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.