I can guess the meaning of 'possessing a ready tongue' in the following sentence, but surmises aren't reliable!

The man who is set on securing reforms will generally prefer an ambitious windbag to a man who desires the public good without possessing a ready tongue.

By the way, 'to be set on doing something' means to be determined to do something.

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    It's a hopelessly dated/poetic usage. In your context [having] a ready tongue is probably intended to mean "articulate" (able to speak / express oneself well). In other contexts it might be used the same as the still-current usage [to have] a sharp tongue, meaning quick to criticise. – FumbleFingers Mar 29 '18 at 17:36

What a delightful sentence! Let's break it apart.

The man who is set on securing reforms

You are correct that "is set on" means to be determined to do something, but it's important to realize he's determined to secure reforms. The word used in this way almost always has a political context, and securing political reform frequently requires considerable effort because it requires the support of a voting constituency — and people often do not like to change. So, the man is determined to obtain something that is difficult to get without the support of a group of people.

an ambitious windbag

This is a person who is a proficient and prolific speaker, but he is ambitious, meaning he will put his own goals before the needs of the people. Such a person will often act with greater enthusiasm due to the personal reward obtained by securing the reforms regardless the value of the reforms to the public.

desires the public good without possessing a ready tongue

This is a person who wants the very best for people but is a poor speaker (without possessing a ready tongue). This questions the value of a dedicated person who cannot achieve the desired goal.

So, we could express the idea of your example like this:

If you want to lead people well, choose a representative who speaks well despite his lack of ethics over one who has admirable ethics but does not speak well.

I'll leave the question of whether or not this represents valid wisdom to Philosophy.SE.


If a ready tongue is hard to be understood (for it is idiomatically meant), the verb to prefer something to something will give the meaning away. A windbag is a person who is always talking too much. The contrast made by the preposition to implies that without possessing a ready tongue is its opposite. If you have a ready tongue, it is ready to move, thus the possessor of the tongue is ready at any time to speak or express his opinion/thought on anything.

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