Constitution Daily

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Looking at 10 great speeches in American History

August 28, 2017 by NCC Staff


Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech certainly ranks highly in the pantheon of public speaking. Here is a look at the Dream speech and other addresses that moved people – and history.

jfkinauguralIn 1999, a survey of 137 public speaking and political scholars ranked the 100 most-important political speeches of the 21st Century. The academics evaluated speeches on the basis of their social and political impact, and rhetorical artistry.

King’s “Dream” speech from August 28, 1963 topped the list, followed by John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address and Franklin Roosevelt’s first inaugural address in 1933. In fact, three of King’s speeches were included in the top 50 speeches listed by the experts.

The eclectic list included public speeches from Barbara Jordan, Richard Nixon, Malcom X and Ronald Reagan in the top 10 of the rankings.

Link: Read The List

Public speaking has played an important role in our country’s story. Here is a quick look at some of the landmark speeches that often pop up in the discussion about public rhetoric.

1. Patrick Henry.Give Me Liberty Or Give Me Death.” In March 1775, Henry spoke to a Virginia convention considering a breakaway from British rule. “The war is actually begun. The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms,” said Henry, who spoke without notes. “I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!”

2. George Washington’s first inaugural address. In 1789, the First President addressed the First Congress after his inauguration, setting the precedent for all inaugural speeches to follow. Washington enforced the need for the Constitution, concluding that “Parent of the Human Race  … has been pleased to favor the American people with opportunities for deliberating in perfect tranquillity, and dispositions for deciding with unparalleled unanimity on a form of government for the security of their union and the advancement of their happiness.”

3. Frederick Douglass.The Hypocrisy Of American Slavery.” In 1852, Douglass was invited to speak at a public Fourth of July celebration in Rochester, N.Y. Instead of talking about the celebration, Douglass addressed the issue that was dividing the nation. “I will, in the name of humanity, which is outraged, in the name of liberty, which is fettered, in the name of the Constitution and the Bible, which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery,” he said.

4. Abraham Lincoln.The Gettysburg Address.” The best known of Lincoln’s speeches was one of his shortest. Lincoln was asked to make a few remarks in November 1863 after featured speaker Edward Everett spoke for about two hours. “Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” Lincoln said in his opening paragraph. He spoke for two minutes.

5. William Jennings Bryan.Cross of Gold Speech.” A lesser-known contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1896, Bryan created a sensation with his speech that condemned the gold standard and held the promise of debt relief for farmers. “We shall answer their demands for a gold standard by saying to them, you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold,” Bryan said with his arms spread in a crucifix-like position.

6. FDR’s first inaugural address. In 1933, the new President faced a nation in the grips of a deep economic recession. “First of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance,” Roosevelt said as he opened his powerful speech. The inaugural set the agenda for FDR’s 12 years in office.

7. Richard Nixon’s Checkers speech. Facing controversy as a vice presidential candidate, Nixon showed how television could be used as a powerful communications tool. In a stroke of political genius, Nixon spoke to the nation about his family finances, and then said the only gift he wouldn’t return was Checkers, the family dog.

8. JFK’s first inaugural address. The well-written 1961 speech is considered one of the best inaugural speeches ever. Rhetoric expert Dr. Max Atkinson told the BBC in 2011 what made the Kennedy speech special. “Tt was the first inaugural address by a U.S. president to follow the first rule of speech-preparation: analyze your audience - or, to be more precise at a time when mass access to television was in its infancy, analyze your audiences.”

9. Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. King’s speech at the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963, in front of 250,000 people, is also one of the most-analyzed speeches in modern history. But King hadn’t included the sequence about the “Dream” in his prepared remarks. Singer Mahalia Jackson yelled for King to speak about “the Dream,” and King improvised based on remarks he had made in earlier speeches.

10. Ronald Reagan in Berlin. President Reagan appeared at the 750th birthday celebration for Berlin in 1987, speaking about 100 yards away from the Berlin Wall. Reagan first cited President Kennedy’s famous 1963 speech in Berlin, and then asked, “General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” A Reagan speech writer later said the State Department didn’t want Reagan to use the famous line, but Reagan decided to do it anyway.


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