There were giants in those days …

whiskey bottles

Listening to the babbling and braying emanating from elected officials today one pines for the days of classical antiquity when rhetoric was seen as an essential part a quality education.

There’s no doubt that effective communication – particularly public speaking – has waned in recent decades as leaders of all stripes have sought to tailor remarks (in dumbed-down fashion, in many instances) for television cameras, news reporters and, most recently, Twitter feeds.

The problem is, elegant discourse rarely comes in 140 characters or less. Sometimes, you actually have to give a real genuine speech in order to get a point across.

That also means you often have to listen to an entire talk to get its full meaning, or to understand the genius behind it.

Case in point is a brief speech delivered by a young Mississippi lawmaker in 1952.

Noah S. “Soggy” Sweat, finishing his first and only term in the Mississippi Legislature, delivered what became known as the “Whiskey Speech.”

Although Prohibition had been repealed by the 21st Amendment to the Constitution in 1933, states still had the right to restrict or ban the sale of alcohol.

Mississippi was among states which had opted to continue prohibition after the 21st Amendment was passed. However, the state collected what was called a “black market” tax on alcohol totaling millions of dollars annually, according to the Jackson Clarion Ledger.

State lawmakers were debating the merits of legalizing alcohol consumption when Sweat, still in his 20s, delivered a masterful example of political doublespeak, also known as the “If By Whiskey” speech:

My friends, I had not intended to discuss this controversial subject at this particular time. However, I want you to know that I do not shun controversy. On the contrary, I will take a stand on any issue at any time, regardless of how fraught with controversy it might be. You have asked me how I feel about whiskey. All right, here is how I feel about whiskey:

Noah S. 'Soggy' Sweat

Noah S. ‘Soggy’ Sweat

If, when you say whiskey, you mean the devil’s brew, the poison scourge, the bloody monster, that defiles innocence, dethrones reason, destroys the home, creates misery and poverty, yea, literally takes the bread from the mouths of little children; if you mean the evil drink that topples the Christian man and woman from the pinnacle of the righteous, gracious living into the bottomless pit of degradation, and despair, and shame and helplessness, and hopelessness, then certainly I am against it.

But, if, when you say whiskey, you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine, the ale that is consumed when good fellows get together, that puts a song in their hearts and laughter on their lips, and the warm glow of contentment in their eyes; if you mean Christmas cheer; if you mean the stimulating drink that puts the spring in the old gentleman’s step on a frosty, crisp morning; if you mean the drink which enables a man to magnify his joy, and his happiness, and to forget, if only for a little while, life’s great tragedies, and heartaches, and sorrows; if you mean that drink, the sale of which pours into our treasuries untold millions of dollars, which are used to provide tender care for our little crippled children, our blind, our deaf, our dumb, our pitiful aged and infirm; to build highways and hospitals and schools, than certainly I am for it.

That is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise.

It is said that Sweat spent more than two months working on his speech. That he devoted considerable time is evident from its smooth phrasing and elegant contrasting points, all of which enabled him to avoid taking a stand.

It’s also apparent that Sweat likely overmatched his colleagues while in the Mississippi Legislature. He would go on a distinguished career as a district attorney, judge and professor at the University of Mississippi before dying in 1996.

Years after the Whiskey Speech, a young law student named John Grisham, who would go on to much greater fame as an author than an attorney, clerked for Sweat.

In this clip Grisham not only provides some background for his experiences with Sweat, but also recites Sweat’s “If By Whiskey” speech. It’s worth the time.

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7 thoughts on “There were giants in those days …

  1. Wonderful little nugget. On one of the shelves of my library at home there are several old text books on rhetoric. These were printed in the early 1900s and several times I went thru them for study. It was not something taught when I was in H.S. Watching some of the group panels on ‘news’ channels it was not taught at their school either.Thanks for the history lesson today.

  2. “Watching some of the group panels on ‘news’ channels it was not taught at their schools either.”

    Ha! I love that comment. Unfortunately, it is readily apparent that rhetoric, along with have an ability to express one’s thoughts clearly and concisely in written form, is an endangered art.

    Thanks for the comment and the laugh.

  3. Eloquence, accuracy and intelligence seem to be gems of the past. Don’t you know you are getting old when you start to think like that? I cringe reading and listening to some of current day journalism. Or reading books. I can’t think of a modern book (eg 20 years or so) that I haven’t read recently without spelling errors. Why can’t people proof read any more? It’s all the same. They are all symptoms of a similar disease. Superficiality. Here today, gone tomorrow.

    I don’t tweet. I really doesn’t suit my style. Which is why I have just written 2500 words on getting married 😀

    But to go back to Sweat, it is a clever speech. The first part reminded me of gambling. But would there be a second equivalent part if you were writing about gambling I wondered? The first paragraph is about an addiction, wherein the two are similar. But I wonder what are the pros of gambling apart from the thrill and the risk?

    • I suppose other “benefits” of gambling might be state-backed lotteries that raise money for education, raffles by churches and civic organizations that enable them to expand and/or provide services that they wouldn’t have been able to offer otherwise and simply the right to do with one’s money what one wants.

      Of course, here in the states, legal gambling is limited to a very few select areas unless it is offered by the state itself (such as a lottery).

      It’s funny you mention the part about spelling errors in modern books. At some point in the past five years I began noticing them and now, as you noted, it’s practically impossible to read a newly released book that doesn’t have a spelling error. The difference is the same as with newspapers, where 25 years ago someone in the layout room would read the copy as it was being pasted onto the dummy pages and catching any errors, today if a single copy editor doesn’t catch them on the screen, they makes it into the paper.

      Don’t get me started on texting. When I see a group of people at, say, a restaurant table and they’re all texting away, or scrolling through who knows what on their “devices,” I feel like going over, flipping the table over and rousing them from their tech-induced stupor.

      • Well re gambling, you could argue that public services should be adequately funded anyway, without having to raise extra money, but state funding re additional funding is another topic. I see no benefit in gambling such as – putting money into a fruit machine? Playing on-line poker? I can at least acknowledge a decent malt whisky. I do play cards – but to win, not for money. On the rare occasion I’ve done it for – low – stakes, I’ve usually won.

        Don’t start me on the Safe Port Act (2006) and the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act. More on the theme of addiction v money. Or rather money and who cares about addiction?

        Back in my early journo days we used tripewriters. Although not technically our job, we also got the proofs back when the pages had been set. I loved proof-reading! When I went to union meetings I would call off at the paper at night and chat to the comps (compositors) and look at what they were doing out of sheer interest. And see if I could spot anything they had missed 😀

        Later, with computers, we still had comps. Fewer of them, but I still wandered into their department to chat and have a look at the proofs.

        As for books, it really jars. I’ve got ancient books without a single error. What they should actually be doing is printing off hard copy proofs to go through with a pen. The eye doesn’t register errors on screen as well as on paper. That’s why we all make errors in our blogposts and comments. See it in hard copy and it stands out a mile.

        Texting in public rarely applies to me. I might email when I’m waiting for a bus. That’s about it. We all managed perfectly well before without all this inane drivel.

      • If I have important work, I always print it and proof it, then have someone else do the same; you’ll never catch all your mistakes on a computer.

        Re: Gambling. Never really understood the thrill of potentially losing money I’d had to work so darn hard to get in the first place. Card games are at least enjoyable in that they involve some mental acuity, but random games of chance such as roulette and slots – I don’t get it.

      • I think we are from the same mould. I’ll print draft emails before I send them when they are important, let alone letters.

        Card games (dominoes, chess, draughts) are intellectual, even the bluffing is fun – but games of chance? 😦

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