The Debating Society

By Augustus Baldwin Longstreet

[This gem--taken from Georgia Scenes, an 1830s book by Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, a major figure in Southern letters & uncle to the General Longstreet who was Robert E. Lee's lieutenant--was considered 'one among the best things of the kind we have ever read,' by America's foremost literary critic, Edgar Allan Poe. We include it here not only for example of the very best in dry American humor, part of a collection of fine writing intended to illustrate aspects of an American cultural heritage, at our Literary Corner, but also to amuse and cheer any who pass this way.]

About three and twenty years ago, at the celebrated school in W_____n, was formed a Debating Society, composed of young gentlemen between the ages of seventeen and twenty-two. Of the number were two, who, rather from an uncommon volubility, than from any superior gifts or acquirements, which they possessed over their associates, were by common consent, placed at the head of the fraternity.--At least this was true of one of them: the other certainly had higher claims to his distinction. He was a man of the highest order of intellect, who, though he has since been known throughout the Union, as one of the ablest speakers in the country, seems to me to have added but little to his powers in debate, since he passed his twenty-second year. The name of the first, was Longworth; and McDermot was the name of the last. They were congenial spirits, warm friends, and classmates, at the time of which I am speaking.

It was a rule of the Society, that every member should speak upon the subjects chosen for discussion, or pay a fine; and as all the members valued the little stock of change, with which they were furnished, more than they did their reputation for oratory, not a fine had been imposed for a breach of this rule, from the organization of the society to this time.

The subjects for discussion were proposed by the members, and selected by the President, whose prerogative it was also to arrange the speakers on either side, at his pleasure; though in selecting the subjects, he was influenced not a little by the members who gave their opinions freely of those which were offered.

It was just as the time was approaching, when most of the members were to leave the society, some for college, and some for the busy scenes of life, that McDermot went to share his classmate's bed for a night. In the course of the evening's conversation, the society came upon the tapis. "Mac," said Longworth, "wouldn't we have rare sport, if we could impose a subject upon the society, which has no sense in it, and hear the members speak upon it?"

"Zounds," said McDermot, "it would be the finest fun in the world. Let's try it at all events--we can lose nothing by the experiment."

A sheet of foolscap was immediately divided between them, and they industriously commenced the difficult task of framing sentences, which should possess the form of a debatable question, without a particle of the substance.--After an hour's toil, they at length exhibited the fruits of their labor, and after some reflection, and much laughing, they selected, from about thirty subjects proposed, the following, as most likely to be received by the society:

"Whether at public elections, should the votes of faction predominate by internal suggestions or the bias of jurisprudence?"

Longworth was to propose it to the society, and McDermot was to advocate its adoption.--As they had every reason to suppose, from the practice of the past, that they would be placed at the head of the list of disputants, and on opposite sides, it was agreed between them, in case the experiment should succeed, that they would write off, and interchange their speeches, in order that each might quote literally from the other, and thus seem at least, to understand each other.

The day at length came for the triumph or defeat of the project; and several accidental circumstances conspired to crown it with success. The society had entirely exhausted their subjects; the discussion of the day had been protracted to an unusual length, and the horns of the several boarding-houses began to sound, just as it ended. It was at this auspicious moment, that Longworth rose, and proposed his subject. It was caught at with rapture by McDermot, as being decidedly the best that had ever been submitted; and he wondered that none of the members had ever thought of it before.

It was no sooner proposed, than several members exclaimed, that they did not understand it; and demanded an explanation from the mover. Longworth replied, that there was no time then for explanations, but that either himself or Mr. McDermot would explain it, at any other time.

Upon the credit of the maker and endorser, the subject was accepted; and under pretense of economising time, (but really to avoid a repetition of the question,) Longworth kindly offered to record it, for the Secretary. This labor ended, he announced that he was prepared for the arrangement of the disputants.

"Put yourself," said the President, "on the affirmative, and Mr. McDermot on the negative."

"The subject," said Longworth, "cannot well be resolved into an affirmative and negative. It consists more properly, of two conflicting affirmatives: I have therefore drawn out the heads, under which the speakers are to be arranged thus:"

Internal Suggestions.		      	    		Bias of  Jurisprudence. "

"Then put yourself Internal Suggestions--Mr. McDermot the other side. Mr. Craig on your side--Mr. Pentigall the other side," and so on.

McDermot and Longworth now determined that they would not be seen by any other member of the society during the succeeding week, except at times when explanations could not be asked, or when they were too busy to give them. Consequently, the week passed away, without any explanations; and the members were summoned to dispose of the important subject, with no other lights upon it than those which they could collect from its terms. When they assembled, there was manifest alarm on the countenances of all but two of them.

The Society was opened in due form, and Mr. Longworth was called on to open the debate. He rose and proceeded as follows:

"Mr. President--The subject selected for this day's discussion, is one of vast importance, pervading the profound depths of psychology, and embracing within its comprehensive range, all that is interesting in morals, government, law and politics. But, sir, I shall not follow it through all its interesting and diversified ramifications; but endeavor to deduce from it those great and fundamental principles, which have direct bearing, upon the antagonist positions of the disputants; confining myself more immediately to its psychological influence when exerted, especially upon the votes of faction: for here is the point upon which the question mainly turns. In the next place, I shall consider the effects of those 'suggestions' emphatically termed 'internal' when applied to the same subject. And in the third place, I shall compare these effects, with 'the bias of jurisprudence,' considered as the only resort in times of popular excitement--for these are supposed to exist by the very terms of the question.

"The first head of this arrangement, and indeed the whole subject of dispute, has already been disposed of by this society. We have discussed the question, 'are there any innate maxims?' and with that subject and this, there is such an intimate affinity, that it is impossible to disunite them, without prostrating the vital energies of both, and introducing the wildest disorder and confusion, where, by the very nature of things, there exist the most harmonious coincidences, and the most happy and euphonic congenialities. Here then might I rest, Mr. President, upon the decision of this society, with perfect confidence. But, sir, I am not forced to rely upon the inseparable affinities of the two questions, for success in this dispute, obvious as they must be to every reflecting mind. All history, ancient and modern, furnish examples corroborative of the views which I have taken of this deeply interesting subject. By what means did the renowned poets, philosophers, orators and statesmen of antiquity, gain their immortality? Whence did Milton, Shakespeare, Newton, Locke, Watts, Paley, Burke, Chatham, Pitt, Fox, and a host of others whom I might name, pluck their never-fading laurels? I answer boldly, and without the fear of contradiction, that, though they all reached the temple of fame by different routes, they all passed through the broad vista of 'internal suggestions.' The same may be said of Jefferson, Madison, and many other distinguished personages of our own country.

"I challenge the gentlemen on the other side to produce examples like these in support of their cause."

Mr. Longworth pressed these profound and logical views to a length to which our limits will not permit us to follow him, and which the reader's patience would hardly bear, if they would. Perhaps, however, he will bear with us, while we give the conclusion of Mr. Longworth's remarks: as it was here, that he put forth all his strength:

"Mr. President,--Let the bias of jurisprudence predominate, and how is it possible, (considering it merely as extending to those impulses which may with propriety be termed a bias,) how is it possible, for a government to exist, whose object is the public good? The marble hearted marauder might seize the throne of civil authority, and hurl into thraldom the votaries of rational liberty. Virtue, justice and all the nobler principles of human nature, would wither away under the pestilential breath of political faction, and an unnerved constitution be left to the sport of demagogue and parasite. Crash after crash would be heard in quick succession, as the strong pillars of the republic gave way, and Despotism would shout in hellish triumph amidst the crumbling ruins--Anarchy would wave her bloody sceptre over the devoted land, and the blood-hounds of civil war, would lap the crimson gore of our most worthy citizens. The shrieks of women, and the screams of children, would be drowned amidst the clash of swords, and the cannon's peal: and Liberty, mantling her face from the horrid scene, would spread her golden-tinted pinions, and wing her flight to some far distant land, never again to re-visit our peaceful shores. In vain should we then sigh for the beatific reign of those 'suggestions' which I am proud to acknowledge as peculiarly and exclusively 'internal.' "

Mr. McDermott rose promptly at the call of the President, and proceeded as follows:

"Mr. President,--If I listened unmoved to the very labored appeal to the passions, which has just been made, it was not because I am insensible to the powers of eloquence; but because I happen to be blessed with the small measure of sense, which is necessary to distinguish true eloquence from the wild ravings of an unbridled imagination. Grave and solemn appeals, when ill-timed and misplaced, are apt to excite ridicule; hence it was, that I detected myself more than once, in open laughter, during the most pathetic parts of Mr. Longworth's argument, if so it can be called. [This was extemporaneous, and well conceived; for Mr. McDermot had not played his part with becoming gravity.]

"In the midst of 'crashing pillars,' 'crumbling ruins,' 'shouting despotism,' 'screaming women,' and 'flying Liberty,' the question was perpetually recurring to me, 'what has all this to do with the subject of dispute?' I will not follow the example of that gentleman--It shall be my endeavor to clear away the mist which he has thrown around the subject, and to place it before the society, in a clear, intelligible point of view: for I must say, that though his speech 'bears strong marks of the pen,' (sarcastically,) it has but few marks of sober reflection. Some of it, I confess, is very intelligible and very plausible; but most of it, I boldly assert, no man living can comprehend. I mention this, for the edification of that gentleman, (who is usually clear and forcible,) to teach him, that he is most successful when he labors least.

"Mr. President: The gentleman, in opening the debate, stated that the question was one of vast importance; pervading the profound depths of psychology, and embracing, within its ample range, the whole circle of arts and sciences. And really, sir, he has verified his statement; for he has extended it over the whole moral and physical world. But, Mr. President, I take leave to differ from the gentleman, at the very threshold of his remarks. The subject is one which is confined within very narrow limits. It extends no further than to the elective franchise, and is not even commensurate with this important privilege; for it stops short at the vote of faction. In this point of light, the subject comes within the grasp of the most common intellect; it is plain, simple, natural and intelligible.

Thus viewing it, Mr. President, where does the gentleman find in it, or in all nature besides, the original of the dismal picture which he has presented to the society? It loses all its interest, and becomes supremely ridiculous. Having thus, Mr. President, divested the subject of all obscurity--having reduced it to those few elements, with which we are all familiar; I proceed to make a few deductions from the premises, which seem to me inevitable, and decisive of the question. Play it down as a self-evident proposition, that faction in all its forms, is hideous; and I maintain, with equal confidence, that it never has been, nor ever will be, restrained by those suggestions, which the gentleman 'emphatically terms internal.' No, sir, nothing short of the bias, and the very strong bias too, of jurisprudence or the potent energies of the sword, can restrain it. But, sir, I shall here, perhaps, be asked, whether there is not a very wide difference between a turbulent, lawless faction, and the vote of faction? Most unquestionably there is; and to this distinction I shall presently advert and demonstrably prove that it is a distinction, which makes altogether in our favor."

Thus did Mr. McDermot continue to dissect and expose his adversary's argument, in the most clear, conclusive and masterly manner, at considerable length. But we cannot deal more favorably by him, than we have dealt by Mr. Longworth. We must, therefore, dismiss him, after we shall have given the reader his concluding remarks. They were as follows:

"Let us now suppose Mr. Longworth's principles brought to the test of experiment. Let us suppose his language addressed to all mankind--We close the temples of justice as useless; we burn our codes of laws as worthless; and we substitute in their places, the more valuable restraints of internal suggestions. Thieves, invade not your neighbor's property: if you do, you will be arraigned before the august tribunal of conscience. Robbers, stay your lawless hand; or you will be visited with the tremendous penalties of psychology. Murderers, spare the blood of your fellow creatures; you will be exposed to the excruciating tortures of innate maxims--when it shall be discovered that there are any.

"Mr. President, could there be a broader license to crime than this? Could a better plan be devised for dissolving the bands of civil society? It requires not the gift of prophecy, to foresee the consequences of these novel and monstrous principles. The strong would tyrannize over the weak; the poor would plunder the rich; the servant would rise above the master; the drones of society would fatten upon the hard earnings of the industrious. Indeed, sir, industry would soon desert the land; for it would have neither reward nor encouragement. Commerce would cease; the arts and sciences would languish; all the sacred relations would be dissolved, and scenes of havoc, dissolution and death ensue, such as never before visited the world, and such as never will visit it, until mankind learn to repose their destinies upon 'those suggestions, emphatically termed internal.' From all these evils there is a secure retreat behind the brazen wall of the 'bias of jurisprudence.' "

The gentleman who was next called on to engage in the debate, was John Craig; a gentleman of good hard sense, but who was utterly incompetent to say a word upon a subject which he did not understand. He proceeded thus:

"Mr. President,--When this subject was proposed, I candidly confessed I did not understand it, and I was informed by Mr. Longworth and Mr. McDermot, that either of them would explain it, at any leisure moment. But, sir, they seem to have taken very good care, from that time to this, to have no leisure moment. I have inquired of both of them, repeatedly for an explanation; but they were always too busy to talk about it. Well, sir, as it was proposed by Mr. Longworth, I thought he would certainly explain it in his speech; but I understood no more of his speech than I did of the subject. Well, sir, I thought I should certainly learn something from Mr. McDermot; especially as he promised at the commencement of his speech to clear away the mist that Mr. Longworth had thrown about the subject, and to place it in a clear, intelligible point of light. But, sir, the only difference between his speech and Mr. Longworth's is, that it was not quite as flighty as Mr. Longworth's. I couldn't understand head nor tail of it.

"At one time they seemed to argue the question, as if it were this: 'Is it better to have law or no law?' At another, as though it was, 'should factions be governed by law, or be left to their own consciences?' But most of the time they argued it, as if it were just what it seems to be--a sentence without sense or meaning. But, sir, I suppose its obscurity is owing to my dullness of apprehension, for they appeared to argue it with great earnestness and feeling, as if they understood it.

"I shall put my interpretation upon it, Mr. President, and argue it accordingly.

" 'Whether at public elections'--that is, for members of Congress, members of the Legislature, &c. 'should the votes of faction'--I don't know what 'faction' has got to do with it; and therefore I shall throw it out. 'Should the votes predominate, by internal suggestions or the bias,' I don't know what the article is put in here for. It seems to me, it ought to be, be biased by 'jurisprudence' or law. In short, Mr. President, I understand the question to be, should a man vote as he pleases, or should the law say how he should vote?"

Here Mr. Longworth rose and observed, that though Mr. Craig was on his side, he felt it due to their adversaries, to state, that this was not a true exposition of the subject. This exposition settled the question at once on his side; for nobody would, for a moment contend, that the law should declare how men should vote. Unless it be confined to the vote of faction and the bias of jurisprudence, it was no subject at all. To all this Mr. McDermot signified his unqualified approbation; and seemed pleased with the candor of his opponent.

"Well," said Mr. Craig, "I thought it was impossible that any one should propose such a question as that to the society; but will Mr. Longworth tell us, if it does not mean that, what does it mean? for I don't see what great change is made in it by his explanation."

Mr. Longworth replied, that if the remarks which he had just made, and his argument, had not fully explained the subject to Mr. Craig, he feared it would be out of his power to explain it.

"Then," said Mr. Craig, "I'll pay my fine, for I don't understand a word of it."

The next one summoned to the debate was Mr. Pentigall. Mr. Pentigall was one of those who would never acknowledge his ignorance of any thing, which any person else understood; and that Longworth and McDermot were both masters of the subject, was clear, both in their fluency and seriousness. He therefore determined to understand it, at all hazards. Consequently he rose at the President's command, with considerable self-confidence. I regret, however, that it is impossible to commit Mr. Pentigall's manner to papers, without which, his remarks lose nearly all their interest. He was a tall, handsome man; a little theatric in his manner, rapid in his delivery, and singular in his pronunciation. He gave to the e and i, of our language, the sound of u--at least his peculiar intonations of voice, seemed to give them that sound; and his rapidity of utterance seemed to change the termination, "tion" into "ah." With all his peculiarities, however, he was a fine fellow. If he was ambitious, he was not invidious, and he possessed an amicable disposition. He proceeded as follows:

"Mr. President,--This internal suggestion which has been so eloquently discussed by Mr. Longworth, and the bias of jurisprudence which has been so ably advocated by Mr. McDermot--hem! Mr. President, in order to fix the line of demarkation between--ah--the internal suggestion and the bias of jurisprudence--Mr. President, I think, sir, that--ah--the subject must be confined to the vote of faction, and the bias of jurisprudence"--

Here Mr. Pentigall clapt his right hand to his forehead, as though he had that moment heard some overpowering news; and after maintaining this position for about the space of ten seconds, he slowly withdrew his hand, gave his head a slight inclination to the right, raised his eyes to the President as if just awakening from a trance, and with a voice of the most hopeless despair, concluded with "I don't understand the subject, Muster Prusidunt."

The rest of the members on both sides submitted to be fined rather than attempt the knotty subject; but by common consent, the penal rule was dispensed with. Nothing now remained to close the exercises, but the decision of the Chair.

The President, John Nuble, was a young man, not unlike Craig in his turn of mind; though he possessed an intellect a little more sprightly than Craig's. His decision was short.

"Gentlemen," said he, "I do not understand the subject. This," continued he, (pulling out his knife, and pointing to the silvered or cross side of it,) "is 'Internal Suggestions.' And this" (pointing to the other, or pile side,) is 'Bias of Jurisprudence:' " so saying, he threw up his knife, and upon its fall, determined that "Internal Suggestions" had got it; and ordered the decision to be registered accordingly.

It is worthy of note, that in their zeal to accomplish their purpose, Longworth and McDermot forgot to destroy the list of subjects, from which they had selected the one so often mentioned; and one of these lists containing the subject discussed, with a number more like it, was picked up by Mr. Craig, who made a public exhibition of it, threatening to arraign the conspirators before the society, for contempt. But, as the parting hour was at hand, he overlooked it with the rest of the brotherhood, and often laughed heartily at the trick.






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