Top 10 Speeches in History

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On March 12, 1933, American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) initiated his first national “fireside chat,” a mode of communication that sought to reroute information through the traditional journalistic route in favor of more direct contact. Roosevelt wanted to connect with the people, instead of letting publishing outlets interpret his policies publicly.

FDR’s reign - which lasted far longer than any other president in American history due to his flaunting of the two-term gentlemen’s agreement in place since Washington - was as close to fascism as the American system will permit. The checks and balances built by the American Framers of the constitution, and the relatively large size of the bureaucracy, simply don’t allow for the excesses associated with actual fascist governance, but Roosevelt came awfully close, and his fireside chats played an important role in maintaining his power within the American system for such a long period of time.

With that being said, democratic governments often produce the best speakers. Democracies inspire orators, mostly because they must, as elections require voters, and voters flatter themselves, but there is also a darker aspect tempting democracy’s orators: demagoguery. Each generation of citizens of democratic polities must figure out for themselves, using history as a guide, who is a sage and who is a villian.

Below is my list of the “10 Most Famous Speeches of All Time,” and as you read through it take pains to draw the connection between grand speeches and democratic governance; between grand speeches and liberty.

10. The Funeral Oration of Pericles: 431 BC. Following the first few battles between the Athens-led Delian League and the Sparta-led Peloponnesian League, a funeral for the dead was given by the Athenians, as was their custom. In it, Pericles took pains to defend the Athenian way of life, democracy, and contrast it with other forms of government and how these orders molded men in their thought and action. Pericles’ defense of democracy has inspired statesmen, philosophers, and teachers for millenia. Far more powerful a passage can be found in Pericles’ comfort for the families of the dead, though: “I know how hard it is to make you feel this [happiness], when the good fortune of others will too often remind you of the gladness which once lightened your hearts. And sorrow is felt at the want of those blessings, not which a man never knew, but which were a part of his life before they were taken from him.” The whole speech can found here.

9. Iron Curtain speech by Winston Churchill: March 5, 1946. Churchill is heavily admired by Americans, mostly because he was often found, in his more famous speeches, to be appealing to our curious sense of honor (democratic honor was often hard to fathom by Europeans prior to World War II) and our generous spirit (fostered by our commercial, republican mores). Given in Fulton, Mo., at Westminster College, this was the speech that roused the United States into action against the Soviet Union and its aggressive post-World War II policies: “Last time I saw it all coming and I cried aloud to my own fellow countrymen and to the world, but no one paid any attention. Up till the year 1933 or even 1935, Germany might have been saved from the awful fate which has overtaken her and we might all have been spared the miseries Hitler let loose upon mankind. There never was a war in history easier to prevent by timely action than the one which has just desolated such great areas of the globe. It could have been prevented, in my belief, without the firing of a single shot, and Germany might be powerful, prosperous and honored today; but no one would listen and one by one we were all sucked into the awful whirlpool. We must not let it happen again.” It marked the onset of the Cold War. The whole speech can be found here.

8. We Shall Fight on the Beaches Speech by Winston Churchill: June 4, 1940. The United Kingdom had just been routed in France by the Germans. Hundreds of thousands of British and French forces had just made it safely to England from France thanks to the efforts of a shorthanded air force and the volunteer actions of British merchant marines and fishermen. Churchill was burdened with the unenviable task of reporting this defeat to the British public in a radio broadcast. Churchill relished his role to fire up the British public: “We shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.” The whole speech can found here.

7. Serve the People speech by Mao Zedong: Sept. 8, 1944. Communists were not good speech givers or speech writers. This is because they didn’t have to compete for hearts and minds. Theirs was a captive audience. This speech is included here to serve as a useful reminder of socialism’s vast, underreported shortcomings as social system; to serve as a reminder of the state socialist’s blatant hypocrisy and bold chimera. Serve the people, indeed. Serve them empty bowls of gruel and stale bread in the midst of a famine. Serve them with extrajudicial killings, show trials, and one-party elections. Serve the people with art and literature bans, censorship of the press, and extravagant governing palaces. Serve the people with labor camps, unaccountable environmental catastrophes, and religious persecution. Serve the people with gaudy martial parades, secret police forces, and threats to their families. You can read the whole thing here. Study it closely.

6. The Boys of Pointe du Hoc Speech by Ronald Reagan: June 6, 1984. Forty years after the Allies retook the beaches of France from Germany, the President of the United States gave a somber speech to the men who fought there. After lauding the American, British, French, Polish, and Canadian forces for storming the heavily fortified shores of Normandy, and in the midst of a Cold War with the world’s other superpower, Reagan had this to say: “It's fitting to remember here the great losses also suffered by the Russian people during World War II: 20 million perished, a terrible price that testifies to all the world the necessity of ending war. I tell you from my heart that we in the United States do not want war. We want to wipe from the face of the Earth the terrible weapons that man now has in his hands. And I tell you, we are ready to seize that beachhead. We look for some sign from the Soviet Union that they are willing to move forward, that they share our desire and love for peace, and that they will give up the ways of conquest.” That’s how you give a speech. (It’s almost like he did that for a living or something.) The whole speech can be found here.

5. Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death Speech by Patrick Henry: March 23, 1775. In late March of 1775 the Second Virginia Convention was held at a small Episcopal church in Richmond, Va. Humble though those circumstances may have been, it was nevertheless the site of one of the most powerful call to arms in history. Patrick Henry had seen enough. The British monarchy was arming itself for war against its own colonies in North America, and ignoring the petitions of redress sent by colonial representatives to London: “Sir, we have done everything that could be done to avert the storm which is now coming on. We have petitioned; we have remonstrated; we have supplicated; we have prostrated ourselves before the throne [...] Our petitions have been slighted; our remonstrances have produced additional violence and insult; our supplications have been disregarded; and we have been spurned, with contempt, from the foot of the throne!” Faced with such dire circumstances, there were but two options: liberty or death. You can read the whole speech here.

4. Duty, Honor, Country Speech by Douglas MacArthur: May 12, 1962. General Douglas MacArthur was a divisive figure in his day. For many, he was too martial for a constitutional republic, too outspoken for a General, and some of the policies he argued for (foreign and domestic) were a bit too hawkish for my stomach. William Manchester’s biography of Douglas MacArthur, American Caesar, helped show me how important republican governance was to the General, though. MacArthur thought deeply about republicanism and the effects that war had on a republican citizen’s virtues and characteristics. I have the slight advantage of having Manchester’s work on MacArthur etched into the back of my mind while reading through the latter’s speech, given to cadets at West Point two years before his death: “His name and fame are the birthright of every American citizen. In his youth and strength, his love and loyalty, he gave all that mortality can give. He needs no eulogy from me; or from any other man. He has written his own history and written it in red on his enemy’s breast.” You can read the whole speech here.

3. Gettysburg Address by Abraham Lincoln: Nov. 19, 1863. Given in the middle of a war between two sides that once shared a republic, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address seals the republican circle started by Pericles celebrating democracy’s long struggle against despotic governments in Europe: “[...] that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” The Gettysburg Address symbolizes the enduring appeal of self-governance and that its flame, its light to the world, will be hard to extinguish from the North American continent. Lincoln managed to achieve this feat in 272 words. You can read the whole thing here.

2. What to the Slave Is the 4th of July? Speech by Frederick Douglass: July 5, 1852. Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist and former slave, gave a speech to a ladies’ abolition convention in Rochester, NY the after the Fourth of July to help make a point that he had been trying to make all his life: “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy -- a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.” Douglas’s optimistic take on the future of the United States and the world can be found at the end of his speech. Damon Root has an especially good essay on the constitutional thought of Frederick Douglass that is also worth reading in tandem with the latter’s own words.

1. I Have a Dream Speech by Martin Luther King, Jr.: Aug. 28, 1963. It is no mistake on my part that two African-Americans have the best speeches of all time. Black Americans symbolize the future of the world: full citizens in a democratic republic, desegregated consumers in a market economy, and active participants in a liberal moral order; the world can gain a lot of knowledge through the speeches and examples set by King and Douglass. Both men learned from the wisest of his oppressors and his allies, adapting their teachings to his dire circumstances, worked for freedom and dignity, worked against hypocrisy and power, and firmly believed that the world would undoubtedly become a better place to live: “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny, and they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.” You can read the entire speech here.

Further thoughts

No Hitler? No Mussolini? Fascists initially gave great speeches, since they had to gain power through the democratic process, but once they gained power, fascist speeches declined precipitously in quality. If you, like me, wonder why fascist governments arose in Italy and Germany during the interwar years, then check out Daniel Ziblatt’s book on the puzzle of federalism in Germany and Italy. Ziblatt doesn’t answer the question of fascism directly, but he does do a marvelous job of tracing the historical roots of republican motives and actions in German and Italian-speaking regions of Europe before Germany and Italy came into existence.

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