Any student of history will, at some point in his or her career, have been exposed to speeches that supposedly changed the world, or at least represented a defining moment of an epoch. These speeches may have been written by the speaker themselves, or with the help of speechwriters, in order to convey a certain message but it’s not just the content – the delivery and context, too, combine to make a public address something really spectacular and memorable . Whether it’s preaching a message of equality, like Martin Luther King Jr., or a message of hate and destruction, like Adolf Hitler, a speech delivered in a powerful way can impact listeners, move them to action – and sometimes even manipulate them.
Good speakers know how to structure their speeches (evocative vocabulary conveys powerful ideas), as well as their delivery, offering charisma, confidence and a strong voice to make their arguments convincing. This can be a positive thing, but the power of speech can also be incredibly destructive: Adolf Hitler was known to be a hugely powerful orator, and as a charismatic and captivating speaker, he preached a message of hope to a desperate people. As we now know, his rhetoric and powerful delivery allowed Hitler to gain enormous support for ill-defined, dangerous ideas. But here, we’re looking at five points in history when a single speech made a real and constructive difference, or memorably marked a time of cataclysmic change for a nation, or even for the world. These five simple messages have played huge roles in shaping their country and their people.
5. Abraham Lincoln – Gettysburg Address
After the Union Army defeated the Confederate army at the Battle of Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln went on to deliver what would become arguably his most notable speech, The Gettysburg Address. On October 17th 1863, three months after the famous Battle of Gettysburg, Union soldiers began to be reburied. President Lincoln was invited by Edward Everett to attend the Consecration of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg (the new resting place for these fallen soldiers) and ” formally set apart these grounds…by a few appropriate remarks”.
The speech lasted no more than 2 minutes, but that was enough to establish it as one of the greatest speeches in American history. The speech reiterated the basis of human equality as stated by the Declaration of Independence, and described the Civil War as a struggle for that equality – not just for the Union supporters, but for all of Americans, for equality as a basic principle. Lincoln also recognizes the sacrifices made by the fallen soldiers at Gettysburg and reassures the American people that the “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth”, igniting hope for the American nation. What makes this inspiring speech even more notable is that Lincoln was suffering from the early stages of smallpox when he delivered the address.
The speech has a prominent place in history and American culture. However, the exact location and the exact wording of the speech are up for debate: To date, there are five known manuscripts of the Gettysburg Address and scholars have hypothesized that Lincoln was standing at least 40 yards away from the site that’s marked as being the place of Lincoln’s address.
4. Winston Churchill – Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat
Prime Minister in the first year of the Second World War, Winston Churchill, gave his famous, “Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat” speech to the House of Commons. His speech’s main point is asking the House to put its trust in the Government during the War and to wage war against the invading Nazis. It would go on to be one of the finest call-to arms speeches to date – and it was Churchill’s first ever speech in the House of Commons.
Churchill’s speech was meant to create a simple solution: wage war on Nazi Germany. Churchill’s predecessor Neville Chamberlain tried to pacify the nation, appease Germany and thereby limit violence. But Churchill made it clear his policy would be entirely at odds with this, saying; “with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime”. The strength of the Nazis guaranteed that the UK’s intervention would cause war, and that’s a hard sell for any world leader. At this time, Churchill went a long way in convincing his audience that he could unite the country in the decision to go to war and fight for the survival of Great Britain. And this speech is all the more significant in retrospect, marking as it did the moment which would start the Second World War and would lead to the eventual downfall of Nazi Germany.
3. John F. Kennedy – Inaugural Address
Two years before his untimely and tragic death, John F. Kennedy was elected the Democratic leader of America. His inaugural speech, delivered the following year on January 20th 1961, was almost 14 minutes in length making it the fourth shortest inaugural speech ever delivered. It’s also often cites as one of the best presidential inauguration speeches ever delivered in American history.
Nominated to the presidency at the height of the Cold War, JFK had the daunting task of representing the country as a Superpower to be reckoned with while simultaneously keeping peaceful international relations. His speech encompasses his embracing of this very burdening duty and an elucidation of the relationship between power and duty. In the fifth passage of the speech, he states that, “United there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative adventures. Divided there is little we can do,” Here he appeals to the idea that, if international values are refocused on being united, nations will thrive. One of his most iconic words in the speech, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” is a call for action to the citizens of America to do the right thing for the greater good. The success of this speech was JFK’s ability to highlight the existence of optimism and idealism in this time of general panic and anxiety.
2. Ronald Reagan – Remarks at the Brandenburg Gate
On June 12th 1987, US President Ronald Reagan issued a challenge to Soviet Union leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, to tear down the Berlin Wall. The challenge itself, “Tear down this wall!” was incorporated into the speech President Reagan delivered at the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin.
The Berlin wall had been separating West and East Berlin for 20 years as a symbol of communist oppression. President Reagan, on his way to the G-Summit meeting in Venice, made a brief stop in Berlin to state his views on the dismantling of the Wall. His choice to deliver the speech at the Brandenburg Gates was meant to highlight Reagan’s view that, if there was any hope of wiping out the division it was through Western democracy. On the day of the speech, behind two panes of bulletproof glass, Reagan fiercely demanded, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
Despite the fact that the Berlin Wall was torn down more than 2 years later, it is still widely disputed how much of an impact Reagan’s words had on the German people, but it remains one of Reagan’s most memorable and influential speeches. In spite of its limited media coverage, the speech created a vast legacy that secured Reagan’s abilities as an influential communicator. His speech shows represents values of peace and democracy rather than intimidation.
1. Martin Luther King Jr. – I Have a Dream
One of the most recognizable speeches of all time, Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech was ranked as the top American speech of the 20th century in a 1999 poll.
August 28th 1963 would go down in history as a day that would change the course of the Civil Rights Movement. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was a mass demonstration of support for the civil rights legislation that President Kennedy had proposed 2 months earlier. As a leader of the movement, Dr. King created his speech as a kind of homage to Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
Dr. King touched on the Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation, as well as the United States Constitution. As he begins his speech, he alludes to the Gettysburg Address by saying “Five score years ago…” The speech reflected on Dr. King’s experience with American society’s treatment, or rather mistreatment of black citizens. He calls upon one of America’s founding promises – that it is a provider of freedom and justice to all people.
Over 250 000 people were present at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to witness this speech that would transcend history as a call for equality. Writer Jon Meacham has said that, “With a single phrase, Martin Luther King, Jr. joined Jefferson and Lincoln in the ranks of men who’ve shaped modern America”. MLK’s ‘dream’ of an equal America is generally recognized as one of the most significant, transformative and inspiring speeches in the history of America.