A Brief History
On December 5, 63 BC, Roman politician and famed orator Cicero delivered the 4th of his famous Catiline Orations to the Roman Senate, warning of a plot to overthrow the Roman government. Cicero is usually considered one of Rome’s greatest orators, and also one of the best speakers in History. Today we list 10 of those people that delivered inspirational messages via the spoken medium, whether we agree with their messages or not, and some of these people we admit we do not even like. (Note: There is no significance to the order listed.)
1. Cicero, Rome.
An upper class aristocrat, Cicero was born in 106 BC and died in 43 BC at the age of 63, having been a Consul of the Roman Republic, Governor of Cilicia, Praetor, Aedile and Quaestor of the Roman Republic (Western Sicily), as well as a lawyer. Cicero is most famous for his oratorical and other language abilities, a true master of the Latin language and credited with great influence upon that tongue. So important to the development of language was Cicero, that his influence spread to include other European languages affected by the Latin of the Romans. His embracement of Greek Philosophy was spread throughout Rome through his magic way with words, influencing Roman thought. An opponent of dictatorship by Julius Caesar, Cicero orated about a return to a democratic republic for Rome, becoming the inherited enemy of Marc Antony, who had him executed in 43 BC, the surest way to silence Cicero’s golden voice. The study of Cicero and his messages helped foster the Renaissance in Europe centuries later.
2. John F. Kennedy, United States.
Kennedy showed the people of the United States a glimpse of his incredible speaking ability during the televised debates during the 1960 presidential election against Richard Nixon. Kennedy’s “New Frontier” speech during the Democratic National Convention in 1960 marked him as a major speaker and his 1961 inauguration speech must rank among the most inspirational of all speeches by any American president ever, and the message resounds even today. After the Bay of Pigs debacle, Kennedy took responsibility and the American public took him to their hearts in his admission of defeat. During the Cuban Missile Crisis that followed soon after, Kennedy balanced strength with restraint in just the right portions to avert a major crisis and perhaps a Third World War. Kennedy’s 1963 speech to a million person crowd in Berlin, Germany, with the immortal line “Ich bin ein Berliner!” resonates through history to this day, one of the truly most famous lines of any speech ever given, even though the message was grammatically flawed!
3. Martin Luther King, Jr., United States.
With the familiar cadence of a preacher, the Reverend King spoke clearly and with passion, electrifying audiences with his visions of equality and hope for a better future. His “I have a dream” speech in 1963 was so persuasive that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 owes the speech a great deal of credit for the adoption of the Act. King spoke of ideas and love, not hate, and avoided confrontational and mean-spirited oratory despite the invective hurled back at him and the Civil Rights Movement. His speeches acknowledged the fact that hateful elements in the United States put his own life in jeopardy by speaking out, but by words and actions he was not deterred from delivering his message. Another of his great speeches came in April of 1968, the “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech in which he called for unity of all races, non-violent protest, and implored the people of the United States to live up to the ideals on which the country was founded, perhaps his most poignant speech of all. At the end of this speech, he acknowledged the threat to his own life, and the next day he was assassinated.
4. Adolf Hitler, Germany.
Not a successful artist, and later proven to be less than a stellar example of a strategist and tactician of the battlefield, Hitler nonetheless is one of History’s great orators. His passionate appeals for nationalism and railing against Jews, Poles, Communists and other scapegoats electrified the German people into following Hitler right down a path into the depths of Hell itself. It takes a powerful speaker to accomplish that! Hitler’s speeches were no accident of innate talent, however. He practiced in front of a mirror to work just the right expressions and mannerisms to evoke the best response. His high art of oratory was gained through research and diligent practice, copying the techniques of opera and the theater.
5. Pericles, Greece.
So important to the city state of Athens (Greece), the Golden Age of Athens is often referred to as The Age of Pericles (461-429 BC). A General, statesman, and orator, Pericles promoted literature and the arts as well as social reforms and building the strength of Athens. A firm advocate of democracy, his enemies called him a “populist,” a title he probably deserved and would not mind. Quiet and withdrawn as a child, Pericles was well educated and as a young man began to demonstrate his rhetorical and oratorical skills, evoking an undeniable charisma that brought people to his way of thinking. In spite of the rigid class distinctions of Athens, Pericles was a champion of the poor and won concessions for them, including free admission to the theater. The efforts of Pericles to raise the status and condition of the masses was a major influence on the increase of Athenian influence and power, as those same masses were the heart of the army and navy and responsible for most Athenian production. Despite attacks from political enemies, Pericles was a capable enough speaker to remain in power until his death in 429 BC.
6. Winston Churchill, United Kingdom.
Half-American (on his mother’s side), Churchill was a successful politician by the time of World War I, lost favor, and regained power as the wartime Prime Minister during World War II. His inspirational speeches motivated and captivated the British people and served notice to the enemies of Britain that the will of the British people, as personified by Churchill, was strong. His motivational speeches overwhelmed the voices of despair, and encourage Franklin Roosevelt and the American people to continue to support Britain during the darkest days of The Battle of Britain and The Blitz. It was Churchill that warned the world of the “Iron Curtain” that had fallen across Europe at the hands of the USSR in a speech given in Missouri in 1946. Besides popularizing the “Iron Curtain” term, he is closely associated with “We shall never surrender!” and “This was their finest hour!” as well as “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” Another of the lines of from his brilliant oratory is his offer of “blood, toil, tears and sweat” to the British people, an offer delivered with such convincing sincerity that he was thoroughly believed.
7. Ronald Reagan, United States.
This man’s nickname says it all, “The Great Communicator.” Honestly, I found his speeches to be disingenuous, but his folksy manner and measured delivery combined just the right amounts of guy next door with an elite person in charge tone, an incredible talent to have. Even if you disagree with his words, those words undeniably inspired millions of people both within the United States and around the world. “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” With those words he gave an order to the leader of the Soviet Union, the second most powerful country on Earth in no uncertain terms, and got away with it. (Sadly, compare this to President Obama telling Mr. Putin to “Knock it off” regarding Russian meddling in US elections.) (Honorable mention to General Douglas MacArthur, who like Reagan was a consummate actor that made the most of speaking opportunities and in fact delivered a couple of the greatest 20th Century speeches of all.)
8. Franklin Roosevelt, United States.
FDR persuaded Americans to vote him into office as President of the United States a record 4 times, so by this fact alone he must have been a wonderfully persuasive speaker. His speeches covering the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and dealing with the Great Depression, supporting the Free World as “The Arsenal of Democracy,” and his use of radio as a medium for his “Fireside Chats” mark him as one of the greatest and most successful speakers of all time.
9. Sojourner Truth, United States.
Her “Aint I a Woman?” speech of 1851 is one of the masterpiece speeches of all time, and her eloquence did not end at the podium. Sojourner Truth was able to win a court case against a White man in 1828 in order to win custody of her own son, the first time a Black woman had ever won a court case against a White man. Truth (birth name Isabella Baumfree) lived up to her chosen name by speaking the unvarnished truth in plain terms, easily understood and persuasive. She successfully recruited Black men to fight for the Union during the Civil War and also spoke at Women’s Rights events as well as campaigning for the rights of African Americans. Smithsonian Magazine named her as one of the 100 Most Significant Americans of All Time in 2014, and her significance was mainly due to her speaking ability.
10. Nelson Mandela, South Africa.
The fact that this man overturned a century of apartheid in South Africa, largely with the eloquence of his oratory, is testament to the greatness of his ability as a speaker. One of Mandela’s most eloquent speeches came in 1964 at his own trial for treason and sabotage, a speech in which he risked going to the gallows! Instead, his words rang true, as he did not deny the charges, but explained himself in great fashion, decrying White domination and Black domination as well, seeking a South Africa where neither race dominates the other. Sentenced to life in prison, he was finally released in 1990, and in 1994 was inaugurated as President of the country, the first Black president of a predominantly Black country. His inaugural speech reiterated the concept that no race should dominate another, and that all South Africans would be treated fairly under the law.
Question for students (and subscribers): Who would you add to (or delete from) the list? Patrick Henry? Henry Clay? Daniel Webster? Mahatma Gandhi? Jesus Christ? Billy Graham? Demosthenes? Abe Lincoln? Teddy Roosevelt? (After all, he did go on with a speech after being shot in the chest!) Of course, it is easier to include people from the modern age when we have recordings of their speeches and speaking and not just a written account of what was said. Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Everitt, Anthony. Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician. Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2003.