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Old Man Eloquent

Personally, I prefer Henry, but I loved this anecdote. Unfortunately my editor did not agree.

In this genre I would also have to include a remark by John Quincy Adams in a moment of self-criticism so charming that it will console mumblers, blunderers, tongue-tanglers, hesitaters and embolaliasts everywhere. You should first know that Adams, the sixth American president, mastered seven languages, gave a weekly lecture in 1808 at Harvard on rhetoric (while serving as a senator from Massachusetts), and studied his books from dawn until late at night throughout his life. Known to his contemporaries as “Old Man Eloquent,” Adams (who was then a senator), wrote this in his journal in 1804:

“On this occasion, as on almost every other,” (we don’t know what the occasion was), “I felt most sensibly my deficiency as an extemporaneous speaker.

“In tracing this deficiency to its source, I find it arising from a cause that is irreparable. No efforts, no application on my part, can ever remove it.”

There’s no doubt that Adams’ educational achievements were more typical of American men of his rank at the end of the 18th century. He translated Aristotle from the Greek and read Cicero and Quintilian in French, English, and Latin. He read Demosthenes, Isaeus, Aeschines, Isocrates, all the models of eloquence in Homer, Thucydides, Sallust, and Livy, and the biographies of orators in Suetonius and Plutarch. At the age of 15, because of his excellent spoken French, he became a diplomat to France. In another diary entry, Adams wrote that if he were smarter, his diary would be, next to the Bible, “the most precious and valuable book ever written by human hands.” Not known for his modesty, he wasn’t known as an orator, either: his voice was dignified but shrill and sometimes piercing.

In the journal excerpt, Old Man Eloquent continued: “It is slowness of comprehension – an incapacity to grasp the whole compass of a subject in the mind at once with such an arrangement as leaves a proper impression of the detail – and incapacity to form ideas properly precise and definite with the rapidity necessary to give them uninterrupted utterance.”

I know exactly what you mean! I thought.

“My manner, therefore, is slow, hesitating and often confused. Sometimes, from inability to furnish the words to finish a thought commenced, I begin a sentence with propriety and end it with nonsense.”