Talk of the Nation

Oratory in America

Published: October 16, 2013
Illustration Depicting "Cross of Gold" Speech

Cartoon depiction of William Jennings Bryan, whose “Cross of Gold” speech propelled him to the 1896 Democratic nomination for president. Source: Wikicommons.

This November marks the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. It’s one of the most iconic speeches in American history, but in 1863, it didn’t exactly make a huge splash. “The cheek of every American must tingle with shame,” commented one newspaper at the time, “as he reads the silly, flat and dishwatery utterances.”

On this episode, we’ll use the anniversary as a jumping-off point to explore the changing role of oratory throughout American history. From the fiery sermons of traveling preachers in the 18th century to the teleprompted prime-time addresses of presidents today, we’ll look at how audiences’ expectations of orators have shifted, and ask why some speeches loom so much larger — or smaller — in our memory than they did in their own times.

Help shape this episode! What is your favorite speech from history, and what do you think makes it so effective? Do you have memories of a speech that moved you but that is now lost to history? Has the soundbite media culture killed the tradition of great speech-making, or does that tradition live on in unexpected places? Share your questions, stories and ideas below. Or email them to backstory [at] virginia [dot] edu.

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Comments (17)

{Discussion is closed
  1. Brian

    What about a segment on the oratory embodied in stand-up comedy? What is the history of this kind of oratory? Is it an American-made art form? What political and cultural impacts has it had, for example, Lenny Bruce.

  2. Jim Mica

    I was born Four Score and five years, to the day, after Lincoln’s address. Where the contemporary reviews thought little of it, I wonder just how little most of us think of it these days since it has become a kind of liturgical reading. We have kids memorize and regurgitate it at Memorial Day events, but as they do so it might as well be written in Latin it meanings are so foreign to our ears. Gary Wills has said that it was the speech that “Remade America.” When did it have it’s greatest impact? When was it referred to and studied before it became an ossified piece of prose poetry?

  3. Jim Mica

    OK, above I’ve already admitted to a special relationship with the Gettysburg address. I have a young friend who was also born on November 19th, but in his case it was 147 years after Lincoln spoke.
    As we’re coming up on the 150th anniversary I wonder: is anyone offering a facsimile of the address this year? I’ve Googled but not found anything.
    Thank you,
    Jhm

  4. Brian

    The speeches that backstory reference above are both ones that are strident, no-holds-barred calls to action. But what about those times in American history that required subtlety (for example, the Jim Crow South, the red scare, and the McCarthy era)? How did the major speakers of those times get their points across, and how do you measure the success of those speeches? I’m thinking in particular of Booker T Washington’s Atlanta Compromise speech, but I’m sure there are many others.

    • Jeff Brentlinger

      In reference to the McCarthy Witch Hunts the most effective approaches seemed to be the most direct. Two examples of which would be:
      • Edward R. Murrow, See It Now of March 9, 1954, or
      • Joseph Welch’s defense of Fred Fisher at the Army-McCarthy Hearings

  5. Roxanne

    One of my favorite speeches is the Gettysburg Address. My school celebrated the life and achievements of Abraham Lincoln on Lincoln Day. We had to memorize and be able to recite the Gettysburg Address. At a young age, I was exposed to the history and the purpose of the Gettysburg Address. The speech is effective in appealing to the audience and invites them to honor the men who died by continuing the fight for equality. In such a concise matter, the speech moves the audience and is well-constructed in emphasizing the principle of equality.

  6. Annie Delyth Stratton

    One of the speeches that shook my world when I was just approaching womanhood was Sojourner Truth’s “And ain’t I a woman?” speech. Remove it from the iconic position it’s been put in, and let the spoken cadences express the anger and truth of her experience, and it is one of the most powerful speeches I’ve ever heard. It had, and still has, personal meaning to me. That’s when I began to break away from the constraints of the 1950s attitude toward females and become myself. And that is my gift to Sojourner: living as she might have had her race and gender not cast her into a role not chosen.

    • Sam Diener

      Annie,
      I hesitate to write this, because of the importance that this version of the speech has had for you, but I believe it is important to understand that this version of the speech does not come close to our best evidence of what Truth said.

      I posted about this in a dialogue on DailyKos a number of years ago at http://www.dailykos.com/story/2010/04/07/855034/-Updated-Dear-Gov-McDonnell-This-Was-Slavery:

      Unfortunately, this version, though widely distributed today, was reconstructed by a white woman, Frances Dana Gage, from her memory 12 years after Truth made the speech.

      Perhaps most tellingly, Gage claims Truth said she had 13 children, but Truth only had 5 (and lost another in infancy). Plus, in Gage’s version, “Truth” says multiple children were sold down south. In reality, one of her children, Peter, was sold to Alabama. Remarkably, Truth sued and won Peter back, but the traumatized and whipped child, told who knows what lies about his mother by his enslavers, was terrified to return to his mother’s arms.

      There is a more contemporary version, written only a month after the speech, as is mentioned and reprinted on the http://www.sojournertruth.org/Library/Speeches/ website:

      ON WOMEN’S RIGHTS (The Ain’t I A Woman Speech)

      In May 1851 Sojourner Truth attended the Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio. She delivered a simple but powerful speech recorded in the June 21, 1851, issue of the Anti-Slavery Bugle, edited by Marcus Robinson (with whom Truth worked.) It is this speech which was transformed into the “Ain’t I a Woman?” legend by Frances Dana Gage, the organizer of the convention. She published her version of Truth’s speech, complete with crude Southern dialect in the April 23, 1863, issue of the New York Independent.

  7. Jeff Brentlinger

    While it may not be well remembered outside of my adopted hometown of Indianapolis, Robert Kennedy’s speech, announcing the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, here the night of April 4, 1968 has to rank high. This speech is widely credited with keeping Indianapolis calm that night (while there were riots in most other US Cities).

  8. k.o.

    (I tried to add this comment to today’s “On the Clock”, but the page won’t open.)

    Not everyone is an “early riser” …. I get the most of my energy in the afternoon and evening!

    Even if I get up early, I don’t fully mentally check-in until later in the day! I am in full support of extending daylight saving further into winter, as it is very depressing for someone who gets going in the afternoon just to have the sun set and darkness fall so early…

    Here’s a simple example: yard work. People like me who get their energy later in the day, well, we like to go out and do yard work later in the afternoon. I tend to do it after 4pm or later. My early-riser neighbor always likes to be out doing yard work very early. His whole yard is done long before mid-day. I, on the other hand, now that the sun sets at 5pm am often out _in_the_dark desperately trying to finish the yard while barely able to see what I am doing! …..

    I would say that the earlier setting sun time affects people like me much more than a delayed sunrise affects early risers! They get a whole day of sunlight ahead no matter what. Nightowls, on the other hand end up with much shorter days — and hours of darkness when we are the most active and productive!

    (Plus – unfortunately it still seems like ‘early risers’ tend to get praise and be considered to be “better” than people who get their energy later in the day. I resent this, because it is a biological difference. How is it “lazy” to have variations in energy reserves? Why do people like to boast about getting up early?!…)

      • k.o.

        Yes! Night-owls unite! Apparently there’s a movement in Denmark in favor of shifting the work day back one hour or of giving people more flexibility to choose starting times owing to this biological difference!

        Maybe NPR could do a show on this?

        I am in favor of extending daylight saving longer into the dark winter! No more afternoon sunsets!! ….

  9. Rob Collins

    I am interested in a speech preserved in Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, namely, “Logan’s Lament.” It is moving in itself, but also interesting as a widely copied example of Indian oratory that Americans took pride in even while continually making war on Indians. I also wonder where the speech actually came from. Do we have any evidence that Logan actually composed this speech for Gov. Dunmore, or does it belong with the remarks speciously attributed to Chief Seattle way out west?

  10. Elizabeth

    What role have religion, pastors, and sermons played in the evolution of political oratory? Sermons are a different kind of speech but, like political speeches, sermons can be calls to action, condemnations of injustice, or even twisted truths to advance an agenda (like some unfortunate sermons from pastors in the Jim Crow South). There also seems to be a strong correlation between sermons and political speeches, even to this day. I’d love to hear more about this!

    Thanks for the consistently wonderful programs!

  11. 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).

  12. Sam Diener

    I mentioned in my previous message that it was hard to choose, so I mentioned a couple of powerful twentieth century feminist speeches. 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.
    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.