By James Prichard
In today’s world of speechwriters, sound-bites and teleprompters, it seems traditional oratory is a dying art. Yet for most of the nation’s history, public speaking was widely regarded as a form of mass entertainment and a key to political prominence. “Eloquence,” as John Quincy Adams once wrote, “is power.”
During the golden age of American oratory statesmen such as Webster, Clay and Calhoun wrote their own speeches and held large audiences spellbound for hours. Although now largely forgotten, Thomas F. Marshall, a nephew of Chief Justice John Marshall, was widely regarded as the most gifted speaker Kentucky ever produced. His promising political career was cut short however when he challenged and was trounced in public debates by John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay. His political career never regained momentum after the early 1850’s. Nevertheless his oratorical powers kept him in the public eye throughout the nation until the eve of the Civil War.
So did his colorful exploits as a duelist, Mexican War officer and journalist. The Filson Historical Society holds an 1834 letter written by Aminta Beynroth of Louisville in which she describes the anguish Marshall’s mother felt when she learned her son was gravely wounded in a duel with John Rowan, Jr. Marshall also gained a wide reputation as a keen wit. During an 1860 lecture in Buffalo, New York he was repeatedly interrupted by a heckler who shouted, “Louder, Tom! Louder!” Finally Marshall paused and then solemnly predicted to the audience that on the great day of judgment, when the Archangel Gabriel sounds his mighty trumpet, some “damn fool from Buffalo” would still be shouting “Louder, Gabriel! Louder!”
Unable to overcome his lifelong struggle with alcohol, Marshall’s health and fortunes steadily declined until his death near Versailles in the fall of 1864. Yet he was long remembered as a learned, eloquent orator and one of Kentucky’s most brilliant failures.
On July 19, 2013 Filson Historical Society Assistant Curator James Prichard gave a lecture on Tom Marshall as part of the Filson Friday series. The Filson is in the process of making the Filson Friday lecture series available online for members.