The Big Question: What was the greatest speech? The Economist's contributing editor, Johnny Grimond, picks Macaulay on Jewish Rights, 1833

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, July/August 2013

A great speaker will use rhetorical skills to reinforce the power of reason with a surge of emotion drawn from the hearts of his audience. This is what the historian Thomas Babington Macaulay did in the House of Commons on April 17th 1833 when, reformulating his maiden speech of three years earlier, he argued for the lifting of the last legal restrictions on Britain’s Jews, which forbade them to be Members of Parliament. Similar restrictions on Nonconformists and Roman Catholics had been abolished a few years earlier.

Macaulay’s approach was to take the arguments for maintaining the restrictions one by one and destroy each in turn. In doing so, he appealed to the common sense and the presumed decency of his audience, first making a generalisation, then giving examples.

"If there be any proposition universally true in politics it is this, that foreign attachments are the fruit of domestic misrule. It has always been the trick of bigots to make their subjects miserable at home, and then to complain that they look for relief abroad; to divide society, and to wonder that it is not united…If the Jews have not felt towards England like children, it is because she has treated them like a stepmother."

He pressed on with rolling paragraphs of vivid sentences. "England has been to the Jews less than half a country; and we revile them because they do not feel for England more than a half patriotism. We treat them as slaves and wonder that they do not regard us as brethren. We drive them to mean occupations and then reproach them for not embracing honourable professions. We long forbade them to possess land; and we complain that they chiefly occupy themselves in trade. We shut them out from all the paths of ambition; and then we despise them for taking refuge in avarice."

Then an analogy to drive the point home. "If all the red-haired people in Europe had, during centuries, been outraged and oppressed, banished from this place, imprisoned in that, deprived of their money, deprived of their teeth, convicted of the most improbable crimes on the feeblest evidence, dragged at horses’ tails, hanged, tortured, burned alive, if, when manners became milder, they had still been subject to debasing restrictions and exposed to vulgar insults, locked up in particular streets in some countries, pelted and ducked by the rabble in others, excluded every where from magistracies and honours, what would be the patriotism of gentlemen with red hair?"

The speech persuaded the House of Commons but not the House of Lords. The civil disabilities of the Jews were not removed until 1858. But in the intervening years all the ultimately ineffectual opposition was directed at Macaulay’s points, which are as apt and potent today as when they were first made.

Johnny Grimond is contributing editor for The Economist, a former foreign editor, and author of its "Style Guide"

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