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These 11 Speeches from the Last Two Centuries Changed the World

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History News Network
History News Network

This post is in partnership with the History News Network, the website that puts the news into historical perspective. The article below was originally published at HNN.

The Hypocrisy of American Slavery

Who: Frederick Douglass

When: July 4, 1852

Why it matters: On the day marking American Independence, Frederick Douglass delivered a cutting speech denouncing American society. In the speech he demands to know how a people who pride themselves on liberty and equality can rightfully celebrate these ideals when millions are enslaved. Douglass chastises every American as a hypocrite, noting the irony in the 4th of July festivities taking place as he spoke.

Memorable quote: “What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? 

I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.”

The Gettysburg Address

Who: President Abraham Lincoln

When: November 19, 1863

Why it matters: The famous speech was uttered by President Lincoln amidst America’s Civil War. The famous opening line, “Four score and seven years ago,” calls on the American people to remember the intentions of the founding fathers. In the speech Lincoln never mentions slavery, the Confederacy, or even the Union. Instead, he emphasizes healing, and a return to ideals of the Declaration of Independence. The speech defined the concept of American government as “a government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Memorable quote: “Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

Women’s Right to Vote

Who: Susan B. Anthony

When: 1873

Why it matters: Susan B. Anthony was fined for voting in the 1872 election, and so she began to vigorously campaign for women’s suffrage. This speech was given in her defense of women’s suffrage. Her work paved the way for the nineteenth amendment, giving women the right to vote in 1920. She never did pay the fine.

Memorable quote: “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 we formed it, not to give the blessings of liberty, but to secure them; not to the half of ourselves and the half of our posterity, but to the whole people — women as well as men.”

Fourteen Points Speech

Who: President Woodrow Wilson

When: January 8, 1918

Why it matters: Wilson’s speech formed the foundation of what would become American foreign policy. The speech set forth American goals in the Great War. Perhaps most significant is Wilson’s proposal for an international governing body, which became the basis for the League of Nations. After World War II the League was replaced by the United Nations.

Memorable quote: “All the peoples of the world are in effect partners in this interest, and for our own part we see very clearly that unless justice be done to others it will not be done to us.”

FDR’s First Inaugural Address

Who: President Franklin Delano Roosevelt

When: March 4, 1933

Why it matters: Amidst one of the most crippling economic crises in history, FDR wanted to forcefully show the American people that he intended to end it. He succeeded by announcing his intention to use the vast powers of the federal government to address the problem. In the speech he acknowledges respect for the Constitution and separation of power, yet notes the necessity of the time and the need for vigorous action. In this speech, FDR effectively declares “war” against the Great Depression.

Memorable quote: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

We Shall Fight on the Beaches

Who: Winston Churchill

When: June 4, 1940

Why it matters: The speech was designed to inspire the British people and impress Americans with the resolve of the British government in the face of German aggression. The speech was delivered after British troops had successfully evacuated from Dunkirk in one of the most astonishing reversals of fortune in the history of warfare.

Memorable quote: “We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, 
we shall fight on the seas and oceans,
 we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be,
 we shall fight on the beaches, 
we shall fight on the landing grounds,
 we shall fight in the fields and in the streets,
 we shall fight in the hills;
 we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”

A Tryst with Destiny

Who: Jawaharlal Nehru

When: August 14, 1947

Why it matters: In the speech Nehru, the first Prime Minister of independent India, defines what freedom means for the people of India after their long struggle for independence from the British Empire.

Memorable quote: “A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.”

The Moon Speech” (Address at Rice University on the Nation’s Space Effort)

Who: President John F. Kennedy

When: September 12, 1962

Why it matters: JFK’s moon speech made the compelling case to the American people of the importance of space exploration and funding the Apollo project. The speech and its aftermath and reception ultimately led to the successful moon landing in 1969. JFK established that the United States should be the world leader in Space exploration, and marked the first significant step taken by a President to ensure its possibility.

Memorable quote: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

I Have a Dream

Who: Martin Luther King, Jr.

When: August 28, 1963

Why it matters: King’s powerful and memorable speech is often quoted today. He challenged the American people to live up to their democratic ideals. He insisted on non-violent conflict resolution. His words echo on as a passionate call for freedom.

Memorable quote: “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; ‘and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.'”

I am Prepared to Die

Who: Nelson Mandela

When: April 20, 1964

Why it matters: This is the speech that defined Nelson Mandela. It was given in the course of a trial of the leaders of the African National Congress, who had been accused of subversion. The trial ended with the imprisonment of eight ANC leaders including Mandela. In the speech Mandela tells his story and expresses his views on apartheid.

Memorable quote: “During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Tear Down this Wall

Who: President Ronald Reagan

When: June 12, 1987

Why it matters: In a speech delivered at the Berlin Wall President Ronald Reagan challenged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the wall separating East and West Berlin. Reagan’s injunction was delivered over the objections of his advisors, who thought it went too far. The speech is considered to have been a major turning point in the Cold War.

Memorable quote: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

Rachel Rolnick, a student at Stern College for Women, is an HNN intern.

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