You know the Library of America series, whose volumes wear shiny black jackets with white letters. The series started in 1982, with three stories of Melville: Typee, Omoo, and Mardi. Twenty-five years later, we are up to 168 volumes, the latest of which provides the complete poems and selected letters of Hart Crane. I am not the first to observe that the Library of America has produced something like our canon—if a canon can be roomy enough to accommodate 168 volumes (and counting).

The volumes that preceded Hart Crane—numbers 166 and 167—are entitled American Speeches.[1] They bear political oratory, from colonial times to almost the present. Note that the title is American Speeches, rather than Best American Speeches. There is a modesty and a plainness there, to be admired.

Our editor in these volumes is Ted Widmer, a youngish scholar and politico who runs the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University. In Bill Clinton’s second term, Widmer was a presidential speechwriter and adviser. In fact, the publicity materials show a picture of Mr. Widmer, working with the president. The message conveyed is: I was there, I know the ropes, I’m an editor with authority.

Mr. Widmer is restrained in his commentary about the speeches: Really, there is almost none. He supplies thumbnail biographies of the speakers, and they are strictly factual, nonjudgmental. But don’t we want judgment from a scholar? Not necessarily, particularly in a reference work. Mr. Widmer also supplies notes, for the purpose of illuminating events, references, and so on in speeches. These are invaluable, as you might guess.

And what of his selection? In this respect, his job is—or was—just a little thankless. You can’t please everyone, and a process of inclusion is also a process of exclusion. Readers will want to sniff and nitpick. But Mr. Widmer has done well. That won’t keep me from asking a question, however, and a rude question: Has some affirmative action been practiced? Specifically, have some women been included simply because they are women? I suspect so. I also think that Mr. Widmer has gone a little heavy on the socialists. But, again, you can’t please everyone, 100 percent, and every speech here is worth knowing.

Volume I is subtitled “Political Oratory from the Revolution to the Civil War.” It contains forty-five speeches from thirty-two men and women—led off by James Otis. Who he? Born in 1725 and dead in 1783, he was a lawyer, politician, and pamphleteer in Massachusetts. Mr. Widmer has him arguing before a high court in 1761. He is arguing against writs of assistance, which, the editor tells us, “were general warrants issued to customs officers that authorized them to search any ship or building they suspected contained contraband goods, and to call upon the assistance of justices of the peace, sheriffs, and constables in conducting searches.”

Otis’s argument is absolutely scorching. Indeed, John Adams later said that the lawyer was a “flame of fire” as he talked. Here is Otis’s climax: “It is the business of this court to demolish this monster of oppression”—writs of assistance—“and to tear into rags this remnant of Starchamber tyranny.” You will be interested to know that Otis lost this particular case. But he has earned his measure of immortality in the Library of America.

Otis is followed by John Hancock, whose “Oration on the Boston Massacre” was as big, baroque, and bold as his signature. Hancock employs so many choice phrases that, as with many of these speeches, you are tempted to quote ad infinitum. Try, “Some boast of being friends to government; I am a friend to righteous government, to a government founded upon the principles of reason and justice; but I glory in publickly avowing my eternal enmity to tyranny.”

Hancock’s speech is, among other things, a masterpiece of justified outrage. He thunders, “Ye dark designing knaves, ye murderers, parricides! How dare you tread upon the earth, which has drunk in the blood of slaughter’d innocents shed by your wicked hands?” I believe that the oration is a little long, but its hearers probably did not—attention spans and expectations have shifted.

And the speech is laced with Biblical language and imagery. So are many—indeed, most—of the speeches collected here. These references and allusions would have been instantly comprehended by the audiences. Only in about 1960 does the Bible fade. Hancock ends his Boston oration with verses from Habakkuk: “Although the fig tree shall not blossom … I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation.”

After Hancock comes Patrick Henry, who hollered—if he hollered—“Give me liberty or give me death!” in Richmond, Virginia, on March 23, 1775. It was William Wirt, the famed lawyer-writer, who reconstructed that speech for us. And he is featured in a speech of his own in these volumes.

On October 19, 1826, Wirt was attorney general, under John Quincy Adams. The previous July 4—which marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence—John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had both died. Wirt delivered a tremendously long and phenomenally eloquent eulogy on them in the U.S. House of Representatives. In the first minutes, he acknowledges that Europeans “would be apt to inquire, ‘What is the meaning of all this?’” Why all the fuss over these two old men? Wirt proceeds to tell them.

George Washington is duly present in these pages, represented in two speeches: The later one is his First Inaugural Address. The earlier was given on March 15, 1783, to Continental Army officers at Newburgh, New York. The circumstances, as Ted Widmer explains, are peculiar: Congress has failed to pay the officers, and an anonymous address has circulated among them, urging them to rebel if Congress continues in its dereliction. Furthermore, a second address—from the same source—has circulated, claiming that General Washington himself is sympathetic to this idea.

He is masterly in addressing the situation, and the officers. The anonymous mutineer, he says, “is entitled to much credit for the goodness of his Pen.” But “I could wish he had as much credit for the rectitude of his Heart.” He later says that the mutineer has operated “with great Art.” That is no compliment, from Washington. But he himself is possessed of no little art, rhetorical or otherwise. His chief quality, however, as seen in this address (and others), is goodness.

In his First Inaugural Address, as you well know, he is all modesty. He wishes that the cup of the presidency had passed from him. This does not seem in any way a false modesty, either: Washington would genuinely prefer his “asylum” of Mount Vernon. He calls free-flowingly on God, and notes, “No People can be bound to acknowledge and adore the invisible hand, which conducts the Affairs of men, more than the People of the United States.” We see that this phrase “invisible hand” applied not only to Professor Smith’s free market.

Mr. Widmer gives us a word from Red Jacket, a figure from the Seneca tribe. In March 1792, he crafted a Reply to President Washington, and it is filled with poignancies, including this, from the first paragraph: “Let me call for your compassion, as you can put all down upon paper, while we have to labor with our minds, to retain and digest what is spoken, to enable us to make an answer.” That is a powerful comment on the daunting advantage of literacy.

On we go through the decades, rolling toward the Civil War. We hear John C. Calhoun, that brilliant mind, pen, and tongue, in a ghastly cause. We hear Frederick Douglass, who used his own considerable talents in the opposite cause. We hear three speeches on the Compromise of 1850: by Clay, the Compromiser himself, Calhoun, and Daniel Webster. The war comes ever closer, and you can shiver at the title of William Seward’s speech: “The Irrepressible Conflict.”

John Brown, the anti-slavery terrorist, is heard in his speech before the court, shortly before he swung. The speech features one of the most striking final lines we know: “Now, I am done.”

And I had to smile a bit when I came across Jefferson Davis’s Farewell to the Senate. As an undergraduate, I gave a paper on Davis a grandiloquent title: “To Transmit Unshorn.” The phrase comes from this speech, in which Davis speaks of “the rights we inherited,” which “it is our sacred duty to transmit unshorn to our children.” At the beginning of the speech, Davis says that “the occasion does not invite me to go into argument; and my physical condition would not permit me do to so if it were otherwise”—but he argues all the same. Toward the end, he says, “I am sure I feel no hostility to you, Senators from the North.” And he bids “a final adieu.”

To me, the stunner of Volume I is the address given by Henry Highland Garnet to the National Negro Convention in 1843. The event took place in Buffalo. Garnet was born in 1815, a slave in Maryland. His family escaped in 1824, eventually settling in New York City. Garnet became a clergyman, politician, and general leader. In his mid-twenties, he had one leg amputated. He wanted to die on African soil, and did so, in Liberia, in 1882. (He had arrived just a month and a half before.)

But in 1843, he was addressing that convention in Buffalo. What he advocated was violent resistance to slavery; and opposing him was Douglass. The convention decided—very narrowly—not to endorse Garnet’s speech. But, oh, what a speech! It is rhetorically and intellectually dazzling. It has the pace and sweep of an especially absorbing and exciting piece of music, perhaps a short, tense, gripping opera. Mercilessly, it goes after the central hypocrisy of the American experience until 1865: slavery.

Garnet addresses the country’s slaves as though they were present:

We have been contented in sitting still and mourning over your sorrows, earnestly hoping that before this day your sacred liberties would have been restored. But, we have hoped in vain. Years have rolled on, and tens of thousands have been borne on streams of blood and tears, to the shores of eternity.

He recounts American history as follows:

Two hundred and twenty-seven years ago [i.e., in 1616], the first of our injured race were brought to the shores of America. They came not with glad spirits to select their homes in the New World. They came not with their own consent, to find an unmolested enjoyment of the blessings of this fruitful soil. The first dealings they had with men calling themselves Christians, exhibited to them the worst features of corrupt and sordid hearts … .

As you might guess from the words “men calling themselves Christians,” this speech is full of religious shaming, richly deserved. In his finish, Garnet exhorts slaves to rise up, for “it is sinful in the extreme for you to make voluntary submission.” Brutally hard on those in chains, he says, “You are not certain of heaven, because you suffer yourselves to remain in a state of slavery.” And “your condition does not absolve you from your moral obligation.” Garnet cries, “Let your motto be resistance! Resistance! RESISTANCE!”

Just as he throttles the slaves (and their enslavers), Garnet throttles us, reading him, more than 150 years later. You may find yourself dizzy after you finish reading this speech.

Volume II of American Speeches is subtitled “Political Oratory from Abraham Lincoln to Bill Clinton.” Do you groan a little to see the second name linked to the first? If so, join the club. Pictured on the cover of this volume is not Clinton but John Kennedy: forever a pinup. The volume contains eighty-three speeches by fifty-two people. And it begins with Reconstruction, marching through Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Robert G. Ingersoll, and illustrious others. Grover Cleveland gives a short, graceful speech—more like a statement—at the dedication ceremony for the Statue of Liberty (1886):

We are not here to-day to bow before the representation of a fierce and warlike god, filled with wrath and vengeance, but we joyously contemplate instead our own deity keeping watch and ward before the open gates of America … .

On Labor Day 1893, John Peter Altgeld, the governor of Illinois, gives an address. It is overrunning with socialist snake oil, but it is a wondrous display, rhetorically. The speech is addressed to “the children of Toil.” And Altgeld warns them that, as they progress,

there will be sneaks and Judas Iscariots in your ranks, who will for a mere pittance act as spies and try to incite some of the more hot-headed of your number to deeds of violence, in order that these reptiles may get the credit of exposing you. They are your enemies. Cast them out of your ranks.

Clear enough?

We pass through William Jennings Bryan and his cross of gold, and Theodore Roosevelt with his “strenuous life,” to get to Woodrow Wilson, who is shown in three addresses: his First Inaugural, his War Address, and his speech to the Senate on the League of Nations. (We also have the rebuttal of the president’s nemesis, Henry Cabot Lodge.) I have read Wilson’s War Address (April 2, 1917) many times since school days. I am still amazed at the magnificence of it, and at its enduring relevance. Wilson grapples with the momentous question of America’s role in the world.

And he does not revel in his oratorical magnificence. On the contrary, he tells Congress that giving the speech is “a distressing and oppressive duty.” Moreover,

it is a fearful thing to lead this great peaceful people into war, into the most terrible and disastrous of all wars, civilization itself seeming to be in the balance. But the right is more precious than peace … .

If I had been the editor, I might have included Wilson’s Memorial Day address at Suresnes Cemetery, outside Paris. (The year was 1919.) This is the one in which Wilson urged “a new order of things,” in which “the only questions will be, ‘Is it right?’ ‘Is it just?’ ‘Is it in the interest of all mankind?’” Its admirers compare this speech to Gettysburg; its (many) detractors denounce it as high-minded bunk.

Wilson was the twenty-eighth president. The thirty-second was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and he presided for twelve years, twelve event-filled years, including the Great Depression and the Second War. Eight of his speeches are included here; more could have been. I have long been struck by the frankness of FDR’s religious expression. If he talked that way today, he would be attacked as a dangerous “theocrat.” Listen to some concluding lines of the Fourth Inaugural (not among the eight speeches of this volume):

The Almighty God has blessed our land in many ways. He has given our people stout hearts and strong arms with which to strike mighty blows for freedom and truth. He has given to our country a faith which has become the hope of all peoples in an anguished world.

So, we pray to Him now for the vision to see clearly … .

Huey Long was no theocrat, but he was a danger, all right—a little collectivizing dictator, or would-be dictator, with a big rhetorical gift. Mr. Widmer gives us “Every Man a King,” broadcast in 1934. At the start, Long says, “Ladies and gentlemen, I have only thirty minutes in which to speak to you this evening,” but he can do plenty in a half-hour. Perusing his speech, I thought of a phrase beloved of Ronald Reagan: “sheer demagoguery.”

We are supposed to be reading political oratory, but Mr. Widmer sneaks in William Faulkner’s Nobel address, 1950. It’s a good move. When I was a boy, I liked to listen to an LP set of speeches in the public library, and it included Faulkner’s address. I have always remembered the word “puny,” in the phrase “puny inexhaustible voice”: first, because “puny” is a funny word, particularly for a Nobel address, and, second, because Faulkner’s voice itself sounded to me puny. And who can forget the line “I believe that man will not merely endure: He will prevail”? It stirred my boyish heart.

That word “boyish” is used by Douglas MacArthur, in his Farewell Address to Congress, 1951. This speech, too, was on those LPs. It directly follows Faulkner’s address in American Speeches. In his closing, MacArthur says, “When I joined the Army, even before the turn of the century, it was the fulfillment of all my boyish hopes and dreams.” And I’ve always thought that he had a stunning last line, or last word: “Goodbye.” Simply, “Goodbye.” Say what you will about MacArthur, this is a superb speech, and it was superbly delivered.

We come to Nixon’s “Checkers” speech, the one that saved his bacon in 1952. And we have every liberal’s favorite Ike address, the Farewell, in which the outgoing president cautioned against “the military-industrial complex.” It is interesting to gather the context of this caution. Eisenhower notes that the “conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience.” And “we recognize the imperative need for this development.” But “we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications.” This is a wise address, wiser than some of its admirers know.

Do you know what Theodore Sorensen said once, when asked whether he had written President Kennedy’s inaugural address? “Ask not.” And so we won’t. Martin Luther King is heard in six speeches, some great, at least one not—that on Vietnam. What would he have said if he had lived to know of boat people and reeducation camps (not to mention the Khmer Rouge)? We get Betty Friedan, Malcolm X—and Mario Savio, the hero of the “Free Speech Movement.” His speech at Berkeley (1964) is somewhat touching in that it’s off the cuff and unpolished. We have a transcription:

I think that, you know, while there’s unfortunately no sense of, no sense of solidarity at this point between unions and students, there at least need be no, you know, excessively hard feelings between the two groups. Now: … .

Lyndon B. Johnson is duly heard from, although he was no Cicero. Bill Buckley has recorded a witticism of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.—he claims it is the only one Schlesinger has ever produced. The two of them were listening to a Johnson State of the Union address, to comment on it afterward. The president was droning on—twanging on—numbingly. At one point, he said something about protecting trees, and Schlesinger leaned over to Buckley and quipped, “Better redwoods than deadwoods.”

Nixon gives his farewell remarks—August 9, 1974—but we do not hear from his successor. On that same day, Ford said, “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over.” The next president, Carter, is heard giving a speech on energy (which is to say, a speech on energy policy). It might have been well to include his inaugural address, if only for its exceptionally gracious and apt opening line: “For myself and for our nation, I want to thank my predecessor for all he has done to heal our land.” Mr. Widmer has decided to include Ted Kennedy’s speech to the 1980 Democratic convention. You may remember it, wincingly: It reeks of what Mr. Buckley calls “Shrummery” (after the senator’s longtime speechwriter and adviser, Bob Shrum).

Of Reagan, there are five speeches, starting with the one given in behalf of Barry Goldwater, just before Election Day 1964. (“You and I have a rendezvous with destiny.”) We have Jesse Jackson’s speech before the 1984 Democratic convention. In it, the Reverend condemns Reagan as a cold heart who apparently “is not familiar with the structure of a prayer.” He condemns aid to the besieged democratic government of El Salvador, to boot. At least Mr. Widmer spares us Jackson’s 1992 address, in which he likens Vice President Quayle to Herod. (“It was Herod—the Quayle of his day—who put no value on the family.”)

Every president from Hoover to Clinton is represented here—except for Ford and the first Bush. Clinton is given two speeches, and they are both civil-rights speeches: one in Memphis (1993) and the other at Little Rock’s totemic Central High School (1997). Thus does the Library of America further Clinton’s dream of being thought of and remembered as a civil-rights leader.

And what if George W. Bush had been included in these volumes? (And, by the way, why was he not? They were published in the fifth year of his presidency.) What speeches would have gone in? The address to Congress after 9/11, I would think, and his Second Inaugural, so controversial, and so important.

American Speeches had an effect on me, and I think it might have the same effect on you: It reawakened my love for American history, a love that had slumbered, just a bit. We may not be able to rival Britain—with its many centuries of eloquence—but the U.S. has a not-bad oratorical record. Can we discern an American style, a recognizable way of speechifying? I don’t think so. Some of these speeches are ornate, some are spare—it depends on the individual, the moment, the mood.

Is there a speaker who stands out from the rest? A speaker who may be deemed the best? Are you kidding? In 1962, President Kennedy assembled some fifty Nobelists, remarking, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent and of human knowledge that has ever been gathered together at the White House—with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” Mr. Widmer has given us the best collection of American speeches we have, with the possible exception of the collected speeches of Abraham Lincoln (published by the Library of America in 1989).

Lincoln is so far above the rest of us, we can barely see him. In American Speeches, he has seven entries, and they show his moral genius, his rhetorical genius, his political genius … They stagger the mind. If you’re looking for a heritage, take Lincoln, as a heritage all by himself.

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  1. American Speeches, edited by Ted Widmer; Library of America. Volume I: Political Oratory from the Revolution to the Civil War, 850 pages, $35. Volume II: Political Oratory from Abraham Lincoln to Bill Clinton, 875 pages, $35. Go back to the text.

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