In my Plans for 2015 Reads, I mentioned I would start a new feature this year where I would present a great speech from history and perform a little analysis on it. Well, I’ve been trying to find the time to start that off. So here’s an ideal moment, the fourth of July.
I’m going to start with Henry Lee III’s famous eulogy of George Washington. Lee, a fellow Virginian, serve with Washington in the Revolutionary War, and at one time was Governor of Virginia. He was also the father of the Civil War General, Robert E. Lee.
Amazingly I could not find the entire speech on the internet. You can find that famous first paragraph that is often quoted, but I was at a loss to get a hold of the entire thing. So, I had to type it out myself. It’s not a very long speech. My copy comes from William Safire’s collection, Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History.
First in war—first in peace—and first in the hearts of his countrymen, he was second to none in the humble and endearing scenes of private life; pious, humane, temperate, and sincere; uniform, dignified, and commanding, his example was as edifying to all around him as were the effects of that example lasting.
To his equals he was condescending, to his inferiors kind, and to the dear object of his affections exemplarily tender; correct throughout, vice shuddered in his presence, and virtue always felt his fostering hand; the purity of his private character gave effulgence to his public virtues.
His last scene comported with the whole tenor of his life—although in extreme pain, not a sigh, not a groan escaped him; and with undisturbed serenity he closed his well spent life. Such was the man America has lost—such was the man for whom our nation mourns.
Methinks I see his august image, and I hear falling from his venerable lips these deep-sinking words:
“Cease, sons of America, lamenting our separation; go on, and confirm by your wisdom the fruits of our joint councils, joint efforts, and common dangers; reverence religion, diffuse knowledge throughout your land, patronize the arts and sciences; let liberty and order be inseparable companions. Control party spirit, the bane of free governments; observe good faith to, and cultivate peace with, all nations, shut up every avenue to foreign influence, contract rather than extend national connection, rely on ourselves only: be Americans in thought, word, and deed—thus will you give immortality to that union which was the constant object of my terrestrial labors; thus will you preserve undisturbed to the latest posterity the felicity of a people to me most dear, and thus will you supply (if my happiness is now aught to you) the only vacancy in the round of pure bliss high heaven bestows.”
Certainly that is such a memorable beginning using the rhetorical device called anaphora (the sequence of a repeated first word), here constructed in a sequence of three components: “First in war—first in peace—and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” Writing in elements of threes creates a sense of completeness that twos lack, and greater than threes suggest you can’t fully pin down. You should try to construct many sentences in elements of threes in writing, but in a speech you should always construct in threes. The ear picks up on the threes even more so than in writing. Even as Lee goes on to list an abundance of Washington’s attributes, he divides them into groups of threes.
I also found the conclusion fascinating. Lee almost brings Washington to life by calling forth “his august image,” and then does something that is brilliant: he allows the image of Washington to speak from the dead in that last paragraph. Notice also the tone shift (it heightens into a more formal tone) when he has Washington “speak.”
I hope that brought you back to our founding fathers. I revere George Washington above all our other founders. Pious, dignified, ascetic, noble in a natural sense. Virtue I think is the most precise adjective.
Happy Fourth of July!