A Brief History
On April 22, 1775, Patrick Henry delivered a speech that may well have led to the successful formation of the United States. Known as the “Give Me Liberty Or Give Me Death” speech, Henry was addressing the Virginia Convention of the Virginia legislature known as the House of Burgesses. Founding Fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were there, and the mesmerizing effects of Henry’s stirring speech were enough to sway the delegates to vote for pledging the Virginia militia to the revolutionary army.
Many times in history great speeches have tipped the balance and caused history to go the way of the speaker. Here are 10 of those great speeches.
11. Mark Antony (44 B.C.)
We do not know what Antony actually said at Julius Caesar’s funeral following the dictator’s assassination, which is why his speech does not rank higher, but whatever it was it turned the crowd against Caesar’s killers and behind Antony. Antony went on to defeat these murderers in a major war. William Shakespeare’s imagined version of the speech captures the essence of what the ancient sources describe, while providing audiences for the past 500 years with one of the greatest speeches in the history of drama.
10. George Wallace (1963).
Then the racist governor of Alabama, Wallace pledged “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” as he challenged the Federal Government’s attempts to end segregation in Alabama. A stirring rallying cry for white supremacists in the south, the speech probably did more to aid the cause of racial equality and civil rights as it exposed to the world the depths of the racism problem in the US. Wallace was actually considered a moderate on racial issues when he first entered politics and had even spoken against the Ku Klux Klan. Of course, later vowing “I will never be out-niggered again!” defined his legacy. Wallace ran for president in 1968 and actually won 5 states and got 10 million votes! Wallace considered Harlan Sanders, the founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken as his running mate! Not surprisingly, this much controversy resulted in Wallace being shot and crippled in 1972.
9. Frederick Douglass (1852).
A former slave who had bought his own freedom, Douglass worked tirelessly as an abolitionist before the Civil War. Delivering his famous speech, “The Hypocrisy of American Slavery” on July 4, 1852 in Rochester, New York Douglass asked the people what the 4th of July means to African-Americans. Obviously, in a country that allows a person to be a slave, the answer would be not much! This speech is considered instrumental in swaying public opinion in favor of abolishing slavery and allowing the passage of the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery in the US.
8. John F. Kennedy (1961)
Sadly, his only inaugural address this speech stirred not only the US but virtually the entire western world with its appeals to altruism and greatness: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Lasting only a bit under 14 minutes, like many great speeches, this example proves that quality of words is more important than quantity.
7. Franklin Roosevelt (1941).
Roosevelt’s State of the Union Speech where he outlined 4 fundamental “freedoms” that all people everywhere in the world have a right to, that of freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. In this speech Roosevelt eloquently stated the basic position of the United States in context to the World War then raging, setting the stage and rationale for the participation of the US on the side of the western allies.
6. Winston Churchill (1940).
Actually a series of 3 incredibly inspirational speeches given over the radio, Churchill pledged “Blood, toil, tears and sweat” (memories of Teddy Roosevelt), “We shall fight on the beaches” (the “never surrender speech) and “This was their finest hour,” all of which helped steel the resolve of an apparently defeated nation to continue the struggle when all other allies had already fallen. The people rallied, and the United Kingdom survived the crisis to win the war and remain a world power. It is probable that without this stirring oratory, the opposite would be true.
5. Franklin Roosevelt (1933).
Roosevelt addresses a nation terrified at the prospect of continued economic collapse, reassuring the masses with his epic “The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself” inaugural speech. Although somewhat flowery and not spoken even remotely close to the common vernacular, the message somehow got through and was a great comfort for most of America.
4. Jesus Christ (ca 33 A.D.)
The Sermon On the Mount is to a large extent the core of the Christian religion. Christ tells the people that the Old Testament (and Old Covenant) are what was, and His words are now what is. Examples such as replacing “an eye for an eye” with “turn the other cheek” mark a clear break with the past and a new way of thinking and acting. A major assertion of The Sermon is the unimportance of material wealth, a teaching that serves to attract poor people to Christianity to this day, and since the poor outnumber the wealthy, that means affecting billions of people. This speech does not rank higher due to controversy inherent in religious beliefs.
3. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1963).
“I have a dream…” Those words to many summarize the long hard struggle for civil rights. In a movement characterized by many great and stirring speeches, this one stands out as the iconic symbol of the cause. Delivered to over 250,000 people crowded in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., King evoked the Declaration of Independence like Lincoln did in the Gettysburg Address, and also alluded to Lincoln’s great speech.
2. Abraham Lincoln (1863).
The Gettysburg Address delivered after the pivotal battle of Gettysburg is famous for its eloquence and also its brevity, lasting just over 2 minutes. The 1800’s were a time of long flowery orations lasting 2 or more hours without a break, and the initial response to Lincoln’s masterpiece was one of incredulity at how short it was. Once the words sunk in, this famous speech clearly laid out the determination of Lincoln to save the union and united unionists and those wavering in the resolve to save our country. Cracked fact: Like Patrick Henry’s speech below, the exact text is unknown as of course no recording devices existed and the 5 known transcripts vary.
1. Patrick Henry (1775).
As described above, Henry’s stirring oft repeated quotation, “Give me liberty or give me death!” is probably the greatest quotation in American history. What is not known, is if that is what he really said. A written transcript of the speech was not even made until years after Henry’s death. Still, the effects on the audience were the same, and that was to stir Virginians to the revolutionary cause.
For more information, please see…
Blaisdell, Bob. Great Speeches of the 20th Century (Dover Thrift Editions). Dover Publications, 2011.
Safire, William. Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History (Updated and Expanded Edition). W. W. Norton & Company, 2004.