Famous Speeches

Famous speeches are public addresses, often by statesmen, politicians, presidents or royalty, who use rhetoric to inspire, excite and motivate masses of people and whole nations into common causes, values, beliefs and action. Many famous speeches have marked significant events in history.

Among the most praised speeches of all time are the Gettysburg Address by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, the Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat speech by Winston Churchill (1940), the I Have a Dream speech by Martin Luther King, Jr (1963) and the Declaration of War against the United States by Adolf Hitler (1941). Further examples include the Abdication Speech (1936) by King Edward VIII of Britain, the Spanish Armada Speech by Queen Elizabeth I of England (1588), the Quit India Address by Mahatma Gandhi (1942) and No Easy Walk to Freedom speech by Nelson R. Mandela (1953). United States President John F. Kennedy's Inaugural Address in 1961 is particularly remembered for its rousing phrase: "ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country."

What make these speeches so notable are the topics and the style. The topics cover some historic moments for nations that change history, moments when individuals rise as one to face common threats of wars or to defend their universal civil rights and freedoms. But while noble causes are the source of inspiration for both public speakers and their followers and wider audience, the style is often what makes these speeches more memorable. And the style is usually that of elegance, eloquence and economy achieved through harmonious repetition of short and catchy phrases, wide use of metaphors, emotionally-charged words and other rhetorical tools.

A powerful example of this style is the Gettysburg Address delivered by U.S. President Abraham Lincoln on November 19, 1863, at the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, which gave a new meaning to the American Civil War as a "new birth of freedom," bringing equality to all citizens. The text of less than 300 words in three paragraphs was read in just a few minutes but became one of the most quoted in American history, especially its final line "government of the people, by the people, and for the people," which is the core of the U.S. system of government. The speech resembles a prose poem and a prayer and exemplifies epideictic (ceremonial or praise-and-blame) rhetoric, marked by antithesis and tricolons (a sentence with three clearly outlined parts of equal length).

Another piece of stunning rhetoric, which took the cue from Lincoln's address, is the 17-minute public speech delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr on August 28, 1963 on the steps of Lincoln Memorial during the great March on Washington in support of civil and economic rights of African Americans. The speech is an example of African American jeremiad (prolonged lamentation or complaint) and resembles a Baptist sermon, with many Biblical allusions and extensive use of anaphora (repetition of a phrase at the beginning of a sentence). The "I have a dream" phrase was repeated eight times and "one hundred years later" and "let freedom ring" were both used more than twice throughout the speech.

The Inaugural Address of President Kennedy delivered on January 20, 1961 after taking the oath of office is another renowned political speech that brings to mind the style of Lincoln. The speech is an example of Kennedy's outstanding rhetorical style, full of biblical quotations, antithesis, metaphors and chiasmus (inverted structure of clauses). Kennedy's oratorical style is also one of clarity and simplicity, away from ornament and extravagance and the extensive use of contrapuntal phrases (inversion of words for emphasis) benefits not only the rhythm but the strength of the message.

Another great speech is the call-to-arms speech given by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to the House of Commons on May 13, 1940, when he asked for a vote of confidence to his new all-party coalition war cabinet. What makes the speech so memorable is its passion and determination to win the war at all costs. The speech is aimed at encouraging the British to fight the apparently undefeatable enemy of Nazi Germany. The famous quote "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat" resounds like the history-changing words of another powerful ruler, Elizabeth I, who inspired the English troops at Tilbury Fort in 1588 when the Spanish Armada threatened invasion: "I know I have but the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart of a king, and of a king of England, too."

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Words That Changed America: Great Speeches That Inspired, Challenged, Healed, and Enlightened
Alex Barnett.
Lyons Press, 2003
Librarian’s tip: Includes such speeches as George Washington's "Farewell Address," Tecumseh's "Sleep Not Longer," and Franklin Roosevelt's "The Four Freedoms"
Let Freedom Ring: A Documentary History of the Modern Civil Rights Movement
Peter B. Levy.
Praeger, 1992
Librarian’s tip: Includes such speeches as Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream"
FREE! The World's Famous Orations
William Jennings Bryan; Francis W. Halsey.
Funk and Wagnalls, vol.9, 1906
Librarian’s tip: Includes such speeches as Abraham Lincoln's "The Gettysburg Address" and Jefferson Davis' "On Withdrawing from the Union"
FREE! The World's Famous Orations
William Jennings Bryan; Francis W. Halsey.
Funk & Wagnalls, vol.8, 1906
Librarian’s tip: Includes such speeches as Patrick Henry's "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!" and George Washington's First Inaugural Address
Man Cannot Speak for Her
Karlyn Kohrs Campbell.
Praeger Publishers, vol.2, 1989
Librarian’s tip: Includes such speeches as Susan B. Anthony's "Is It a Crime for a U.S. Citizen to Vote?" and Anna Howard Shaw's "The Fundamental Principle of a Republic"
Lift Every Voice: African American Oratory, 1787-1900
Philip S. Foner; Robert James Branham.
University of Alabama Press, 1998
Librarian’s tip: Includes such speeches as Sojourner Truth's "Arn't I a Woman?," Lucy Stanton's "A Plea for the Oppressed," and Frederick Douglass' "What, to the Slave, Is the Fourth of July?"
Selected American Speeches on Basic Issues, 1850-1950
Carl G. Brandt; Edward M. Shafter Jr.
Houghton Mifflin, 1960
Librarian’s tip: Includes such speeches as William Jennings Bryan's "Cross of Gold" and William Howard Taft's "For the League of Nations"
Nothing to Fear: The Selected Addresses of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1932-1945
B. D. Zevin; Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Houghton Mifflin, 1946
Librarian’s tip: Includes many of Roosevelt's Fireside Chats
Richard Nixon: Rhetorical Strategist
Hal W. Bochin.
Greenwood Press, 1990
Librarian’s tip: Includes Nixon's "My Side of the Story" speech, which is also known as the "Checkers" speech
In a Perilous Hour: The Public Address of John F. Kennedy
Steven R. Goldzwig; George N. Dionisopoulos.
Greenwood Press, 1995
Librarian’s tip: Includes Kennedy's Inaugural Address
FREE! The World's Famous Orations
William Jennings Bryan; Francis W. Halsey.
Funk and Wagnalls, vol.1, 1906
Librarian’s tip: Includes speeches by Socrates, Isocrates, Demonsthenes and other Greek orators
FREE! The World's Famous Orations
William Jennings Bryan; Francis W. Halsey.
Funk & Wagnalls, vol.2, 1906
Librarian’s tip: Includes speeches by Julius Caesar, Cicero, Seneca, and other Roman orators
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