Wandering around the historic district of Philadelphia one day, I found myself at Independence Hall just as its Centennial bell struck the hour. Resonant, pear-shaped tones floated over the sunlit trees, making impromptu music with songbirds. I imagined other sounds that once rang out across the square from open windows—voices in heated debate over details of the Constitution, for example. What did they sound like?
Did those men speak eloquently, crafting arguments with precision and care? Or was their speech peppered with “um” and “uh?” Did they talk as quickly as we do today, or with deliberate, careful enunciation?
Did the manner in which they wrote, with an ink-dipped quill, influence their rate of speech? Did they speak slowly, in a rhythmic reflection of their penmanship? Even writing as quickly as possible, they couldn’t begin to approach the rate at which we can type on a modern keyboard. And that thought leads me to this question: Do we talk fast in part because we write fast?
Recently I had a student who spoke as fast as any lawyer I’ve ever heard, and that’s saying something. Listening to her, I had a moment of insight that her rate of speech was a reflection of the speed of her busy life—writing and typing quickly, running to meetings, hurrying to court, multitasking, racing from one activity to another.
Modern lawyers certainly can talk fast—sometimes I think they are speeding up with each passing year. They tell me they’re afraid of leaving something out, or being cut off by opposing counsel, or even that they’ll be seen as unintelligent if words don’t gush out of their mouths in a flood-swollen torrent. It’s less important that the ideas are well-formed, it seems, than that they keep flowing.
Would we all slow down if our topics were as weighty as the Declaration of Independence?
Alas, we will never actually hear what those voices sounded like in that famous room in Philadelphia. Maybe it’s because they are all fixed in paintings and statues, mute and unmoving, that we assign to them speaking styles resplendent with passion and persuasion, delivered at a ponderous pace calculated to reverberate for centuries.
Go ahead, imagine Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson talking really, really fast. And don’t forget the “ums.” Funny, huh?
I’m interested to find historical accounts of what the 18th-century debate might have sounded like. In John Adams, by David McCullough, we read that Adams spoke with deliberate care, delivering eloquent extemporaneous sentences. Was that the norm? Let me know if you have a good reference.