Item of the Day: The Port Folio (1804)

Full Title:  The Port Folio. By Oliver Oldschool, Esq.  Vol. IV. No. 44  Philadelphia, Saturday, November 3, 1804.




It has been observed, my dear S….., that eloquence is not the sole characteristic of the American senates; and I have had abundant reason to remark, that plain sense, strong judgment, ardent patriotism, predominate in the individual states, as in the national legislature.  But that best ‘harmony of sweet sounds,’ the graceful and persuasive rhetoric, which thrills the nerves, and seizes upon the passions of the hearer, which charms, while it instructs, and seems to commiserate, even while it condemns — that must be looked for among a people, more ancient, more affluent, better defined, and more accurately defining than the unpatronised and self-taught individuals of the new hemisphere.  If these observations be strictly applicable to the senatorial rank of the country, in considering another, and more accurately distinguished class of public speaking, forensic oratory, I am led to confess this appears to have been cultivated, with an assiduity, that indulges the hope, and speaks the promise of uniting, for its possessor, the luxury of wealth, with the aristocracy of power.  In fact, this people, so tenacious of their rights, and so clear-sighted in their political jealousy, have permitted the individuals of the bench and the bar almost to monopolize the high and lucrative offices and endowments of the state, as of the national government.  Thence, in my travels through the union, courts of law and justice have become the most important objects of my research, and the inevitable subjects of my impartial criticism.  I have, indeed, marked the forensic talent of the nation, and found it of a description, wholly dissimilar to the prominent trait of senatorial dignity.  I have heard eloquence, and discovered learning in the abodes of Themis, that might have stampt a new, and more sublime, character upon the American people.  Whence, I have ceased to wonder at that influence and ascendancy, which the distinguished pre-eminence of its professors has merited and obtained.

Upon my first arrival in Boston, appearances were, to my view, greatly inauspicious.  I found a large town, apparently devoted to trade, streets narrow, crooked, and not remarkably clean; fine houses, in wretched and almost inaccessible avenues, and commodious situations, disgraced by hovels.  Such were the conspicuous features that met the first coup d’oeil.  A further introduction taught me that these ill-situated mansions were the abode of hospitality, and within those humbler hovels oppression and misery were unknown.  I recognized more of the old English whig, in the character of the Bostonians, than in any state in the union.  Tolerating, liberal, and intelligent, yet marked by strong local prejudices, and inflexible animosities, while feeling freedom, and literally claiming independence, behind his counter the shopman inquires the news and arraigns the government; and the poorest mechanic reads the Gazette, reasons upon finance, and approves, or opposes, the diminution of taxes.  Among this people, so congenial to the best portion of my own countrymen, inquiry has been forcibly awakened, and my anxious attention constantly occupied.  Finding the supreme judicial court in session, I flew thither, with the solicitude of a mind, whose appetite for the new and the curious is never gratified to satiety.  There I found talents, that were respectable, and genius, that was extraordinary; yet I must impartially acknowledge my astonishment at the general irregularity and inattention to forms that prevailed.  Boys, just admitted as practitioners, were suffered, without reprimand from the bench, to indulge the vividness of their imagination, wandering, at will, through all the pleasant paths of romance, now pompous by soaring to bombast, then sinking to the pert simile, or the misapplied anecdote.  Further, it was to be remarked of this generally respectable body, that their total inattention to the decorum of dress, and external distinction, must awaken in every foreigner some unpleasant sensations.  The judges were dressed, or rather en deshabille, in plain coats; and the apparel of the gentlemen of the bar was as diversified, as the proportions and faculties of their minds — an endless variety, from the excellent and extraordinary, to the mean and flimsy.  However the philosopher may pretend to despise mere external effects, men of the world must be sensible of their importance, as it regards the senses, and attaches to the understanding; for the ludicrous, which upon the present occasion is by no means applied, having a certain tendency to counteract respect, must, of necessity, arrest usefulness.  Thence, I approve of a costume for all public characters, and think that the sanctity of an oath would be rendered more inviolable, under greater ceremony and solemnity, in the manner of its being administered.  People without understanding and destitute of the moral principle, may be influenced by their senses, and on their impression deterred from the commission of evil — Whence, allowing mere forms to be intrinsically important, they are at least relatively good, respectable for their utility, and honourable in their observance.


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Filed under 1800's, Newspapers, Oratory, Posted by Rebecca Dresser

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