It was a surprise, on reading Speeches of Note, to find myself laughing and chuckling at the speech of a Kentucky congressman of whom I’d never heard on a subject of little interest to the rest of the world. Yet it is such a gem of effective persuasion, brilliant construction and escalating hilarity that I happily went over it again.
The speaker was James Proctor Knott in 1871, opposing the use of federal land in his district for a new railroad that would terminate in the backwater of Duluth. He did so by means of an exaggerated and sarcastic description of the wonders of that little town. Duluth, he explained, was shown on a map provided for the debate,
[to be] situated halfway exactly between the latitudes of Paris and Venice, so that gentlemen who have inhaled the exhilarating airs of the one or basked in the golden sunlight of the other must see at a glance that Duluth must be a place of untold delights, a terrestrial paradise, fanned by the balmy zephyrs of an eternal spring, clothed in the gorgeous sheen of ever-blooming flowers, and vocal with the silver melody of nature’s choicest songsters
whereas in fact it was in a place ‘cold enough for at least nine months in the year to freeze the smoke-stack off a locomotive’.
Knott’s destruction of railroad legislation through an avalanche of ironic praise is one of many oratorical delights contained within this fascinating and well-presented volume. A book of speeches can easily be a stodgy and indigestible product, but Shaun Usher has put together a collection of many efforts that arouse emotion, mirth or wonder.
I found the most moving to be the speech of the 16-year-old Ryan White, a haemophiliac who contracted Aids from a blood transfusion, and was heartlessly ostracised by his school and community.