Richard A. Katula, whose book The Eloquence of Edward Everett, America's Greatest Orator will be published this spring, is participating in a program at the Dorchester Historical Society on February 22, at 2 pm. The following is adapted from his book.
Edward Everett (1794-1865), born in Dorchester at the corner of Columbia Road and Boston Street, was America's first Ph.D., a professor of Greek studies at Harvard University, a United States congressman, governor of Massachusetts, minister to England, president of Harvard University, secretary of state, United States senator, and vice-presidential candidate. In the course of this distinguished career, he was also the most celebrated orator of the nineteenth century, a time often referred to as the "Golden Age of American Oratory." It was once said of Everett that "no occasion was complete without the grace and finish of his classical eloquence." Most citizens in his day would have agreed, and yet in ours he is scarcely known.
Everett's oratory is intimately linked to the names of two other Americans, perhaps the country's greatest: George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Washington's "Farewell Address" provided Everett with the main themes that infused his oratory; he repaid his hero by delivering his memorable speech "The Character of Washington" 137 times across the nation, earning $87,000 (a vast sum of money in 1860), which he contributed to the campaign to purchase Washington's home, Mount Vernon, so that it could be preserved as a national monument. Lincoln delivered his two-minute masterpiece the "Gettysburg Address" immediately after Everett presented his two-hour oration at the site of that epic Civil War battle. It is a sad fact, however, that whereas Washington and Lincoln remain iconic figures in American history - and justifiably so - Edward Everett, although celebrated and famous in his own day, is largely forgotten.
Everett was a brilliant, influential, and charismatic figure among that first generation of Americans to whom the national torch had been passed by the Founders. He enjoyed an unsurpassed career as an orator presenting soaring rhetoric with which he held his audiences spellbound over the course of forty years.
Everett has been relegated to second-tier status in American history for four reasons: the lack of a comprehensive biography about him until 1925, his gradualist approach to the slavery issue, misconceptions surrounding his address at the dedication ceremony at Gettysburg on November 19, 1863, and his failure in the view of some to produce a "great" book.
Everett came of age in "The Golden Age of American Oratory," that period from approximately 1820 to 1920 when oratory served as the new nation's primary medium of communication, and when many public orators became celebrities, some as famous as any celebrity in America today. Everett gave his first speech at the age of three. During the next fourteen years, he mastered the "science" of rhetoric and the "art" of oratory with the aid of mentors like John Quincy Adams, the first Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard University. Upon his graduation from Harvard in 1811, Edward Everett was fully prepared to become the nation's most illustrious public speaker, and as we shall see, he did.
Great orations in the nineteenth century are usually at the center of stories that are as entertaining and informative as the speeches themselves. Everett's speeches are no exception, surrounded as they are by compelling narratives that give us "snapshots in time" of a nation awakening to its destiny, struggling with its demons, celebrating its triumphs, and lamenting its failures. As America's premier public speaker, Everett reveals through his oratory the way that Americans of the time were addressed by the celebrated speakers of the day, and thus how they constructed their culture word by word.
The classical ages of Greece and Rome transformed American culture in the nineteenth century. The Greek Revival period, from approximately 1820 to 1870, provided the cultural subtext upon which America's intellectuals drew to construct the nation's identity and to set its course for generations to come. Edward Everett, as one of the pioneers of the classical revival, became the quintessential statesmen of the new America, its most public voice, and its herald to the world.