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Faithful, Even In Death

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The second millennium boasts a stirring address by Ireland’s Robert Emmet on the gallows. (”Let no man write my epitaph.”) The American patriotic rouser rivaling Patrick Henry’s ”Give me liberty or give me death!” was the grandiloquent and yet eloquent Fourth of July speech that Representative Daniel Webster suggested might have been given by John Adams: ”Sink or swim, live or die, survive or perish, I give my hand and my heart to this vote.” Toward the millennium’s end, Winston Churchill told an embattled House of Commons, ”I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” F.D.R. and J.F.K. knew how to provide oratorical uplift, as did the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., with ”I have a dream.” The best closing line was from Anatoly Shcharansky, who, after addressing his dissidence to the courtroom and beyond, turned to the rubber-stamp Soviet judges with, ”To you I have nothing to say.”

But the best modern speech in English was more of a poem. Those who recite Lincoln’s brief Gettysburg Address seldom grasp its conception-birth-death-resurrection theme. A nation ”conceived in liberty,” ”brought forth ”or born, with all men ”created equal.” Then this birth is followed by images of death: ”final resting place . . . honored dead,” and verbs of religious purification like ”consecrate . . . hallow.” Finally, ”a new birth of freedom” in a nation that will ”not perish” but be immortal. This elaborate construction by a President steeped in the biblical idiom — but, like Jefferson, not known for his religiosity — was not dashed off on the back of an envelope.

Those are all ”great” speeches on momentous occasions. But there were some shorter remarks made by lesser-known figures that sparkle in the sands of our time. Sojourner Truth, the evangelist, with her fierce ”Ain’t I a woman?” pioneered feminism, and Chief Joseph, known to the Nez Perce as Thunder Traveling to the Loftier Mountain Heights, ennobled surrender: ”Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired: my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.” Here is the full text of a sentimental little speech that is the best I can find of its kind. George Graham Vest, from the oxymoronic home of Sweet Springs in Saline County, Mo., was a member of the Confederate Congress during the Civil War; from 1879 to 1903 the skilled debater served as a Senator from Missouri. He is remembered, however, for a speech he made as a young lawyer and repeated hundreds of times throughout his life. Vest was representing a plaintiff who sued a neighbor for the killing of his dog. He ignored his client’s charges and the defendant’s testimony; instead, he won the case with a summation on the theme of fidelity. Swallow hard and read it aloud, standing up, to your family; there won’t be a dry eye in the house. A cooler Third Millennium may dismiss Senator Vest’s ”Tribute to the Dog” as a tearjerker, but we rhetoricians of the Second are prepared to lick the orator’s hand.
-William Safire

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