This entry was curated by George Woytanowitz, an adjunct faculty member in the St. Thomas History Department since 1985. He specializes in U.S. political and intellectual history, as well as the history of education.

What makes a speech important? Rhetorical brilliance? Logical argumentation? Timing? Location? Short-term impact? Long-term impact? Are the greatest speeches those that reflect the tenor of the age? Or those that offer opposition to it? A combination of some or all of the above?

In selecting these 10 speeches I have tried to avoid obvious choices such as the “Gettysburg Address” and the “I Have a Dream” speech, and chosen lesser-known but important speeches by the same speaker.

10. Sojourner Truth “Ain’t I a woman?” May 29, 1851, in Akron, Ohio

At a time when women were discouraged or even prohibited from speaking in public meetings, Truth spoke to the causes of both gender and racial equality. Throughout American history, from the abolitionists to the 1960s feminists, there has been considerable cross fertilization between the gender and racial equality movements.

9. Ronald Reagan, “Tear Down this Wall,” June 12, 1987, in Berlin

Since its construction in 1961, the Berlin Wall was the symbol of the Cold War. In the early 1960s, President John F. Kennedy had rallied Berliners and assured them of America’s support. A quarter century later Reagan challenged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to remove this wall because “the wall cannot withstand freedom.” Two years later the wall’s destruction marked the beginning of the end of communism in eastern Europe and the end of the Cold War.

8. Abraham Lincoln, “House Divided Speech,” June 16, 1858, in Springfield, Illinois

Delivered at the Republican State Convention, which selected him as its senatorial candidate, Lincoln reviewed recent history and created a conspiracy theory of how all three branches of the Federal government appeared to be plotting to impose slavery on the entire nation. From the Bavarian Illuminati to the Masons to international bankers to the Trilateral Commission, Americans have regularly been inclined to give credence to conspiracy theories. Although Lincoln lost his senate bid to Stephen A. Douglas, his campaign oratory, especially the debates with Douglas, read widely throughout the North, made him a viable presidential candidate two years later.

7. Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Arsenal of Democracy,” Dec. 29, 1940

Faced with powerful public opposition to direct American involvement in the European war, FDR had engaged in delaying a clear statement of his commitment to using all American resources except troops for the defeat of Nazi Germany. Now, newly elected to an unprecedented third term, he clearly and forcefully stated his determination that there would be no obstacles in American aid to the Allies. His description of the Tripartite Agreement among Germany, Japan and Italy as an “unholy alliance” was echoed in Reagan’s later description of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire.” Letters and telegrams denounced FDR after the radio address, accusing him of seeking to take us to war.

6. Frederick Douglass, “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro,” July 5, 1852, in Rochester, New York

Douglass, the former slave, brilliantly contrasts the meaning of freedom and independence for white and black Americans at a time when the Fourth of July was observed more seriously than at present when it is observed with a hot dog-eating contest.

5. Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, “I will fight no more forever,” Oct. 5, 1877, in Montana

This very brief, melancholy speech sums up the unjust treatment of Native Americans by the U.S. government.

4. Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” July 8, 1741, in Enfield, Connecticut

Edwards is among the earliest of a lengthy list of religious revivalist preachers. His descendants include Charles Finney, Dwight Moody, Billy Sunday, Billy Graham, Fulton Sheen and Jerry Falwell. The jeremiad, followed by the call to repentance, is one of the major tropes of American religious oratory.

3. John Quincy Adams, “Speech to the U.S. House of Representatives on Foreign Policy,” July 4, 1821

The nations’ greatest secretary of state (yes, even greater than Hillary Clinton) warned about the temptation of American involvement in “good causes” around the world. America “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.” Americans generally followed this advice until 1898 when they succumbed to the intervention temptation to aid the cause of Cuban independence from Spain. Since then we have repeatedly ignored Adams, often to our chagrin. Someone should place a large-print framed copy of this speech in the Oval Office.

2. William Jennings Bryan, “Cross of Gold,” July 9, 1896, in Chicago

Political convention oratory is usually merely partisan boilerplate. But Bryan’s populist defense of the farmers and ranchers of the West and the South led to his nomination by the Democratic Party. The speech reflected the late 19th century divide between urban and rural America, a division that appears to be relevant in the current campaign. Although he was defeated in three tries at the presidency, Bryan’s over-the-top oratorical style is representative of American political oratory of that era – what one historian calls “hoop-la politics,” until it was killed off by radio, television and Twitter.

1. Martin Luther King, “Address to the Montgomery Improvement Association Mass Meeting,” Dec. 5, 1955

King was a relatively unknown young pastor, a recent arrival in Montgomery. Chosen to speak at a meeting in the Holt Street Baptist Church to rally support for a bus boycott in protest of the arrest of Rosa Parks, with barely an hour to prepare to his remarks, King’s speech brilliantly foreshadowed his major arguments and those of the civil right movements more generally over the next decade: nonviolence, Christianity and full participation in the rights of all Americans within an overlay of Biblically tinged rhetoric.

Feel free to post in the comments section which speeches you agree with, which you think are missing and what your top 10 would be.

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6 Responses

  1. Doug H

    Great list, George, and very interesting choices. I don’t disagree with any of them, although I prefer Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and his second inaugural address (especially the last paragraph) over the “House Divided” speech. I recently finished a book on the 1896 presidential election and found William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech amazing, especially its final lines: “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this cross of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind on a cross of gold.”

    Let me add one speech: by Vice President Theodore Roosevelt at the Minnesota State Fair in September 2001, just two weeks before President McKinley was assassinated and Roosevelt became president. This was his “Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick” speech, and it was given right here! Here is a link to a story about that speech:

    http://www.startribune.com/sept-3-1901-roosevelt-big-stick-speech-at-state-fair/273586721/

  2. Kari

    Terrific reference to Sojourner Truth. Surely she was not the last of the great female American orators since 1851…

    Susan B. Anthony’s “On Women’s Right to Vote (1873)”

    Lucy Stone – “Progress of 50 Years” (1893)

    Ida B. Wells – “NAACP Speech Against Lynching” (1909)

    Eleanor Roosevelt – “Struggle for Human Rights” (1948)

    Gloria Steinem’s “Address to the Women of America (1971)” – it addresses the intersections (cross-fertilization?) of race and gender in America

    Maya Angelou – “On the Pulse of Morning (1993)”

    Hillary Rodham Clinton – “Women’s Rights are Human Rights (1995)”

  3. Doug

    I forgot one of the most important speeches ever made by an immigrant to the US

    “It’s not about where you were born. Or what powers you have. Or what you wear on your chest. It’s about what you do… It’s about action.” – Superman

  4. Doug

    As they came to mind, not in any particular order.

    Abraham Lincoln – Gettysburg Address

    George Washington – Farewell Address

    Neil Armstrong – “That’s one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind”

    John F Kennedy – Inaugural Address

    Franklin Roosevelt – Pearl Harbor Speech

    Bobby Kennedy – “There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”

    Martin Luther King – I have a dream

  5. Mary Pribble

    Gettysburg Address is a Better speech-for Lincoln. Or the Second Inaugural

    Second Inaugural Speech is the Following:

    “Fellow-Countrymen:

    AT this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement somewhat in detail of a course to be pursued seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured. 1
    On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war—seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came. 2
    One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” 3
    With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations. 4 “

  6. Steven

    I have aways had a problem with Reagan getting too much credit for the fall of the Berlin Wall because of his speech, when Pope John Paul II did all the leg work.
    “Truth is very important when we speak of the course of history,” said Lech Walesa. He suggested that the fall of the Iron Curtain was due in a large part to Pope John Paul II and the Solidarity labor movement. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev once said the collapse of the Iron Curtain would have been impossible without John Paul II. St. John Paul II had a major role as the lead protagonist in the movement.