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The Most Famous Speeches

Updated on October 1, 2017

The power and transcendence of a speech lays in three factors: Composition, delivery and degree of intrusion into universal collective conscience.

Gettysburg Address
Gettysburg Address | Source

What makes a speech a masterpiece

There are three key factors:

To become universally accepted as a masterpiece, a speech needs to appeal to universally accepted principles. We cannot buy into words that don't mean anything to us.

As a symphony, a speech needs rhythm and cadence, it needs to take us to its highs and lows, it needs to ring a chord, such as a song.

And this is not only achieved by its composition, but also by its diction. The speaker needs to talk to us directly, needs to seep into our minds and stick there, as if we were hearing what we really meant to say ourselves, what we are feeling.

These are the keys to a great speech.

Chicken or Egg?

Perfect moment, perfectly gone!
Perfect moment, perfectly gone! | Source

Many say that the great speeches are so mostly due to the moment when they happened, that there is a direct correlation between the speech and the historical milestone they refer to. It's one way to see it.

Personally, I believe the great speeches CREATE historical milestones. They are able to capture collective conscience and express it in a way that defines history itself.

We could argue whether the speeches I present below meet my definition. They are indeed important and well known because they happened in a very precise moment in history, but in all cases there was a before and after these words were spoken.

Here are a few choosen greatest speeches through history.

 

1. Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln, November 19, 1863

Source

Four score 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.

...that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

These are, very likely, the 271 most famous words ever in the history of speeches. Never such a short word count made such a huge impact. And before you jump at me, the word count varies depending on the spelling.

This address is quoted in uncountable movies, TV shows and of course subsequent speeches over time. Its last 16 words, transcribed on the right, are not just part of a speech anymore, but part of universal culture.

The endurance of the Gettysburg Address underscores its importance and achievement. I can't rightly argue that Mr Lincoln would be happy with where all of that drove us today, but I do know he made a difference with the saying.

2. I have a dream, Martin Luther King, August 28 1963

Source

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.'

What would Martin Luther King have said, were he told at the time that almost 5 generations after he uttered his "dream", a black President would be residing in the White House?

My guess is, "about damn time!" but of course my guess is as good as yours.

This speech, which basically focuses on racial equality and calls for the end of discrimination, still has the power to provide vision when I listen to it. I believe, and I'm not alone in this belief, that the greatness of this text comes from the inspiration it provided not only for the public at the time, but for all unborn generations, like mine, that came after.

We could argue for hours whether we're past racial discrimination, personally I think we're not, but that is completely beside the point to make this address eternal: It's a rhetoric masterpiece that appeals to all those things deeply rooted in collecive consience, such as justice, equality, fairness, right to live one's life as a full and complete individual.

3. Blood, Sweat and Tears, Sir Winston Churchill, May 13 1940

Source

I would say to the House as I said to those who have joined this government: I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering.


Also known as also "Blood, toil, tears, and sweat":

This is the first of a series of three historical addresses from Sir Winston Churchill to the Parliament after taking over as PM when UK was in the first year of WWII.

The two others are We shall fight on the beaches on June 4 and This was their finest hour on June 18.

The series but specially the first, Blood, Sweat and Tears, remains as one of the most inspirational and empowering addresses of all times. Some Brits still say it was thanks to this speech that UK won the war.

4. Ask what you can do for your country, January 20 1961, John Fitzgerald Kennedy

Source

Let every nation know... that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

And so my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country.

All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.

JFK's inaugural address, one of the shortest in history, is considered one of the best inaugural speeches ever. Personally, it doesn't make my toes curl, but I'll admit it has touches of genius.

Curiously, the master touch of this speech, "Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country" is not as original a sentence as one may have thought. There are numerous precedents, which an educated fellow like JFK wouldn't have had trouble keeping up with.

Personally, I think the genious of this speech and a reason why it's still valid today is "But let us begin." JFK defined optimism, proactivism, and intention to make things better with that simple statement.

Sermon of the Mount, Jesus, estimated circa AD 30

Source

The gospels of Mathew and Luke render quite different versions of the same ideas, so I'd rather not start a debate on who said what. I know, however, that the outstanding Friedrich Nietzsche saw most of the Sermon of the Mount as the symbolization of the enslaving nature of Christian morality. I guess "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth." wouldn't give Nietzsche good vibes precisely... Whoops.

The Sermon on the Mount, as Wikipedia will inform you, is a collection of Jesus' sayings. It's a collection not to be taken lightly, as the word of Jesus is still one of the last bastions of concordance between the believers and the non believers, because the good Jesus spoke a lot of sense. Not all this Old Testament fire and brimstone, but a lot of live and let live, a la hippie.

The good Jesus, indeed, gave us a lot of good quotes to think about, such as "love thy neighbor" or "judge not, lest ye be judged."

Any which way, Jesus and his Sermon of the Mount features here because it's indisputably one of the most quoted and remembered and reused addresses of all time.

Any personal favorites?

Is there any address that should feature here besides the ones I picked? Do tell!

© 2011 Buffoon

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    • profile image

      Brad Watson 

      7 years ago

      Why did Lincoln use "Four score and seven years ago"? Genesis 16:16, "Abram was four score and six years old when his son Ishmael was born" (King James Version). Over 10,000 books have been written on Lincoln and no one has correctly explained that he was referring to this Bible verse regarding the story of Abram/Abraham!

      Lincoln was known as "Father Abraham". Gn 16:16 is the first time the Biblical term "score" is used in the Bible. Lincoln was the 16th President and resident at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave (P=16, President=16 resident). This is a proof of predestination! On July 4, 1863, Lincoln gave a speech at the White House after the Battle of Gettysburg and Vicksburg ended with Union victories. "87 years ago (on July 4th, 1776)", he said. In preparing for his brief Gettyysburg National Cemetary Dedication speech, he realized he could convert 87 years to "4 score and 7 years ago" thus referring to Father Abraham and the numerical symbolism of 7/4=July 4th. The president was linkin' with GOD=7_4, whereas, G is the 7th letter, a circle is either the 15th letter or zerO, and D is the 4th letter. This alphanumeric code is known as Simple(74) English(74) Gematria(74). In Genesis 17:4-5, (God speaking to him) "Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations."

      - Brad Watson, Miami

    • Buffoon profile imageAUTHOR

      Buffoon 

      8 years ago

      Cheers, Winsome! You're right about JFK, he had the art of delivering down pat! To some extent, it didn't much matter what he all said, he just SAID it so well :)

      And you're right about the net having made it difficult to point exactly to who said what. That's a different art altogether, knock off it's called, where people will copy and paste and not credit or credit incorrectly. Oh well... will never happen to my stuff LOL

    • Winsome profile image

      Winsome 

      8 years ago from Southern California by way of Texas

      Hail noble Buffoon, a masterful list indeed. I agree with you that King and Churchill and Lincoln had awesome and original speeches. JFK, like his brother Bobby, made other's seem like his own. He really knew how to look good and delivered it with a passion and style that moved a generation. These days the internet can repeat an unoriginal quote so often that people lose track of who really said it. For example the quote "There is no limit to what you can do if you don't care who get's the credit." is hilarious to me because a whole string of characters get the credit as being the one who said it originally. Thank you for bringing these great speakers to our attention again. =:)

    • Buffoon profile imageAUTHOR

      Buffoon 

      8 years ago

      Cheers, Sally, glad you liked :) Took me a while to pick and choose and make up my mind about which speeches to include BESIDES "I have a dream" :) In the end I resorted to a mix of favorites and famous. I read somewhere that "I Have a Dream" was chosen the best rhetoric piece in the 20th century, for once I can agree with these "lists of top ten" that abound in the internet :)

    • Sally's Trove profile image

      Sherri 

      8 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

      Thank you for this interesting and provocative discussion, especially your words about "I Have a Dream." Not only is this speech an historical milestone, as you propose, but it is also a body of words that continues to inspire and motivate, thereby continuing to influence history through the actions and thoughts of those who heard it then and those who hear it now. A great speech has a long-lasting effect. Vote up and awesome (too bad "provocative" or "stimulating" aren't choices here!).

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