History's Most Important Speeches

Author Terry Golway faced a daunting task: He needed to identify the 50 best speeches of all time for a new book. He pored over dramatic orations, given by all sorts of public figures, such as Mahatma Gandhi.

Gandhi, of course, was the Indian leader who famously preached non-violent resistance to British rule in his quest for India’s independence. The people acted on his call for mass civil disobedience, but despite his emphasis on nonviolence, fighting did break out in several cities, and Gandhi was put on trial.

In a speech on March 18, 1922, Gandhi accepted responsibility for the bloodshed. Though he anguished over the possibility of such crimes, he had to preach disobedience, he told the judges. His heartfelt words, delivered extemporaneously, elevated his cause to an almost-religious level:

Thinking over these things deeply and sleeping over them night after night, it is impossible for me to dissociate myself from the diabolical crimes of Chauri Chaura or the mad outrages of Bombay. ...I knew that I was playing with fire. I ran the risk and if I was set free I would still do the same. ...I wanted to avoid violence. Nonviolence is the first article of my faith. It is also the last article of my creed. But I had to make my choice. I had either to submit to a system which I considered had done an irreparable harm to my country, or incur the risk of the mad fury of my people bursting forth when they understood the truth from my lips.

Gandhi’s words were stirring – their impact, epic. His willingness to become a martyr to the cause of Indian independence, and to his principles, influenced many other nonviolent “freedom fighters” throughout the years, such as Martin Luther King Jr.

History is full of memorable speeches. Golway makes a case for the greatest of these in Words that Ring through Time: The Fifty Most Important Speeches in History and How They Changed Our World. He looks at which speeches made a huge impact on their audience and still affect us today.

Gandhi, for example, demonstrated how a man’s words and spirit unified a country, says Golway: “Gandhi had no armies at his command, and yet he mobilized tens of millions, and his words still do so today.” 

Great Speeches Share Traits
The book’s collected speeches span a time from the days of Moses to Barack Obama’s recent U.S. presidential campaign. As different as these selections are, they all share two characteristics.

First, the speaker connects his listeners to something greater than themselves – often an idea or an ideal such as democracy, justice or freedom. One theme that occurs again and again is self-determination. Sometimes that’s expressed as a person’s desire to be an equal member of society (Susan B. Anthony advocating for women’s right to vote), sometimes as the desire of a people to be an independent nation.

A second characteristic is eloquent simplicity, words that everyone can relate to. King Albert of Belgium, for example, gave a radio address to his countrymen in 1914, just as World War I was beginning. “Everywhere in Flanders and Wallonia, in the towns and in the countryside, one single feeling binds all hearts together: the sense of patriotism,” he said, simply and eloquently.

Golway’s selections show how speakers throughout the ages have crafted their addresses for maximum impact. 

A Greek Orator Inspires
In the year 430 B.C., the Athenian leader Pericles gave a funeral oration honoring soldiers who died in the ongoing war with Sparta. Rather than give a showy speech laced with melodrama and heated descriptions of battle, he began by saying the deeds of the fallen spoke more powerfully than any words. Pericles didn’t thrill his audience with battle scenes. He didn’t give them the Iliad, updated. Instead of speaking of the men who fought, he spoke of the ideals they fought for. They died for Athens, the greatest state in Greece. And why was it great? Because Athens was a democracy and had a spirit of freedom and openness:

The administration is in the hands of the many and not of the few...when a citizen is in any way distinguished, he is preferred to the public service, not as a matter of privilege, but as a reward of merit. Neither is poverty an obstacle, but a man may benefit his country whatever the obscurity of his condition.

Pericles urged his listeners to rededicate themselves to the struggle at hand – as citizens of a police state ruled by an oligarchy – and reminded them that the fallen soldiers would have the greatest memorial of all, one “graven not on stone, but in the hearts of men.” In this quiet but moving oration, Pericles elevated the living as well as the dead by reminding them of cherished ideals. 

Speaking Out for Women’s Suffrage
In 1872, Susan B. Anthony was arrested by a United States Deputy Marshal. Her offense? Voting in an election. Two weeks earlier, she had cast a ballot in the presidential election, in defiance of a law that allowed only men to do so. Before her trial she embarked on a speaking tour to justify her actions. She made her case a symbol for something greater, “the disfranchisement of one entire half of the people.” Anthony referenced a sacred document in the eyes of 19th-century Americans – the United States Constitution:

It was we, the people, not we the white male citizens; nor yet we, the male citizens; but we, the whole people, who formed the Union...And it is downright mockery to talk to women of their enjoyment of the blessings of liberty while they are denied the use of the only means of securing them – the ballot.

Anthony then cited the dictionary definition of the word citizen: “Webster, Worchester and Bouvier all define a ‘citizen’ to be a person in the United States, entitled to vote and hold office. The only question left to be settled now is: Are women persons?

While her parsing of Webster might be questioned, Anthony’s point was clear and simple: Women are people, and, thus, should have the same rights as men. Her words greatly inspired her followers and gave hope to the modern women’s suffrage movement. It would take almost another 50 years, but when the 19th amendment was passed in June 1919, American women finally had the right to vote. Anthony’s words helped keep the dream alive throughout the time it took to reach that goal.

A King’s Powerful Appeal
The coming of the 20th century brought technological advances that enabled a speaker to reach an audience beyond the power of his voice. In August 1914, King Albert of Belgium went on the radio to speak to millions. World War I had just started and the German army was preparing to pour across the Belgian border in its rush toward France. “Albert sought to rally his countrymen against an overpowering aggressor, knowing full well that the odds were against Belgium,” says author Golway.

He had no easy task, since Belgium was a mosaic of ethnic groups, some speaking Dutch, some French, and others speaking additional languages. How could he draw them together? In his address the king subtly appealed to all Belgians to put aside their differences and focus on something greater than themselves – their country:

Everywhere in Flanders and Wallonia, in the towns and in the countryside, one single feeling binds all hearts together: the sense of patriotism. One single vision fills all minds: that of our independence endangered. One single duty imposes itself on our wills: the duty of stubborn resistance ... I have faith in our destinies; a country which is defending itself conquers the respect of all; such a country does not perish!

Note the repeated use of simple but powerful words conveying unity and inclusiveness: one single feeling, one single vision, one single duty, all hearts, our wills. The Belgian people responded to their sovereign’s appeal with such spirit that “Little Belgium’s” resistance has been a byword for courage ever since.

Kennedy and the Berlin Wall
Just as King Albert and Mahatma Gandhi sought to unify their countries with their speeches, John F. Kennedy wanted to reunify East and West Germany under a free government when he gave his famous Berlin Wall speech in 1963. “John Kennedy’s speech in Berlin is one of my favorites,” says Golway, “because we hear the voice of pure outrage. The Berlin Wall, Kennedy said, was a perfect symbol of the difference between West and East, between freedom and totalitarianism.” With the infamous wall as a backdrop, Kennedy discarded his prepared speech and spoke from the heart:

There are many people in the world who really don’t understand, or say they don’t, what is the great issue between the free world and the Communist world. Let them come to Berlin!... All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words, “Ich bin ein Berliner.”

Kennedy’s German may not have been perfect, but everyone understood his meaning: “I am a Berliner. Your struggle is mine.” 

Mandela’s Milestone Address
Nelson Mandela’s 1994 inaugural speech as president of South Africa was an extraordinary event. Although he had been imprisoned for 27 years in the cause of equality in South Africa, Mandela spoke without bitterness, sounding the same theme that Pericles spoke of so many years before – the desire of all people to have a fair chance in life:

We shall build the society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity – a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world...Never, never, and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world.

Mandela’s ideas are elevated but his words are commonplace, even earthy. Will there ever come a time when they are not understood, or when they fail to inspire?

“Nelson Mandela’s inaugural address was one of those rare ceremonial occasions that are the stuff of history,” says Golway. “The world will remember his inauguration as a milestone toward the creation of a new and hopefully more just global society. His speech was a testimonial to the power of determination, patience and forgiveness.”

No doubt there will be as many great speeches in the next 2,500 years as there were in the last. And the speakers who deliver them will likely follow the same formula of expressing a lofty ideal in down-to-earth language. No matter how their speeches are phrased, one thing is clear: Their words will be heard, hearts will find resolve and history will change course as a result.

William H. Stevenson, III,is a freelance writer in Huntsville, Alabama. He has been a member of three Toastmasters clubs in the Huntsville area. Contact him at whsteve3@aol.com.