Wednesday, March 18, 2009

"There was something that riveted your attention as with hooks of steel"

John Caldwell Calhoun was born 227 years ago today, on March 18, 1782.
Calhoun's oratorical style was the nearly perfect expression of his character and intellect. It combined "clear analysis, suppressed passion, and lofty earnestness." His only eloquence inhered in his argument. "He spoke as Euclid would have spoken," said [Rufus] Choate, who was himself Ciceronian, believing that the inert argument required the momentum of eloquence to reach its mark. Calhoun spoke with precision, without tropes, figures, analogies, or allusions. He spoke almost always without notes, and excelled in impromptu debate. "His voice was harsh, his gestures stiff, like the motions of pump-handle," a keen observer wrote. "There was no ease, flexibility, grace, or charm in his manner, yet there was something . . . that riveted your attention as with hooks of steel."

For all his machine-like rhetoric, Calhoun was, according to a Washington journalist, the most difficult man to report in the Congress. "He spoke with extraordinary fluency and rapidity, at times uttering short, piquant sentences that had the force of a round shot, and then running into a prolonged and involved sentence that required a sharp man to follow and comprehend." Since there was so little winning in the manner of Calhoun's oratory, one had to be taken in, if taken at all, by the matter.

Merrill D. Peterson, The Great Triumvirate: Webster, Clay, and Calhoun.

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