy-looking personage, with brown coat and a little switch cane, round-shouldered, yellowish wig, and florid complexion, trudging about with good-natured greetings to all in a kind of whining tone and careless air, everywhere met with smiles, and with everybody cracking a joke. This was a poser, indeed. We were looking for a prim, scholastic dignitary, with a most refined aspect and reserved manner, stooping to small talk only in selectest circles, and then always in ore rotundo style.
  4. Business began at length, and it was worse still. This great orator of South Carolina, of whom our friend James C. Brooks had written so vividly, arose to second a resolution. He stood in a most unclassical position, bending forward, with his hands resting on two desks beneath him, his face expressionless, and his whole delivery as devoid of our preconceived notions as it could possibly be. Had he not more than once responded to the call of his name, we should have doubted his identity.
  5. But, wait a bit. An expected debate was postponed, and a bill came up suddenly for final action, in which Mr. Preston was a good deal interested, It was a critical moment for the measure involved, and he rose again to speak. How different! Not three minutes had passed before we saw a new man there. He insensibly assumed an erect position, as elastic as it was commanding; his countenance changed its aspect as palpably as the landscape is changed by the sun bursting through sombre clouds; his muscles rounded out in a fuller and fairer symmetry; and the veins of his forehead swelled with the heated currents of almost preternatural energy; his voice was suddenly changed into deep and mellow tones, with now and then a slight trembling that indicated intense emotion; those short, significant sentences, so peculiar to his higher efforts, shot out in every direction like hissing bolts; every eye and ear of a rapidly gathered throng seemed entranced before the speaker as he fulmined like one truly inspired.
  6. Since that day of unexpected disappointment and unnequalled gratification we have beard a great deal of debating in Washington, London, and Paris, but have never met a second WILLIAM C. PRESTON. There may be others who are sounder logicians, more finical rhetoricians, shrewder politicians, or abstruser meta-physicians; but where is a competitor, who can excel him in lucid, fiery, and captivating declamation?
  7. It is not our purpose in the present instance, to encumber ourselves with biographical details. We have more genial matter in hand, and shall proceed at once to select several examples of our orator’s composition, preparatory to an analysis of his peculiarly pungent eloquence. We begin with extracts from the speech delivered by Mr. Preston in the Senate, March 1, 1833 on the Abolition question :
  8. “Mr. President: I deeply regret the course which this discussion has taken. I have remarked its progress with much pain, with a feeling of anxiety and depression, which I find great difficulty in expressing. It has been mixed up with all those small topics of party and personal bitterness which, whether properly or not, enter so largely into the ordinary debates of the Senate, but which are altogether misplaced, and dangerous when connected with the consideration of those deep and vital interests involved in any discussion of the institution of slavery. It is very desirable, as has been well suggested by the Senator from Massachusetts, that, if we must deliberate on this subject, we do so with all the calmness possible, and with a deliberate and combined effort to do what is best under the perilous circumstances which surround us, uninfluenced by the paltry purposes of party. In whatever temper you may come to it, the discussion is full of danger. The fact that you are deliberating on this subject of slavery, inspires my mind with the most solemn thoughts. No matter how it comes before you; no matter whether the question be preliminary or collateral, you have no jurisdiction of it in any of its aspects. These doors should be closed against it; for you have no right to draw into question here an institution guaranteed by the Constitution, and on which, in fact, the right of twenty-two Senators to a seat in this body is founded—and, emphatically, you have no right to assail, or to permit to be assailed, the domestic relations of a particular section of the country, which you are incapable of appreciating—of which you are necessarily ignorant—which the Constitution puts beyond your reach, and which a fair courtesy, it would seem, should exempt from your discussion. It exacts some patience in a southern man, to sit here and listen, day after day, to enumerations of the demoralizing effects of his household arrangements considered in the abstract—to hear his condition of life lamented over, and to see the coolness with which it is proposed to admit petitioners who assail, and vilify, and pity him, on the ground that it would hurt their feelings if we do not listen to them. We sit here and hear all this, and more than this. We hear ourselves accused of being agitators, because we ask the question, is it the pleasure of the Senate to hear those who thus assail us? As yet, Mr. President, the incendiaries are but at your door, demanding admittance, and it is yet within your power to say to them, that they shall not throw their burning brands upon this floor, or propagate the conflagration through this Government. Before you lend yourself to their unhallowed purposes, I wish to say a word or two upon the actual condition of the Abolition question; for I greatly fear, from what has transpired here, that it is very insufficiently understood; and that the danger of the emergency is by no means estimated as it ought to be. God forbid that I should permit any matter of temporary interest or passion to enter into what I am about to tell you of the real dangers which environ us. My State has been assailed. Be it so. My peculiar principles have been denounced. I submit to it. Sarcasms, intended to be bitter, have been uttered against us. Let them pass. I will not permit myself to be disturbed by these things, or, by retorting them, throw any suspicion on the temper in which I solemnly warn both sections of this Union of the impending dangers and exhort this Senate to do whatever becomes its wisdom and patriotism under the circumstances. Let us not shut our eyes, sir, on our condition. Some gentlemen have intimated that there is a purpose to get up a panic. No, no, sir. I have no such purpose. A panic on this subject is a disaster, The stake is too great to play for under a panic. In the presence of so much danger as I solemnly believe exists, I would rather steady every mind to time coldest contemplation of it, than endeavor to excite my own, or the feelings of others, by adventitious stimulants If I overestimate the magnitude of the dangers which threaten us, it is in spite of myself, against my wishes, and after the most deliberate consideration
  9. “Look round, then, sir, on the circumstances under which these numerous and daily increasing petitions are sent to us. They do not come, as heretofore, singly, and far apart, from the quiet routine of the Society of Friends, or the obscure vanity of some philanthropic club; but they are sent to us in vast numbers, from soured and agitated communities poured in upon us from the overflowing of public sentiment, which everywhere, in all Western Europe and Eastern America, has been lashed into excitement on this subject. Whoever has looked at the actual condition of society, must have perceived that the public mind is not in its accustomed state of repose, but active, and stirred up, and agitated beyond all former example. The bosom of society heaves with new and violent emotions. The general pulse beats stronger and quicker than at any period since the access of the French Revolution Public opinion labors, like the priestess on her tripod, with the prophecy of great events. In Germany in France, and in England, there is a great movement party organized upon the spirit of the times, whose tendency is to overturn established institutions, and remodel the organic forms of society, for whose purposes the process of experiment is too slow, and the action of reason too cold; whose infuriated philanthropy goeth about seeking whom it may devour. To these ethical or political enthusiasts the remote and unsustained institution of slavery offers at once a cheap and fruitful subject. Accordingly, it is known that the doctrinaire and juste milieu party of France and its leading paper, the Journal des Debats, conducted with much ability, is devoted to the purposes of abolitionism. The Duc de Broglie, Prime Minister of France, with St. Domingo before his eyes, is president of an abolition society, having in view the manumission of the slaves in the French West Indies. But the state of feeling in England has a much more direct influence upon us, and is therefore of more important investigation.”
  10. Mr. Preston then proceeds to speak of the state of the public mind in England, in relation to the slave question—of the act of emancipation by the British Parliament of the West India slaves, which he traces to the individual efforts of Willberforce and Clarkson,—and remarks on the morbid sensibility everywhere prevalent in relation to the African race—a sensibility pervading the literature, politics, and whole organization of society, and shows, from the intimate sympathies existing between England and America, how great an influence must be excited on public opinion in this country, and hence warns the Senate of the result.
  11. Passing over this and other portions of this speech, we come to the close which we give entire. Let the reader conceive, if he can, the perpetual corruscation of flashing bolts with which it fell from the impassioned orator.
  12. “The honorable Senator, (Mr. Prentiss) with his characteristic earnestness, and with the weight communicated to everything he says, by the high estimate of his worth and ability, and the known gravity of his mode of thinking, has informed us that amongst these petitioners are men of as much worth and patriotism as are to be found anywhere; and the honorable gentleman himself vindicates the petitioners by the authority of his cooperation, when he declares here in his place that Congress is constitutionally endowed with the power of manumitting the slaves in this District, and that it is expedient to exercise this power. But a short time since the Legislature of the State which the gentleman represents passed resolutions that the matter of slavery ought not to be agitated. Now, the Senator things it expedient to act. His colleague, too, assures us that the progress of the agitation in Vermont is greatly accelerated; that seven societies have been recently organized in one county; and that he hears of societies springing up in quarters, remote neighborhoods, where he had supposed that abolition had scarcely been heard of. Is there nothing in these facts?
  13. “Five hundred societies are now organized, and in active operation, and daily increasing in numbers. Is there nothing in this? In these wide-spread associations are there none but the weak and base, a noisy and impotent rabble, which will fret itself into exhaustion? Or are they composed, as all such popular movements are, of a mixed multitude of all those whom wild enthusiasm, mistaken piety, perverted benevolence, and blind zeal, hurry and crowd together, to swell the torrent of public enthusiasm, when it sets strongly towards a favorite object? However humbly I may think of the wisdom of these people, I do place a high estimate upon their zeal and enterprise. We have seen what these qualities effected in England on this subject, and they are not less efficacious here. There is at this moment in New York an association of twenty-five men of wealth and high standing, who, with a spirit worthy of a better cause, have bound themselves to contribute $40,000 a year to the propagation of abolition doctrines through the press. Five of these pay $20,000 a year, and one $,1000 a month. Such is the spirit, and such the means to sustain it.
  14. “Again, I demand, sir, do these things indicate nothing? The press is subsidized—societies for mutual inflammation are formed—men, women, and children, join in the petitions—rostrums are erected—itinerant lecturers pervade the land, preaching up to nightly crowds a crusade against slavery. The pulpit resounds with denunciations of the sin of slavery, and infuriate zealots unfurl the banner of the cross—the standard to which the abolitionist is to rally. The cause of antislavery is made identical with religion and men and women are exhorted, by all that they esteem holy, by all the high and exciting obligations of duty to man and to God, by all that can warm the heart or inflame the imagination, to join in the pious work of purging the sin of slavery from the land. Gentlemen have told us of the array of the reverend clergy on these petitions. Infatuated and deluded men! In the name of charity, they lay a scene of blood and massacre; in the blasphemed name of lime religion of peace, they promote a civil and servile war; they invoke Liberty to prostrate the only Government established for its preservation. But what voice can penetrate the deafness of fanaticism? It neither hears, nor sees, nor reasons, but feels, and burns, and acts with a maniac force.
  15. “Nor are the all-exciting topics of religion the only sources from which this turbid and impetuous stream is swollen. All the sympathies of the American heart for liberty, (the word itself has a magic in it,) achieved through war and revolution, are perverted into it. When the war-cry is ‘God and Liberty’—when it is thundered from the pulpit, and re-echoed from the press, and caught up and shouted forth by hundreds of societies, until the whole land rings with, it, shall we alone not hear it, or, hearing it, lay the flattering unction to our souls that it portends nothing? Be not deceived, I entreat, gentlemen in regard to the power of the causes which are operating upon the population of the non-slaveholding States. The public mind in those States has long been prepared for the most favorable reception of the influences now brought to bear upon it. It has been lying fallow for the seed which is now sown broadcast. A deep anti-slavery feeling has always existed in the Northern and Middle States; it is inscribed upon their statute books. Each, in succession, impel led by this feeling, has abolished slavery within its own jurisdiction; and what has been effected there, without as yet any fatal consequences, unreflecting ignorance will readily suppose may be effected everywhere under all circumstances. The spirit of propagandism is in proportion to the distance of the object, and the ignorance of the propagandist. Of the whole population of those States, ninety-nine hundedths regard the institution with decided disapprobation, and scarcely a less proportion entertain some vague desire that it should be abolished, in some way, at some time, and believe that the time will come, and the mode be devised. They believe that slavery is bad in the abstract, and not incurable as it exists. The remoteness of it from themselves makes them at once more ignorant of its actual condition, and bolder in suggesting remedies. It is to such a temper of mind that the inflammatory appeals I have spoken of are addressed.
  16. “But there is still another element of power, scarcely less than either of those I have adverted to, which the incendiaries will not be slow to avail themselves of. Cast your eyes, sir, over the States where they have already gained foothold, and mark the eagerness and equality with which two great political parties are struggling for ascendency. Animated by the utmost intenseness of party spirit, and in the very height of a contest of life and death, they will be willing to snatch such arms as fury may supply, and avail themselves of such auxiliaries as chance may offer. A third party, even were it less numerous than the abolitionists, occupying for a time a neutral position, will of course be able to decide the controversy. Each party will dread its accession to the other, and each may perhaps in turn, court its influence. Thus its consequence is enhanced, and, deriving strength from position, it acquires a new principle of augmentation, until it becomes sufficiently powerful to absorb one or the other of the contending parties, and become itself the principal in the controversy, Then are added party spirit, political ambition, local interests; and, with all this aggregation of strength and power, think you, sir, that abolitionism, at your next session, will pause at your door, waiting to see if it be your pleasure to ask it in? Even now, sir, candidates for popular favor begin to feel the influence of this new power. The very fact of the reluctance which we all feel to agitate this matter here, bespeaks our fears of exasperating the strength which we instinctively know resides in the abolitionists. Gentlemen say we must tread softly, lest we wake the giant; we must not breathe upon the spark, lest it burst into a blaze; we must bow down before the coming storm until it blows over, for fear that it will prostrate us if we stand up: and while the policy of such a course is urged, we are told there is no danger.
  17. “No gentleman will suppose that I take pleasure in indicating the cause of growth, or the present strength of the abolitionists, or would willingly exaggerate them. It is not, I confess, without the deepest apprehensions that I contemplate them; but my chief fears arise from the supineness with which they are regarded here, on both sides of the House. We repose in a false and fatal security. I am amazed and dismayed at the view which my friends have taken of these matters. I know well that their interest is identical with mine. I know their honor and candor; and most willingly would I indulge in their soothing hopes, if the deepest sense of the most imperious duty did not exact of me to call upon them to awake to a sense of the danger, and be prepared to meet it with a thorough comprehension of its import; and as a member of the Senate of the United States, I warn and exhort gentlemen to take early and decided counsel as to what is fit to be done. The occasion concerns us all, not perhaps in an equal degree, but it deeply concerns all who feel, as I do, a profound veneration for the Constitution, and an ardent love for the Union. I conjure the Senators from the non-slaveholding States to approach this subject with a steady regard and unfaltering step; to come to the task at once, before it is too late; to interpose all the authority of this Government between the incendiaries and their fatal purposes; and to pledge the moral weight of their individual characters against it.
  18. “I heartily approve the sentiments which have been generally avowed in the Senate, and appreciate the patriotic feelings which gentlemen have expressed in regard to the abolitionists. I have read with unfeigned pleasure, the wise communication of the Governor of New York to his Legislature, and am gratified to believe that there is a mass of intelligence and worth in that great State, as well as in others of the Northern and Middle States. which deeply disapproves these proceedings. But what I fear is, that neither here nor elsewhere is there a sufficient perception of the imminence of the danger, or the potency and permanency of those causes which create it. Even honorable gentlemen from the South, who have all at stake; around whose hearths, and in whose bed-chambers, the cry of thousands is invoking murder, in the name of God and liberty—with the example of Jamaica and St. Domingo before them, even they are not sufficiently aroused to the emergency. I entreat them to awake: I invoke gentlemen from all quarters, of all parties, to unite at once, to combine here, in the adoption of the strongest measures of which this Government is capable, and thus to enter into mutual pledges to oppose, by all possible means, and to the last extremity, the destructive and exterminating doctrines of these terrible incendiaries. Signalize your opposition by the most decided action. Stamp their nefarious propositions with unqualified reprobation. Throw the whole authority of this Government against them. Pledge the authority of each Senator in his own State. Say to the abolitionists that this Government will in no event be made an instrument in your hands. Say to the South that this pestilential stream shall not be poured upon you through these halls. Give us the strongest measures. If you cannot adopt the proposition of my colleague, let us know what you can do. The matters before us are of the deepest consequence, and it may, perhaps, not be within the competence of this Government to effect an entire remedy of the evil. Something, however, can be done; you may, at least, save yourselves from becoming either passively or actively accessory to the result. Erect yourselves into a barrier between the opposing sections. Save the Union if you can.
  19. “If things go much farther, you may find this no easy matter. Recent experience has, thank God, demonstrated that this Government is not strong enough to produce disunion. Will it be strong enough to prevent it if proceedings go on, which inevitably make two people of us, warring on a question which, on the one side, involves existence, and on the other, arrays all the fury of fanaticism? Think you, sir, that, if you have not the spirit or power to trample out the brand that is thrown amongst us, you can yet bring help when the whole land is wrapped in conflagration? If, however, in your judgment it is not competent or expedient to act decisively, tell us so. Let us know what you can or will do, and we will consider it, and bring to the consideration of it a candid and conciliatory temper, anxious to find safety for the Constitution in your measures. Our own safety is in our own keeping. I will not more than allude to it for fear of misconstruction; but while with the most painful emotions I have adverted to the dangers of our situation, while with the most profound solicitude [ entreat the Senate to guard against them, I know that the South has the power and the will to vindicate its rights and protect itself. Even if it were destitute of time high spirit which characterizes it, if it were without the resources which abound there, it would be forced into a position of self-defence by the inexorable necessities of self-preservation. The South has drawn deep lessons of instruction from the colonial history of France and England. St. Domingo and Jamaica were colonies subject to the dominion of a foreign power, and perished because they were colonies. Their disastrous history is not recorded in vain. I will not pursue this topic. I am here a member of the Senate of the United States, impressed with a sense of my federal duties, and in discharge of them, have felt myself compelled to state my conception of the perilous circumstances in which we are, because I fear there is a fatal misconception in regard to them. It is possible, sir, that I may have conceived them too strongly. I wish it may turn out so. It is erring on the safe side to magnify the strength of the enemy, if you intend to encounter him with fortitude and just preparation. Many friends near me see nothing on the horizon but a floating cloud, which the summer breeze will drive away. I see, or think I see, the gathering of a tempest surcharged with all the elements of devastation. If they be right, it is happy for us all; but if they be wrong, and I right, and the blessed moments of preparation are thrown away until the storm bursts, they incur an awful responsibility.”
  20. The happy versatility of which Mr. Preston is capable in public speech, is indicated by the following extract from the account given of the famous Whig Convention, held in Baltimore on the first week of May, 1840:
  21. “The Hon. Win. C. Preston, the eloquent and distinguished Senator from South Carolina, next responded to the call of the Convention. ‘This,’ said he, ‘is the happiest day of my life. I see here the consummation of almost all that I had hoped for from the earliest day I entered public life. I hate tyranny, and from my infancy was taught to despise a Tory. I was born a Whig, and am yet a Whig. The Whigs have met here,’ continued Mr. Preston, ‘to bring peace and prosperity to the land, and I take pleasure in expressing the belief that the man of their choice will maintain and consolidate the great national institutions and enterprises of the country.’ Continuing his remarks,
  22. “Mr. Preston alluded to the self-denying, magnanimous and patriotic conduct of Henry Clay. The eulogium was the most eloquent we have heard, and the audience heard it with interest and delight. Returning to General Harrison, he said, ‘I will devote to him my labor, my thoughts, my person, and my purse. I regard the Ohio farmer as a true and devoted patriot, and I would the news of this day’s meeting could be borne to him upon the wings of the wind.’
  23. “Mr. Preston, in concluding his remarks, said, he was a Southern man, and happily in connection with this subject did he allude to the recent demonstration of opinion from the ‘Old Dominion.’ Harrison, too, he was proud to say, was a Virginian born, and a son of a signer of the Declaration of Independence. He sprung, too, from the best of the Anglo-Saxon blood. He was a descendant of that Harrison who, in the reign of the tyrant Charles, said that, ‘as he was a tyrant, I slew him.’ Who, said Mr. Preston, can boast of better blood in his veins than this descendant of the king-destroying, despot-killing tyrant-hating Harrison?
  24. “Mr. Preston, in a manner peculiar to himself, after exhorting the Whigs to use their anticipated triumph as not abusing it, left the grave a moment for the gay. Alas, poor Democrats, farewell, dear Loco Focos! you have had your day. Every dog has his day! It is necessary, Mr. Van Buren, that you should go for diminished wages, and the country says you shall go for diminished wages! Again, Mr. Preston drew a happy [….]