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List of Lists: Top 10 American Speeches

Businessman and former professional golfer Jack Nicklaus and moderator Mary Daugherty, professor of Finance, talk at the University of St. Thomas Family Business Center Family Business Breakfast Series on September 30, 2016 in Schulze Auditorium in Schulze Hall in Minneapolis.

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.