The Price Was Right

The Gist: America was founded by free trade radicals in a costly revolution.

A review of Clashing over Commerce by Douglas A. Irwin.

Have you ever wondered what was the price of American freedom in 1776?

Bob Barker

Figure 1. “Here is the first item up for bids today: it’s an exciting trip to liberty! You and guests will ride one-way for a multiple century luxury stay courtesy of the Continental Army! And that trip goes to the one of you who bids nearest to the retail price without going over…”


Over the 8 years of the Revolutionary War, the new citizens suffered a “sharp decline in real per capita income, nearly as severe as the reduction during the Great Depression of the early 1930s.”’

The Revolution, in short, was an economic disaster. And independence from our now bitter largest trading partner only further complicated matters. Today we review the first part of Douglas Irwin’s magisterial history of American trade relations, Clashing over Commerce, and discover how our relationship with Britain dominated the economics of the early United States as well as how the Founders set up the first of three eras of American tariff policy.

Sugar Cube

Figure 2. Actually, we might have been more bitter: after the Revolution, our sugar trade was much curtailed.


From an economic point of view, life in America before the Revolution was pretty darn good. Incredibly, “real per capita income in the colonies was at least 50 percent higher than in England between 1700 and 1774.” The colonies had long been dependent on trade to provide things difficult to acquire on the frontier and Great Britain actively subsidized key products like gunpowder and silk “that lowered their price to American consumers.” Irwin quotes other economic historians: “Whatever the costs of membership in the British Empire, they were largely offset by the benefits: naval protection; access to a large free-trading area; easy credit and cheap manufactures; and restricted foreign competition.” Furthermore, in the years leading up to the Revolution, Great Britain had financed the French and Indian War, which did little long term about the Indians but practically eliminated from North America the principal European security threat. As a result, Britain’s debt increased over 2/3 and servicing it required over half of the British annual budget while maintaining a standing army in North America “amounted to [an additional] nearly 4 percent.” Which made America’s taxation relevant: Grover Norquist concludes that Americans were paying a fraction of what Brits were and “by 1775, the British government was consuming one-fifth of its citizens’ GDP, while New Englanders were only paying between 1 and 2 percent of their income in taxes.

revolutionary soldier

Figure 3. That’s what America is all about: if we ever have to pay more than 2% of our income in taxes, we revolt! 


Inauspiciously for Great Britain, there were two powerful (though relatively small) groups that felt adversely affected by British trade policies: Virginia tobacco farmers (like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson) and Boston merchants (like John Hancock and the clients of John Adams). Their principal initial objection was to a costly, inefficient, mercantilist British law that required about 20% of imports and 75% of exports to first stop in Britain (or in some cases, the West Indies) before proceeding to their final destination. The merchants were upset that “this artificial routing through Britain involved extra fees, commissions, warehouse rents, and transportation costs and is estimated to have raised the costs of imports of European and Asian goods by about 20 percent.” The Virginians understood that “if tobacco… could be sold directly to European customers, the income of tobacco planters would have been anywhere from 15 to 35 percent higher.

British leaders thought it perfectly reasonable for the rich colonies to help pay for their defense and tried to impose new taxes that were common at home and would have paid for less than half of the expense of maintaining the standing army in North America. But those taxes – the infamous Stamp Act on printed materials, more trade duties – were especially borne by the commercial class that was already upset at the increasingly mercantilist policies of Britain. Tellingly, the legendary Boston Tea Party was not a reaction to taxes on tea – which were actually being lowered – but to the fact that Britain was setting up a state monopoly in the lucrative trade. Local merchants like Hancock, who were already living out their free trade principles as accomplished smugglers, felt compelled to resort to the extraordinary countermeasures that would spark the Revolution. Concurrently, a 1773 financial crisis in Britain prompted a collapse in the price of tobacco (by half!) and the reduction of credit available to farmers, “leading to a wave of foreclosures and imprisonment” – not to mention increased bitterness about their expensive, impeded access to non-British markets.


Figure 4. Today may require a Boston Comcast Party. But, speaking of imprisoning debtors, my favorite Balanced Budget Amendment to a state constitution is Alabama’s, which threatens state officials with both personal fines and jail time if they incur any excess debt not used to “repel invasion or suppress insurrection.” Now that’s commitment.




Without a voice in Parliament (“no taxation without representation!”), Americans had tried to use their economic power by boycotting British goods, which prompted a pattern: “when new British taxes were imposed, a non-importation movement would begin, and British policymakers would retreat.” But “non-importation only had a significant impact when it coincided with an economic downturn in Britain; the colonies could have only a modest influence on the country, because just 15 percent of British exports were destined for America in 1765.” From a position of strength and irritation, Britain eventually banned all foreign trade with the colonies in 1775. “On April 6, 1776, in defiance of Britain, Congress declared that the colonies were no longer bound by British mercantile regulations and that American ports were open to trade with all countries except Britain.” John Adams believed that the April proclamation was America’s true declaration of independence.”


Figure 5. Millions of Americans celebrate the holiday by buying goods of foreign origin.


Ultimately, the vast majority of Americans did not participate in the Revolutionary War. Of those who did, the majority fought on the side of the British. Relatedly, the vast majority of Americans worked in agriculture that did not export anywhere and, as noted at the beginning, may have enjoyed more economic benefits than detriments of British rule. Irwin concludes: “Only a minority of the colonial population is believed to have actively supported independence in 1776, and this vocal and politically powerful minority may have been precisely those most affected by Britain’s trade policies.”

As might therefore be expected, the Founders were trade radicals who “favored free and open commerce among nations and the abolition of all restraints and preferences that inhibited trade.” John Adams went so far as to draft a “template commercial treaty” in which “the United States would seek ‘national treatment’ from other nations, meaning that US merchants and ships (if not goods) would receive the same standing in foreign countries as their own domestic merchants and ships” which “was far more demanding than the standard most-favored-nation (MFN) treatment” under which “US goods and ships would be treated the same as the most-favored foreign nation in the country’s market.” Irwin quotes another historian: “the United States was demanding special consideration, privileges such as no European country had ever granted to another.” No one agreed. Ben Franklin, who insisted “it is best for every country to leave its trade entirely free from all encumbrances,” even went so far as to ask, when negotiating peace with Britain, for America to retain its privileged access to British markets. Amazingly, the British government initially was interested and even introduced legislation to that effect, but aghast nationalists killed it in Parliament.

So America was now on its own after suffering a near equivalent of the Great Depression. Our great dreams of open trade were dashed by the requirement that other people had to agree. Even worse, because we had 13 different (though relatively open) trade regimes and a weak federal government under the Articles of Confederation, we were in a terrible negotiating position: we couldn’t threaten access to our markets in exchange for other countries dropping their barriers. In the lead up to the Constitutional Convention, Madison wrote to Jefferson, “Most of our political evils may be traced to our commercial ones.”

The Constitution that emerged was a brilliant response to the contemporary political crises and set America up for centuries of success. For this newsletter, let’s focus on the trade-related outcomes: first, the federal government would derive their revenue from tariffs, i.e. taxes on imports. Though the Founders favored the elimination of trade barriers, they viewed tariffs as a necessary evil – something easily collectible at ports, crucial to government operations, and permissible so long as they were evenly imposed and non-discriminatory. Until the introduction of the income tax in the 20th century, this would be the primary source of government revenue (over alcohol taxes and land sales). Second, the federal government would have the power to regulate foreign trade but be forbidden from taxing exports. Most students of American history are familiar with the bargains struck by the South to protect slavery, but Southerners had a broader goal to protect their main source of income: agricultural exports. This will become extremely relevant in our next edition but, for now, I’ll just note that George Washington and James Madison were the only Southerners who opposed this provision, believing that America was such a central player in the global tobacco marketplace that they could effectively raise revenue without diminishing output by passing along the costs to eager (addicted?) foreigners. Third, and relatedly, treaties with foreign governments would require the approval of 2/3 of the Senate, another attempt by the South to secure regional interests. 

The first years of the Republic would be a vigorous battle between the Founding generation over the nature of trade. The Federalists – George Washington and Alexander Hamilton – saw the United States as a burgeoning economic powerhouse – “Hercules in a cradle” –  that would balance manufacturing and agriculture and benefit immensely from close commercial ties with our former master, the leading Navy of the world, a familiar and complementary economy with easy credit who happened to share a language: Great Britain. The Democrats – Thomas Jefferson and James Madison – yearned for a nation of yeoman farmers, grounded in rural and revolutionary values, and saw kinship in the blood-soaked regicidal ideals of America’s first ally but legally distinct, commercially inferior, and reluctant creditor with more limited global power projection: France.  

The Federalists came to power first and, as Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton was especially and understandably obsessed with our credit worthiness:In 1792, the interest alone on US debt soaked up 87 percent of total revenue.” As a result, he was desperate to avoid another war: costs would skyrocket while tariff revenues would plummet. If with Britain, we would not only lose our best trading partner but they could also effectively blockade our coast, limiting trade with others. Irwin’s interpretation of Hamilton is a welcome revision to the conventional portrayal of our first Treasury Secretary as an unbridled protectionist: “Hamilton was skeptical of high protective tariffs because they sheltered both inefficient and efficient producers, led to higher prices for consumers, and gave rise to smuggling, which cut into government revenue.” Instead, in order to pay off our debt, Hamilton insisted on “modest tariffs” – in 1790, they were about 20% and, again, the primary tax the federal government imposed. By assuming debts incurred by the states during the Revolution, Hamilton also “enabled states to reduce [their own] direct taxes by as much as 75 percent.”

Still, Hamilton did support some government intervention in the marketplace to support manufacturing. He conceded that “if the system of perfect liberty to industry and commerce were the prevailing system of nations,” then the United States could pursue whatever was its comparative advantage. But he felt that other countries unfairly helped their industry and perverted American incentives. Hamilton’s preferred remedy was a direct government subsidy to nascent industries, which “unlike import tariffs, did not create scarcity and artificially raise domestic prices.” But, importantly, he thought it only “justifiable” when the industry was new and thought continuous subsidy “questionable.” Of course, the Democrats believed, not unreasonably, that direct subsidies by the federal government to businesses were unconstitutional and, relatedly, were keen to preserve the agricultural character of the American economy.

But the bigger debate was always about how to deal with Britain. Democrats “believed that the nation’s political independence could not be fully realized unless the country had its economic independence as well. Madison complained that Britain ‘has bound us in commercial manacles, and very nearly defeated the object of our independence.’” In order to achieve economic independence, they wanted to impose strict economic boycotts of British trade in order to jolt Britain into allowing further market access. While Hamilton and the Federalists certainly desired better market access, they considered this move to be insane brinkmanship with severe tax, credit, economic, and military implications. “Madison contended that the country was in a position ‘to wage a commercial warfare,’ because it exported foodstuffs and raw materials that were essential to Britain, while it imported manufactured goods and other trifles that it could do without.” Irwin counters: “In terms of economic leverage, the figures on bilateral trade seem to confirm Hamilton’s view. While Britain sent nearly 20 percent of its exports to the United States, only 6 percent of its imports came from the United States [and it had other alternatives for the same goods]. On the other hand, about 90 percent of US imports and 25 percent of exports were with Britain.” 

Still, an important takeaway is that the conventional view of the Federalists as pro-tariff and Democrats as anti-tariff is too simplistic: instead, the Federalists saw the tariff as necessary to maintaining the good credit of the United States and Democrats saw the tariff as a bludgeon to get free trade. 

All around this time, France and Britain were in near continuous war with each other. Reflecting America’s radical belief in the rights of commerce, our ships tried to trade with both sides. The Federalists tried their best to appease British concerns, even blocking trade with France, managed to avert war, but ended up sparking a domestic political firestorm that helped sweep the Democrats into office in 1800. As trade resumed with France, the British began to seize hundreds of American vessels while “ships suspected of aiding France were detained and sent to Halifax, Nova Scotia, to face prosecution under British law. Even if a ship’s goods were not confiscated, the resulting delays could be very costly.” Most outrageous, the British conscripted thousands upon thousands of American sailors into their Navy. 

Seizing the righteous anger about American dishonor, hellbent on punishing the British, President Jefferson rejected any compromise and self-imposed a total prohibition on American ships sailing to foreign ports as well as foreign ships taking on cargo in the United States. “The embargo was the most dramatic, self-imposed shock to US trade in its history [and] brought America’s foreign commerce to a grinding halt” for 15 months. Unsurprisingly, this prompted a depression – according to one estimate, a dramatic 5% decline in American GDP. It also led to a steep decline in revenue, leading to America’s first fiscal deficit. Why did Jefferson ban ALL trade, as opposed to just with Britain? Because, sounding more like an Albanian isolationist than the man who once wrote “all the world would gain by setting commerce at perfect liberty,” Jefferson insisted that it would be too easy for ships to claim alternative destinations but still trade with Britain. The same types of merchants who had been motivated to join the Revolution were appalled and tried their best to undo the policy. Bewildered, Jefferson “concluded that merchants were simply treasonous and therefore even stricter enforcement was required,” including a new bill with “provisions [that] may have violated the search-and-seizure provisions of the Fourth Amendment.)” Irwin concludes: “The embargo must be considered a failure: it imposed large costs on the economy but failed to achieve any of its objectives” – the British continued to prey on our ships while denying America full and free market access. Similar to the calculations leading to the Revolution, the problem was that Jefferson had imposed his embargo at a time when Britain was enjoying the height of their business cycle and easily shifted its imports to alternative providers of American goods. Irwin warns that “had the administration persisted with the embargo, its enforcement would have led to a national crisis” but Jefferson insisted he needed only a few more weeks.


Figure 6. Just try to imagine life for more than a year without any international trade. Or, to give some modern sense of the size of the economic decline, imagine the total annihilation of Apple – no more stores, no more computers, no more phones, no more apps – which is worth about 5% of America’s GDP. Add into the scenario that the government relied nearly totally on Apple for its budget and you have some sense of the situation.


Unfortunately, the stumbles would continue into the Madison administration. As Congress ended the embargo, they dangled a carrot for France and Britain: whoever stopped harassing American shipping would get the benefit of America stopping imports from the other country. France, whose harassment was relatively limited to privateers, was the obvious potential beneficiary and they hinted they would accept the bargain. But Madison jumped too soon, restricting imports from Britain before France had even decided. Importantly, the law still allowed exports to Britain. Politically, this made sense: it hurt Madison’s political opponents (the northeastern shippers and merchants) while helping his base (Southern farmers) and doing something bad about Britain fit into the party ethos. But it was strategically stupid: at this moment, Britain desperately needed American food to supply its army in Spain fighting Napoleon. So the tensions continued, and American sailors continued to be shanghaied into the British Navy, until Madison decided that the only way to protect our honor was to fight Britain again in a war. Maybe we could also liberate Canada along the way.

Terribly inconveniently, our declaration of the War of 1812 was being sent over the Atlantic at precisely the same time that Britain sent over a new policy suspending harassment of American shipping. Irwin explains: “Already suffering under heavy taxes due to the war against France, Britain did not welcome the prospect of another war in North America. The weak economy and pressure from labor and industry helped persuade the British government to relax its policy toward neutral shipping.” Madison conceded that he would not have declared war if he had known but the fight was on. Weakened Federalists “were incredulous that the country would take the side of a French despot bent on military conquest (Napoleon) against a country with constitutional government that happened to be an important customer for American goods.” Irwin details the devastation: “The combination of war, non-importation, and blockade squeezed US trade to the lowest levels in recorded history… exports dropped almost 90 percent, while imports shrank more than 80 percent between 1811 and 1814… and the federal debt tripled between 1812 and 1816.” With Napoleon headed for defeat, Britain redeployed forces to the United States that blockaded the east coast (initially excluding New England) and, most embarrassingly, burned down the White House. We concluded the war in 1814 in a peace treaty that offered zero assurances about the impressment of sailors and Canada remained under British rule. But at least we got a cool national anthem – and an American hero in the victor of the Battle of New Orleans: Andrew Jackson, who will be a star of our next segment.


Figure 7. You think missed communications might have declined with technology but the crucial decision of George W. Bush not to check his spam folder missed an email from about giving up WMDs through a Nigerian intermediary if he could get out of debt, work from home with an online degree, and secure a lifetime supply of Viagra and Xanax.  


Ironically, all of the self-inflicted disruption in foreign trade led to a transformation of the American economy. Despite the Democrat dream of a rural paradise, their policies had led to dramatic increases in the prices of manufactured goods which unintentionally invited Americans to create industry to produce substitutes. While export-oriented industries were devastated, domestic manufacturing became a new and important political constituency that was able to push the first major tariffs really designed to protect producers rather than simply generate revenue. The South, caught up in the patriotic fervor of the war, initially provided crucial support but would soon realize that they had to pay the costs. This regional divide, whether the tariff should be for revenue only or also protection, enhanced dramatically by the debate over slavery, would dominate American politics until the Civil War. In the meanwhile, British tensions would fade as they embraced a radical global free trade model the Founders had desired so fervently. We’ll conclude with a quote from Madison that defines this book:

“Shall domestic manufactures be encouraged, and in what degree, by restrictions on foreign manufactures? are questions which would be differently decided by the landed and the manufacturing classes, and probably by neither with a sole regard to justice and the public good…It is in vain to say that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests, and render them all subservient to the public good.”

Clashing over Commerce

Figure 8. Click here to acquire Clashing over Commerce 10/10 – a magisterial retelling of American history through the important lens of trade, filled with insight into the events that defined the country over its three eras of tariffs: for revenue only (through Civil War), for protection (through World War II), and for reciprocity (through today). One more interesting item: the Founders were deeply influenced by the father of capitalism, Adam Smith, but underappreciated is that Smith, for all his endorsement of free trade, believed in three exceptions: first, for revenue, as discussed; second, to encourage reciprocity, as the Democrats desired and America would eventually adopt (in a far milder form); and third, to protect industries vital to national security.


Thanks for reading!  If you enjoyed this review, please sign up for my email in the box below. I read over 100 non-fiction books a year (history, business, self-management) and share a review (and terrible cartoons) every couple weeks with my friends. Really, it’s all about how to be a better American and how America can be better. Look forward to having you on board!

    Speak For Yourself

    The Gist:  The best advice from a half dozen books on public speaking

    A review of The Quick and Easy Way to Effective Speaking by Dale Carnegie, among others.

    Dale Carnegie discovered the secret to powerful public speaking quite accidentally.

    Carnegie had given up a successful sales job in the Midwest to go to New York and pursue dreams of becoming a performer. But his acting career went nowhere and soon his savings were gone. To tide himself over, Carnegie suggested to the local YMCA that he teach a class on public speaking. Nervous students began showing up and Carnegie was mildly successful in teaching them the ancient art of rhetoric.

    Then one day Carnegie ran out of prepared materials and suggested that students just get up in front of the room and talk about something that made them angry. Suddenly, his students lost their nerves and came alive with passion! 


    Figure 1. “Hulk is strongest public speaker there is! Hulk smash competition!”


    Carnegie would go on to found a national chain of public speaking schools and write, in a best-selling book we review here, that passion is the “open sesame to Ali Baba’s treasure cave of courage.” It empowers speakers to use material they already have and care about. And most magical, passion is contagious, giving speakers their best chance at connecting with an audience (even when they’re wrong!)

    Pursuing your passion is the foundation of the best practices of great oratory we’ll explore today. One of the original public speaking coaches, Plato, went so far as to warn that “a wise man speaks because he has something to say, a fool speaks because he has to say something.”


    Figure 2. Note how Plato would classify filling 24 hours a day of cable news.


    What do you have to say? Ask yourself what topic “you have lived with [and] made your own through experience and reflection.” Consider “if someone stood up and directly opposed your point of view, would you be impelled to speak with conviction and earnestness in defense of your position? If you would, you have the right subject for you.” In what do you believe with all your heart? What would be the last things, people, practices, ideas, identities, affiliations you’d ever give up? What do you crave to learn more about? On what do you spend your most time, money, attention? What makes your blood boil? What makes your heart sing? Why? The answers to those questions are the best sources for material – and the best chances for resonating with your audience – that you’ll ever have.

    Carnegie argues that the biggest mistake in public speaking is choosing a highfalutin topic, something where you “soar into the realms of general ideas and philosophical principles, where unfortunately the air is too rarefied for ordinary mortals to breathe.” His experience was that “plain, ordinary men and women” better held “the attention of viewers all over the country” when “they were talking about themselves, about their most embarrassing moments, their most pleasant memory, or how they met their wives or husbands.” If you are talking about something grand or complicated, endeavor with all your might to explain how and why it is your passion and relate it to your and your audience’s experiences.

    You’re surely starting to see that to most effectively share your passion, you need to prepare. How well your talk goes will depend on your preparation – luckily, you’re already passionate about the subject. Preparation can feel silly, time-consuming, hard. That’s why most people don’t do it. You need to remember that preparation is not for you. It’s for your audience.


    Figure 3. Icarus presents a cautionary tale of “winging it”


    Scott Berkun suggests getting perspective by multiplying the number of minutes you are talking by every pair of ears that will hear you. Respect the collective time that is being spent on you! There are various rules of thumb: comedians can spend over an hour preparing for every minute they speak. Others suggest a 10:1 or 20:1 ratio of time preparing to time speaking. Whatever it is, it’s a lot. My favorite observation about one of the great orators of all time, Winston Churchill, was his son’s remark that Winston spent most of his life preparing to give unprepared remarks. Carnegie reports that “Daniel Webster said he would as soon think of appearing before an audience half–clothed as half-prepared.”

    What does it mean to prepare? Your general aspiration should be to achieve clarity through preparation. Berkun contends that “the difference between you and JFK or Martin Luther King has less to do with your ability to speak — a skill all of us use hundreds of times every day — than it does the ability to think and refine rough ideas into clear ones. Making a point, teaching a lesson, or conveying a feeling to others first requires thinking, lots and lots of thinking, before the speaking ever happens.” Carnegie insists: “True preparation means brooding over your topics” and asking yourself “Why do I believe this? When did I ever see this point exemplified in real life? What precisely am I trying to prove?.. Try your best to develop an ability to let others look into your head and heart.” For maximum quality, limit your subject: “Assemble a hundred thoughts around your theme, then discard ninety.” Ultimately, can you summarize your passion in a sentence? Could a child understand and repeat back your points?

    Crucially, preparation is not memorization. As Carnegie reveals, “If our ideas are clear, the words come as naturally and unconsciously as the air we breathe… Because it will not come from our memories, but from our hearts.” Throw away your memorized (or written) talk to become “more alive, more effective, more human.” As Cato the Elder advises: “Grasp the subject, the words will follow”

    Prepare by testing out your ideas in conversation with anyone to whom you talk – what is their reaction? Stand up and give the talk to an empty room and see how it feels. Record yourself giving the talk and review – what went right? What could be more clear? But doing this alone is not sufficient: you need feedback. Recruit some friends to give your talk to and ask them – what did they remember? What didn’t they understand? Berkun adds “What one change would have most improved my presentation? What questions did you expect me to answer that went unanswered? What annoyances did I let get in the way of giving you what you needed?” And the best practice of all? Give your talk again and again and again on different stages to live audiences.

    But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. You need to structure your speech for feels. As Carl Buechner profoundly observed, “They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.” That other original speaking coach, Aristotle, theorized that rhetoric rested on three pillars: ethos (credibility), logos (logic), and pathos (emotion). The most persuasive speech usually has all three elements but the majority comes from the last: emotion. My own motto, not always followed, is to buy data and sell story. If you’re making a decision, get logical. If you’re persuading someone, get emotional.

    To structure for feels, understand the purpose of your talk: is it to “persuade and get action”? To inform? To “impress and convince”? To entertain? Align your speech’s emotional pitch with the purpose. Make sure your talk makes sense for your audience (or your audience makes sense for your talk). Get to know the venue and how it feels. Arrange an appropriate introduction. And then…

    Grab your audience’s attention immediately! There is no time that the audience will be paying more attention than at the start. How you begin determines how fast people return to checking their text messages. For that same reason, thanking your introducer, apologizing for something, or any preamble takes up too many precious seconds. Get right into it with one of Carnegie’s three suggestions:


    Figure 4. So, for example, you could run on stage. Naked. Holding a lit stick of dynamite. Screaming “I have ebola!” 


    First, you could start with a story. The huge advantage of this beginning is that it “hooks attention… it moves, it marches. We follow because we identify ourselves as part of a situation and we want to know what is going to happen…There is no groping for words, no loss of ideas.” Carnegie says he knows of “no more compelling method of opening a talk than by the use of a story.” After all, “one of the most interesting things in the world is sublimated, glorified gossip.” The best stories involve you (usually deficient or in the wrong, but generally empathetic and relatable) in dialogue with other named people (“adds more realism”) in some sort of situation-complication-resolution. The story must be vivid: you have “the obligation to clarify, intensify, and dramatize your experiences in a way that will make them interesting and compelling to your listeners… Your purpose is to make your audience see what you saw, hear what you heard, feel what you felt. Relevant detail, couched in concrete, colorful language.” Jeremey Donovan sensibly adds to “make sure your story is directly relevant to your core message.”


    Figure 5. “So the first time I went to prison, I got into this argument with Warden Norton…”


    Second, you could “state an arresting factor opinion to jar the mind. Donovan says “Though shocking statements most frequently rely on statistics, they can also express strong opinions that challenge conventional wisdom. The important thing is that your point must trigger a range of audience emotions.” If you do go with a statistic, make sure it comes alive. Carnegie tells the story of an extraordinarily effective speaker: 

    “Then, like a whirlwind, he struck. He leaned forward and his eyes transfixed us. He didn’t raise his voice, but it seemed to me that it crashed like a gong. “Look around you,” he said. “Look at one another. Do you know how many of you sitting now in this room are going to die of cancer? One in four of all of you who are over forty-five. One in four!” He paused, and his face lightened. “That’s a plain, harsh fact, but it needn’t be for long,” he said. “Something can be done about it. This something is progress in the treatment of cancer and in the search for its cause.” He looked at us gravely, his gaze moving around the table. “Do you want to help toward this progress?”


    Figure 6. “50% of marriages end in divorce. As we raise our glasses to Don and Betty on this special day…”


    But Carnegie warns not to overdo it. He believes that all speeches should be conversational and so, if you are jarring the mind, make sure you do it in a way that you’d feel comfortable doing similarly at a dinner table. Relatedly, Carnegie is very wary of disagreeing with an audience so early, especially if you are trying to persuade them. He quotes Lincoln who reflected that “My way of opening and winning an argument is to first find a common ground of agreement.” Carnegie analyzes,

    Most men, however, lack this subtle ability to enter the citadel of a man’s beliefs arm in arm with the owner. They erroneously imagine that in order to take the citadel, they must storm it, batter it down by a frontal attack. What happens? The moment hostilities commence, the drawbridge is lifted, the great gates are slammed and bolted, the mailed archers draw their long bows—the battle of words and wounds is on.


    Figure 7. “Most of you probably should not have gone to college. Let me tell you why…”


    Third, you could “arouse suspense.” An example might be opening a book review with the promise of discovering the secret to powerful public speaking. Berkun says, “The simplest kind of tension to build and then release is … problem and solution. If your talk consists of several problems important to the audience, and you promise to release the tension created by those problems by solving each one, you’ll score big.” Donovan says this can also be achieved by asking a question of the audience using the “magical word” of “you,” “putting your listeners in introspective mode.”


    Figure 8. “Was Steve murdered? As we remember him today, you should reflect on who might have done it and I’ll conclude with my theory”


    And then you’re off! Carnegie demands that you “tell the audience what you’re going to say; then tell them what you’ve said.” Repeat your passionate thesis – ideally a short, actionable catchphrase – over and over again until they’re so tired of it that they can actually remember it. Illustrate it vividly with analogies, demonstrations, gestures, emphasis, volume, pauses, common language without jargon, and multisensory allusions that have emerged from your preparation achieving clarity. Consider what Lincoln considered ideal: “I don’t like to hear a cut-and-dried sermon. When I hear a man preach, I like to see him act as if he were fighting bees.” Guide your audience with signposts as to where you are in the logic of your presentation, especially if your speech is long. And avoid quotes and jokes – use funny stories instead.

    Throughout your speech, always empathize with your audience. Be grateful for their time and attention. They want you to succeed! Identify with them and advise how you can help “solve their problems and achieve their goals.” Talk with them as friends.  Fast Company reports this was the secret of the Great Communicator:

    When Ronald Reagan wrote about public speaking, he shared “a little secret that dates back over 50 years to my first stint at a microphone.” On his first day as a radio broadcaster, Reagan was nervous. He wondered how he would “connect with all these people listening to the radio.” The secret? Instead of talking to a “group of unknown listeners,” he imagined he was speaking to the “fellows in the local barbershop.” Reagan wanted to replicate that banter—where everyone would swap jokes, talk sports, and tell stories.

    Another thing Reagan and many of the great speakers would do is have specific sections of their talk that could be adapted to any audience. If your talk relies on statistics, find some that are focused on the community to which you’re speaking. If your concept is unfamiliar, analogize to something they know well. Best of all, tell some stories about people they know or at least recognize. Carnegie tells a story about how one of the great titans of British journalism was asked what interests people. The answer? “Themselves.”

    Whatever time you’re assigned, use less. As Ira Hayes quipped, “No one ever complains about a speech being too short!”

    Once you’ve wrapped up your points (three is usually a sound number), you have a few options for your conclusion. You can (finally) thank the organizers and the audience. You can follow the example of comedians, who try to use their second best joke as their opener and their best as their close: what is the single best analogy, demonstration, story that illustrates your point?

    Carnegie himself preferred to end by appealing for a specific action related to the talk, ideally one that could be done immediately. So, not “Please help this organization,” but “Pull out your phone right now, text this number, and give at least $25.” Not “Write your Congressman,” but “Sign the letter on your table right now and I will personally deliver it.” Not “Love your family,” but “Take your kids out for ice cream tonight and tell them that you love them!” Donovan also suggests “Many of the most satisfying talks recommend that listeners take tiny actions that can lead to large personal and societal benefits.”

    Of course, if you’re following this review, so far you’ve not actually given the talk. Just prepared it. But that’s 90%! If you are pursuing your passion and you’ve achieved clarity through preparation, you’ve earned the right to speak.

    As you head toward the stage, you just need to remember: You’re not nervous. You’re excited.

    Carnegie says everyone’s scared, even the greats like James K. Polk, whose nickname was “Napoleon of the Stump.” Mark Twain said there were two types of speakers in the world: the nervous and the liars. Bergun tells us why: “Our brains, for all their wonders, identify the following four things as being very bad for survival: [1] Standing alone [2] In open territory with no place to hide [3] Without a weapon [4] In front of a large crowd of creatures staring at you.”

    Teddy Roosevelt

    Figure 9. Hence Teddy Roosevelt’s admonition, “Speak softly and carry a big stick”


    But it’s to your advantage! Carnegie says that this is your body “getting ready to go into action.” Bergun cites Dr. John Medina’s Brain Rules to note that “it is very difficult for the body to distinguish between states of arousal and states of anxiety.” A Harvard Business School study took advantage of this and found that speakers who told themselves they were excited, not nervous, performed better than control groups left to their nerves. But you can also maximize your readiness by getting enough sleep, eating right, knowing exactly where you need to be and when, and exercising sometime before to get rid of nervous energy.

    So, get pumped! You’re going to share your passion! “Draw yourself up to your full height and look your audience straight in the eyes,” Carnegie advises. And then just start. It’s a lot easier once you get going. “Adopt the tone of a passionate one-on-one conversationalist… speak in your own voice with authenticity, interest, and humility,” suggests Donovan. In other words, talk like a human being. It doesn’t need to be – perhaps shouldn’t be – perfect. You’re aiming to persuade, not become a robot. Let your personality shine! Power through. And next time you’ll be even better.

    Effective Speaking

    Figure 10. I speak publicly with some regularity and I wanted to know best practices. So I asked and Googled around and came up with a list of books that were most frequently, most strongly recommended. Dale Carnegie is more famous for his advice on how to win friends and influence people but his quick and easy way to effective speaking is the best book I’ve read on the subject. 9/10

    How to deliver a ted talk

    Figure 11. When you look into the best practices of public speaking, TED frequently comes up. Jeremey Donovan is an obsessive analyst who got interested in public speaking when he joined Toastmasters and subsequently watched practically every TED video three times, making notes on common features. His book on how to deliver a TED talk has lots of insightful observations from an extremely popular format. 8/10. (Incidentally, I also read another book on TED but it is not a fraction as good – or as focused. Too often it dwells on the substance of the talks rather than the way they’re given. So, for example, one piece of advice it offers is that you can choose to be happy – which is all very well and good, but has little to do with speaking well.)

    Confessions of a public speaker

    Figure 12. For a relatively amusing take from a professional public speaker, check out Scott Berkun’s confessions (7/10). Or, if humor is your thing, you could check out an amateur’s attempt at stand-up comedy (6/10) – he passes along some interesting lessons. But Berkun has perhaps the most fitting passage to end this email on:

    No matter how much you hate or love this book, you’re unlikely to be a good public speaker. The marketing for this book likely promised you’d be a better speaker for reading it. I think that’s true on one condition: you practice (which I know most of you won’t do). Most people are lazy. I’m lazy. I expect you’re lazy, too. There will always be a shortage of good public speakers in the world, no matter how many great books there are on the subject. It’s a performance skill, and performance means practice — and that’s one of the reasons I wasn’t afraid to write this book.

    Thanks for reading!  If you enjoyed this review, please sign up for my email in the box below. I read over 100 non-fiction books a year (history, business, self-management) and share a review (and terrible cartoons) every couple weeks with my friends. Really, it’s all about how to be a better American and how America can be better. Look forward to having you on board!

      The Rosetta Stone Of My Relationship

      The Gist: People feel love in different ways.

      A review of The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman.

      I decided to give online dating maximum due diligence at the very beginning of 2018. Figuring quantity led to quality, I planned to take out 3 women a week for three months.

      Math of romance

      Figure 1. The math of romance is to figure out how many people you might date in a lifetime, reject the first 37%, and then choose to be with the first person you date afterward who is better than everyone else you’ve dated.


      10 weeks later, 30 women later, I was exhausted. But then I met someone incredible. She’s sweet, smart, stunning. She’s a fellow Christian. And she suggested very soon after we started dating that we read together in our own book club. 

      The very first book we read, and a useful Rosetta Stone of our relationship, was Gary Chapman’s the Five Love Languages. Before I go on, I’d love for you to email me if you have any particularly insightful books into your own relationship. 

      Rosetta Stone

      Figure 2. Not to be confused with the Romance languages which, for Americans, are mostly useless.


      Chapman’s premise is that every person creates their own model for what it means to love and be loved – based on their observations of their parents, popular culture (God help us), and others as well as their own personalities, theories, needs, and desires. Chapman’s experience counseling couples as a pastor led him to group people into five broad models he calls the love languages: words of affirmation, quality time, gift-giving, acts of service, and physical touch

      The first love language is words of affirmation: verbal and written encouragement to bolster your significant other. 

      Beware: A common mistake is to make comments pushing something you want them to do but they aren’t necessarily thrilled about. So to say something like “You could be making so much more money!” only is encouragement if that’s what your mate wants. Otherwise your comment can “express not love but rejection.”

      If your better half has this love language, affirm their strengths! Give them a living eulogy – both privately and in front of other people. Remind yourself that words are important with a note you will see all the time – and let that note inspire a practice of complimenting a specific thing every day. And, every so often, write a love letter expressing your appreciation.


      Figure 3. 50 years – 18,250 days – in, Bernard was struggling with new affirmations: “Buttercup, your earlobes warm your ears – but also my heart.” “Cookie, your hair could tow a truck – it’s certainly towed me along these last decades.” “Lovebird, your body fat could make seven bars of soap – well, that’s normal, you’re so thin it’s probably only 2 or 3” 


      The second love language is quality time: giving someone your undivided attention. Crucially, this means no other distractions: sitting in front of a television together means Netflix has your attention, not your significant other.

      There are two dialects of quality time. The first is conversation. Chapman emphasizes that words of affirmation is really about saying but quality time is really about hearing. He envisions a “sympathetic dialogue where two individuals are sharing their experiences, thoughts, feelings, and desires in a friendly, uninterrupted context.” If your mate has this dialect, discuss the big 2-3 items of each day and listen for how they feel about each – and ask for clarification to make sure you understand.

      The second dialect is shared activity: “The purpose is to experience something together, to walk away from it feeling ‘He cares about me. He was willing to do something with me that I enjoy, and he did it with a positive attitude.’” If this is your partner’s dialect, ask them for a list of a half dozen activities they’d like to do together – and do one a month.


      Figure 4. “Muffin, I’ve arranged a beautiful candlelit evening for about 10 minutes before I have to go back to work – but, hey, it’s quality not quantity time, right?”


      The third love language is gift-giving. Here there can be tension between partners with different views of money. Chapman has two responses to the hesitant prudent: First, you need to consider that the way you treat money is more similar than you may realize: “By saving and investing money you are purchasing self-worth and emotional security. You are caring for your own emotional needs in the way you handle money. What you are not doing is meeting the emotional needs of your spouse.”

      Second, the gifts don’t need to be expensive or conventional. Pick a flower. Make something yourself. Bring home a small chocolate. Give to your partner’s favorite charity. Give a book of intense interest to your spouse and say you want to read it together and discuss. Chapman even suggests your presence can be a gift – go to your mother-in-law’s birthday party.

      Of course, if you don’t have as many qualms about spending, there are plenty of ideas. But keep track of anytime your partner mentions something they like, how enthusiastically they respond to what kinds of gifts from others, and you’ll be well on your way.


      Figure 5. Be careful about regifting that used blender you won as a consolation prize in the office pool. Or giving her that chainsaw you always wanted. Or making a donation in her name to the Human Fund.


      The fourth love language is acts of service: doing things you know your spouse would like you to do. Crucially, if this is your own love language, make sure that you explain how loved you feel when things are done for you but only ever make requests, not demands. Chapman has found that a sense of obligation can undermine a relationship but freely given acts of service strengthen it.

      If this is your mate’s love language, make a list of all the requests (especially those procrastinated) that your spouse has made of you or, if you have trouble recalling, directly ask for a new itemized list. Think about what your spouse does not enjoy doing and that you could do for them. And then remind yourself with a note on your to do list that says “Today I will show my love by…” — and follow through!


      Figure 6. Ladies love a man in uniform.


      The fifth and final love language is physical touch. Many men immediately assume this is their love language because of their intense desire for sex – but this is really a broader category. The extreme question to ask is: would you still really want sex if your mate never positively talked about you, never gave you undivided attention, never gave you gifts, never did anything for you – or would the desire be gone? 

      If physical touch is your partner’s love language, think consciously about how you can touch them whenever you see them – a big hug when you reunite, holding their hand when you walk together, sitting close on the couch, squeezing their shoulder as you pass through a room. “When family or friends are visiting, touch your spouse in their presence. Putting your arm around him as you stand talking, or simply placing your hand on her shoulder says, ‘Even with all these people in our house, I still see you.’” And “If your spouse’s primary love language is physical touch, nothing is more important than holding her as she cries.”

      High Five

      Figure 7. Nothing says love like a high five. Unless you’re a germaphobe. Then you better hope your significant other doesn’t prefer this love language.


      Your own love language may be obvious at this point but, if it’s not, think about what you have most often requested or how you’ve been most deeply hurt by your partner. Consider a process of elimination – what what would you give up first? And, of course, find out your partner’s! Both of you can take the quiz at Gary Chapman’s website

      Finally, note that when a couple first falls in love, their relationship is propelled forward by a romantic obsession, the average of which lasts two years (My girlfriend Ashley and I haven’t quite hit that. Stay tuned). But over time, we revert back to a more normal life where our significant other is not the center of our universe – and, because we have different models of love, we may not be attuned to that which makes our person feel loved.

      Chapman suggests that each of us has a “love tank” and that we must be spoken to in our preferred love languages to feel fulfilled. When our love tank is empty, we can cast blame and make demands – and we tend to be most critical where we have our deepest need. Our “criticism is an ineffective way of pleading for love.”


      Figure 8. Especially after the blitzkrieg of an early relationship, it’s important to maintain your love tank.


      But in the drift away from obsession is the opportunity: “Our most basic emotional need is not to fall in love but to be genuinely loved by another, to know a love that grows out of reason and choice, not instinct. I need to be loved by someone who chooses to love me, who sees in me something worth loving.” And ultimately, Chapman proclaims: “Forgiveness is the way of love. I am amazed by how many individuals mess up every new day with yesterday. They insist on bringing into today the failures of yesterday and in so doing, they pollute a potentially wonderful day… The best thing we can do with the failures of the past is to let them be history.”

      So, forgive past mistakes (and future ones). Choose to love and be loved. And in choosing, request your own love language and speak your significant other’s.

      5 love languages

      Figure 9. Click here to buy Gary Chapman’s the Five Love Languages, 10/10. A good book to categorize the ways in which people love and provide ideas how to better love your partner. Once you’ve mastered these, you can move on to having enough kids to save America. For Christians, good follow up reading would also include Tim Keller’s the Meaning of Marriage, which finds the five love languages useful but talks about how only God can really fill your love tank.

      Thanks for reading!  If you enjoyed this review, please sign up for my email in the box below. I read over 100 non-fiction books a year (history, business, self-management) and share a review (and terrible cartoons) every couple weeks with my friends. Really, it’s all about how to be a better American and how America can be better. Look forward to having you on board!