Early records of the Speaking Club
Extent.24 cubic feet (4 volumes)
A substantial portion of each volume is dedicated to meeting minutes, or "journals." These minutes include little information about the topics of oration at the meetings, but rather describe the various fines and other punishments assessed for absences and other offenses towards the club, votes, the assignment of committees to address various concerns (including the formation of a committee of two responsible for returning the club podium to Cambridge from Concord following its removal during the American Revolutionary War), the material needs of the club (the podium, candlesticks, curtains, a place to convene in secret, books for the library), the election of officers, and other routine administrative matters. All of the volumes also contain financial entries, noting cash received from fines and other sources and cash paid for books and other necessities.
Volumes 1 and 2 of this collection include significant information about the subjects of the orations at each meeting; Volumes 3 and 4 do not include this information in separate entries, although similar information is sometimes alluded to in meeting minutes. The notations about subject matter in volumes 1 and 2 include lists of speakers' names and the titles and/or sources of their orations. The members spoke on a range of topics, sometimes based on original compositions and sometimes on readings of others' works. Among the noted subjects of the performances were "On the pernicious practice [of] drinking tea" (October 9, 1770), "Picture of a Tory" (December 10, 1770), passages from Shakespeare's plays (the soliloquies of Hamlet and Macbeth were popular), "A poetical essay on a certain provincial Governor" (March 17, 1772), "An elegy written when a long course of ill health threatened the Author with a consumption" (June 9, 1772), "On Liberty" (March 16, 1773), "On Slavery" (April 6, 1773), "On quack doctors" (March 1, 1774), "The speech of a free Negro to the revolted slaves in the West Indies" (April 4, 1775), "A prophecy of the future glory of America" (March 26, 1778), "The Dying Negro" (February 26 and September 30, 1784), and "[George] Littleton's speech upon the Jew bill" (March 23, 1786). Beauty, women, happiness, death, fame, laughter, gardens, astronomy, and religion were also popular topics for orations, as were Edward Young's Night thoughts on life, death, and immortality, James Burgh's The Art of Speaking, Cato, John Milton, Socrates (presumably based on works by Plato), John Hervey, Alexander Pope, William Enfield, Cicero, General Wolfe's speech to his army, and a range of other sources. Speakers also performed extracts from periodical publications, including The London Magazine,The Spectator, The Guardian,The Entertainer, and The Preceptor.
According to the minutes, there was a notable decline in the quality of the oratory during the first decade of the nineteenth century, and attendance diminished. A so-called Warning Committee was established on August 19, 1805, and a March 18, 1806 entry describes that evening's meeting as "rather dull and languid." On December 1, 1806, it was noted that "the usual performances [...] were few in number and displayed little of the fire & persuasive force of eloquence." By August 17, 1812, though, the quality of the orations appears to have improved. In an entry made that day, the records state, in reference to Orville Holley, the evening's first speaker: "he thundered -- he lightened in the true Demosthenean stile."
- Official Guide to Harvard University, edited by the Harvard Memorial Society (Cambridge, Mass.: 1907).
- The Harvard book : a series of historical, biographical, and descriptive sketches by various authors, collected and published by F.O. Vaille and H.A. Clark (Cambridge: Welch, Bigelow, and Company, 1875).
Preservation and description of the Early records of the Speaking Club was supported by the Arcadia-funded project Harvard in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.
- Speaking Club (Harvard University). Early records of the Speaking Club, 1770-1813: an inventory
- EAD ID
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Holding nearly four centuries of materials, the Harvard University Archives is the principal repository for the institutional records of Harvard University and the personal archives of Harvard faculty, as well as collections related to students, alumni, Harvard-affiliates and other associated topics. The collections document the intellectual, cultural, administrative and social life of Harvard and the influence of the University as it emerged across the globe.
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