Great American Speeches

Published: October 22, 2013

As we work on our upcoming show about American Oratory, we’re compiling a list of the greatest speeches in American history, as suggested by BackStory listeners. Here’s what we have so far:

General George Washington’s “Newburgh Address” in 1783, delivered to officers of the Continental Army who were threatening to overthrow the government.

Selection from Washington's address to the officers at Newburgh, courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Selection from Washington’s address to the officers at Newburgh, courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

“The Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro” – Frederick Douglass’ powerful 1852 speech on abolition and American ideals.

  • Hear historian David Blight discuss this speech, from our July 4th show:

President Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” - delivered in November 19th, 1863, at the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg, PA.

Manuscript copy of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, given to his secretary, John Nicolay. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Manuscript copy of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, given to his secretary, John Nicolay. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Binding up the Nation’s Wounds: Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, 1865

Copy of the second Inaugural Address; endorsed by Lincoln, April 10, 1865, March 4, 1865. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Copy of the second Inaugural Address; endorsed by Lincoln, April 10, 1865, March 4, 1865. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The Cross of Gold: William Jennings Bryan’s 1896 plea for the common man ( and a change in monetary policy) at the Democratic National Convention.

In 1921, Bryan recorded parts of the speech for Gennett Records – the audio is available via the Library of Congress, or you can check out this clip:

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” President Franklin Roosevelt’s 1933 inaugural address.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s message to American forces before D-Day, 1944

Read the text of Eisenhower’s address.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1961 farewell address, critiquing the “Military-Industrial complex.”

President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address

Read the text of Kennedy’s address.

Landing a man on the moon: Kennedy delivered a special message to Congress on May 25th, 1961, where he laid out this goal. The following September, he delivered this speech at Rice University, making the case for the moon landing:

“Ich bin ein Berliner”: President Kennedy’s 1963 speech in West Berlin, Germany

Read the text of Kennedy’s speech, and learn more about the great donut controversy his speech sparked!

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream speech,” at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

We dedicated a show to exploring Dr. King’s speech and its impact earlier this year – “The Fierce Urgency of Now.”

Bobby Kennedy’s speech in Indianapolis on April 4, 1968 after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“A real Texas accent”: Gov. Ann Richards (D-TX) at the 1988 Democratic Convention

Coach Jimmy Valvano’s speech on his battle with cancer at the 1993 Espy Awards

Neither Red nor Blue America. Then Senatorial-candidate Barack Obama, at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

 

PLUS! Courtesy of former BackStory producer Eric (plus listener contributions!): “every POTUS film speech”!

  • Armageddon:

  • Independence Day:

  • Head of State

  • Mars Attacks!

  • The West Wing (OK, TV counts here too!)

We’ll keep adding to this list, so please keep the great speech suggestions coming!

Got ideas or questions about American oratory? Take a look at how the show is shaping up, and share your thoughts!

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Comments (16)

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  1. Jeff Angevine

    Can I suggest Senator Obama’s Jefferson/Jackson Day speech from 2008? A good argument can be made that with that speech he convinced the country that 1) he was a legitimate candidate for change & 2), for all West Wing fans, that Jed Bartlett lived

    Reply
    • Sam Diener

      I do love that heartbreaking RFK speech, and he gave another remarkable speech the very next day, in Cleveland (“The Mindless Menace of Violence,” transcript at https://www.commondreams.org/further/2011/01/12-4), audio of the speech via youtube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hhANTymDIYk. On the RFK speech front, the opening to his Ripples of Hope speech in South Africa was also brilliant (see http://www.rfksafilm.org/html/speeches/unicape.php), which I’ll quote from here:
      “I came here because of my deep interest and affection for a land settled by the Dutch in the mid-seventeenth century, then taken over by the British, and at last independent; a land in which the native inhabitants were at first subdued, but relations with whom remain a problem to this day; a land which defined itself on a hostile frontier; a land which has tamed rich natural resources through the energetic application of modern technology; a land which once imported slaves, and now must struggle to wipe out the last traces of that former bondage. I refer, of course, to the United States of America.”
      The audio is available on that website too. Listening to the first couple minutes is worth it in order to the audience’s surprised response.

      Reply
  2. Jim Mica

    Good selection so far, but you are missing the great radio President: FDR!
    In addition to the famous Fireside Chats, we have two outstanding examples of Presidential rhetoric in his 1st Inaugural Speech ["We have nothing to fear but fear itself!"] and his “Day of Infamy” Speech after Pearl Harbor.
    He did not live to see the end of WWII. I wonder what his speech would have sounded like if he had. Would he spoken of binding up the wounds of world as Lincoln had spoken of binding up the wounds of a nation?
    jhm

    Reply
  3. Alec Rogers

    Washington’s Farewell and Webster’s Reply to Hayne – two classics that were once required reading.

    Washington’s address to his troops at Valley Forge probably kept the army, and the Revolution, from collapsing.

    Reply
  4. Sam Diener

    It’s hard to choose:
    Two feminist speeches have moved me perhaps more than any others:
    1) Andrea Dworkin’s 1983 speech, I Want a 24 Hour Truce In Which There is No Rape, a transcript of which is available at
    http://www.nostatusquo.com/ACLU/dworkin/WarZoneChaptIIIE.html.
    and
    2) Barbara Deming’s On Anger, (a transcript of which I’ve made available at https://www.dropbox.com/s/1ifh6t1w7bh26sj/OnAnger_Doc.doc (the transcript, which I cleaned up a bit, is from a earlier Deming website that has, sadly, folded)).
    Barbara Deming, a pacifist lesbian-feminist and anti-racist civil rights activist, has been called, by peace historian Ira Chernus, “probably the least well known of all the great theorists of nonviolence in U.S. history.” (see http://spot.colorado.edu/~chernus/NonviolenceBook/Deming.htm).

    But I’ll throw two more in here too:
    From the nineteenth century, I think my three favorite are two by Frederick Douglas, and one by Susan B. Anthony. The two were friends for decades, temporarily interrupted by Anthony’s overtly racist response to the 15th Amendment (and what Anthony regarded as an insufficiently feminist response by Douglas (who favored women’s suffrage from Seneca until the day of his death when he attended a women’s rights convention, but who also supported the 15th Amendment)).
    Anyway, the speeches:
    1) What to a Slave is the Fourth of July? http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/douglassjuly4.html, from 1852, which I’m pretty sure you have discussed on this show previously (and I see you linked to above).
    2) Douglas’ Oration in Memory of Abraham Lincoln. It is an astonishingly and profoundly generous, perhaps overly generous, but still quite deeply critical assessment of Lincoln, which Douglas gave in 1876, available at http://www.lib.rochester.edu/index.cfm?PAGE=4402. I love that speech for the heartfelt rigor and analytic gentleness he applied in equal measure, Douglas’ complex analysis of the morally complicated actions of a man whose racist attitudes Douglas helped partially shift.
    3) Susan B. Anthony’s sentencing statement after she committed civil disobedience by voting in the 1872 Presidential election (at least, her version of the sentencing statement, as there was no transcript), http://ecssba.rutgers.edu/docs/sbatrial.html.

    Reply

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