The more things change, the more you realize that some things don’t.
I was looking at my bookshelf today when I noticed something I’d been neglecting. See, a long time ago, before I was in the NCFCA/Stoa debate circles, I took a debate class with the local homeschool group. My teacher was a crazy man named Dr. Chess whose cavalier, no-holds-barred attitude remains awesome to this day even if he is a crazy man. He told us to get a book called “The Art Of Cross-Examination”, by Francis L. Wellman. This should’ve proven long ago that Dr. Chess was a crazy man, because he was giving 12-year-olds a book written by a lawyer in 1903.
You might think 1903’s incredibly old, and it is. But Pythagoras was doing his thing a long time before any of you whippersnappers were doing math and we still teach the Pythagorean theorem to eighth-graders, so don’t write it off yet. See, Wellman was one of the great nineteenth-century trial lawyers, building his reputation as the equivalent of a cross-ex ninja in the courtrooms of New York City in the 1880’s and 1890’s. He wrote the book at a watershed moment in the history of litigation. When you see courtroom scenes on TV, have you ever noticed how the old-timey trials depended on these huge, fiery, southern Baptist-style speeches, whereas on Law and Order, they depend on Jack McCoy grilling the witnesses in cross-examination, his eyebrows jumping like two angry caterpillars about to have a brawl to the death?
Magnificent, aren’t they? Anyway, there’s a reason for that shift- Wellman wrote his book during a major shift in the culture of litigation. He observed a trend among barristers to focus their oratorical skills much less on fiery speeches and much more on cross-examination. For one thing, the modern juror (or judge) is more discerning, with a nose for truth, who knows it when he sees it rather than having to be spoon-fed. Moreover, when you show a person the links of logic and allow them to make the chain for themselves, they’re more likely to believe it firmly than if you just plonked the chain in their hands and said “DEAL WITH IT.” Think, for a moment, of Inception. In order for an idea to become a fundamental, deeply-held one, it has to be built up from the very basics. It’s no different for debate. If you think your source or your warrants are better than the other team’s, you could just tell the judge that. However, which are you more likely to believe: something you are told, or something that you are shown? What we need to realize, just like these turn of the century lawyers did, is that showing is far more powerful than telling.
While this is all ancient history, it’s really relevant to us as debaters because Wellman makes observations about the nature of advocacy and how we as people relate to one another and persuade each other. He also demonstrates how the art of cross-examination (der) came about and how it looked in the beginning, which is all very relevant to us. Almost more importantly, though, Wellman supplies full transcripts of equally old-timey courtroom cross-examinations. They’re much longer than the questions we would typically ask in cross-examination, and we have the significant advantage of being permitted to ask leading questions, which are more direct. (“Was the man wearing a red hat?” versus “What was the man wearing?”) There are fantastic examples of lawyers trapping witnesses, witnesses successfully evading questions, and mistakes made on each side that make one of the parties just look silly. If you’re looking to really revolutionize your cross-examination and have some time to invest in it, I highly recommend giving Wellman’s book a look (If you are really kind, click it in the Amazon.com thingy on our site, because it helps us help you).
This book is in the public domain, so you don’t legally have to pay for it. Here’s an online copy for anyone interested: