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In respect to the discussion and management of questions in general, we have elsewhere* spoken; but there is a class of questions frequently coming up, that seem specially proper to be noticed in this place. I mean questions relating to the provisions, limitations and restrictions, made and imposed in the Constitution and By-Lawsf of the Society.
Discussions of this kind, though often avoided, as irksome and profitless, are, when rightly managed, not only interesting, but often highly beneficial. They serve to induce thought in relation to the nature of those fundamental laws and powers in a community, under which, and in conformity with which, all other laws and powers whatever must be made and exercised: dispelling the vagueness that, in youthful minds, almost always attaches to the idea of a Constitution, and habituating them to consider the various distinctions and relations indicated, when we speak of Constitutional, Legislative, Judicial, and Executive powers. It must not, therefore, be thought a waste of time properly to discuss, interpret, and rigidly apply the provisions and requisitions of the Constitution and the By-Laws; for out of this practice may come habits of mind of the highest service in subsequent life.
* See page 132.
f The relation of By-Laws to the Constitution is "well indicated in the derivation of the term. The term by-law or bye-law is made up of the word law, and the Danish by or bye, which means a town: the combination meaning, literally, a town-law. Hence, it signifies generally, a special, or particular law, made by a corporation, or other association to regulate such of their affairs as are not provided for by the general, or constitutional law of the land. By-laws, therefore, confer no new powers, but rather regulate the exercise of those already in existence. For the form of a Constitution and ByLaws for a Debating Society, see Section XIV.
Another hint, proper here to be given, is, that, as the object of the Society is the moral and intellectual improvement of its members, no one should be impatient of criticism. Candid criticism cannot be too highly appreciated; that criticism, I mean, that aims to discriminate between the right and the wrong, the good and the bad, the beauties and the deformities of a literary performance. Such criticism, and none other, should ever be indulged, should be sought, not shunned; for by that are we enabled to see and to hear ourselves somewhat, as others see and hear us, and so to follow more closely the path that leads to improvement.
Were it necessary to produce examples illustrative of the beneficial influence of debating societies, it would be no difficult task to cite many great names,—names of men who, in early life, eagerly availed themselves of the advantages of organizations of this nature. The able and dignified Lord Mansfield, for instance, found in a debating society, wherein many legal questions were discussed, the motive to those extensive and accurate preparations which, in subsequent years, became so highly valuable in his illustrious career.
Edmund Burke, perhaps, the greatest deliberative orator that ever appeared on the floor of the British House of Commons, is known to have sought discipline in the matter of public speaking, in the exercises of a debating society.
Charles Fox, who, according to Burke, rose "by slow degrees to be the most brilliant and accomplished debater the world ever saw," was so sensible of tlie advantage of regular and frequent practice, that he actually turned the House of Commons into a sort of Debating Club for his own personal benefit; that is, he often entered earnestly, as he himself confesses, into the discussion of questions which involved for him no other or higher interest than that of affording discipline in debate.
Curran, the most unpromising of all aspirants after fame in oratory, (Demosthenes not excepted,) derived from debating societies the stimulus and the discipline by which, in great measure, he ultimately took rank among the first of orators. Awkward and ungainly in gesture, hasty and inarticulate in utterance, he labored long and labored hard, with no other result, apparently, than that of earning the titles, "Stuttering Jack" and " Orator Mum." But his failures were really only so many pledges of success; for the process of improvement, silent, but sure, was all the while going steadily on.
Henry Clay, a name that at once awakens the recollection of everything that is, either forceful, or fascinating in deliberative eloquence, gained, as is well known, no small advantage from his active participation in the exercises of a debating society.
But further specification is needless. Eeason and experience alike attest the value of well-regulated bodies of this description; and he is not wise, who disregards testimony so important and so conclusive.
MANAGEMENT OF A QUESTION.
|~N all cases, where time is allowed for tlie study of a -*- question previously to its actual discussion, it is, of course, the dictate of wisdom to consider carefully beforehand how it should be managed.
Discussion * implies thorough investigation. It cannot be effected without labor; but, when properly done, it amply repays the laborer, by establishing in him those habits of inquiry and discrimination, which are constantly demanded in the questions of real life. In order to aid the young debater in the work of preparation, we offer the following general directions.f
Of all the sources of idle discussion, imprecision in the use of language is, perhaps, the most prolific. Hence, the first step towards the right management of a question, is to clear it of all verbal obscurity, that is, put it in language the plainest and most precise practicable.
* The word discussion, is from the Latin discutio, which is itself made up of Dis, apart, and Quatio, to shake: signifying, of course, the shaking apart, that is, the thorough sifting, or examination of a subject.
f These directions, though they embrace some things that have regard to the manner and bearing of a debater towards his opponent, do not, and are not intended to cover the ground occupied by what is usually treated of under the head of the "Order of Debate." For remarks, therefore, on the use of personalities and other indecorous conduct in debate, see page 123 and following.
But a question may be stated in a manner sufficiently intelligible, and, after all, be misunderstood, or not understood at all, for want of reasonable regard to the meaning, or application of particular terms. A second direction, therefore, not less important than the first, is to ascertain by study the exact signification of every leading term in the question. Dr. Watts, in speaking on this subject, says:—"This is so necessary a thing, that, without it, men will be exposed to such sort of ridiculous contests, as was found one day between two unlearned combatants, Sartor and Sutor, who assaulted and defended the doctrine of Transubstantiation with much zeal and violence. But Latino happening to come into their company, and inquiring the subject of their dispute, asked each of them what he meant by that long, hard word Transubstantiation, Sutor readily informed him, that he understood it bowing at the name of Jesus. But Sartor assured him, that he meant nothing but bowing at the high altar. 'No wonder,' then said Latino, c that you cannot agree, when you neither understand one another, nor the word about which you contend.'"
The world has always been full of Sartors and Sutors, that is, people fond of debate, but often "understanding neither what they say, nor whereof they affirm.2'* He that will not study to avoid their error, can never reasonably hope to be a good debater. * 1 Timothy, ch. i., v. 9.