Words That Changed America: Great Speeches That Inspired, Challenged, Healed, and Enlightened

Words That Changed America: Great Speeches That Inspired, Challenged, Healed, and Enlightened

Words That Changed America: Great Speeches That Inspired, Challenged, Healed, and Enlightened

Words That Changed America: Great Speeches That Inspired, Challenged, Healed, and Enlightened

Excerpt

Few things are quite as bad as a bad speech—anyone who has graduated from high school will confirm this. Having read thousands of speeches from American history, I must also report that many historic speeches, and almost all commencement addresses, are pompous, narrowly aimed at some constituency, and utterly forgettable.

But the opposite is true as well: A great speech has a unique power to challenge and inspire. Speeches tipped the colonies into open revolt and sparked the Civil War. Speeches contributed directly to the abolition of slavery, won women the right to vote, and sent millions of Americans across the ocean to fight wars in Europe and Asia. At every pivotal moment in American history you will find a great speech. The aim of this book is to bring together the best and most influential American speeches to offer a vivid and engaging history of our country.

Many of the speeches that follow are well known and momentous—they are themselves important historical events. After Patrick Henry stood up in the Virginia legislature and demanded liberty or death, the Revolutionary War was nearly inevitable. James Madison's 1788 speech in support of the proposed Constitution may well have saved the document from the dustbin of history. In landmark speeches in 1917 and 1941, both Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt convinced a nation leery of foreign entanglement that its own interests were vitally involved in a world war that was leveling Europe. Lyndon Johnson's 1964 address to the nation after a skirmish in the Gulf of Tonkin led directly to the escalation of the Vietnam War.

Many speeches also provide remarkable snapshots of the most dramatic hours in our history. The very survival of the nation was in question on July 2, 1776, when George Washington circulated his General Orders, and on December 8, 1941, when Franklin D. Roosevelt went before Congress to report the near-total destruction of the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. Perhaps the most perilous episode in our history began on January 20, 1961, when John F. Kennedy appeared in the living rooms of America to inform the nation for the first time that Soviet nuclear missiles had been . . .

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