Speeches, like flowers, are a moment’s monument. They exist most powerfully for a specific audience, a specific speaker, and a specific message. Attempts to make them have a wider impact usually fail.
Of course, there are some magnificent exceptions. If we set out to create a list of the greatest American speeches, we could easily compile the short stack of moment’s monuments that continue to move people to action years later: Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, John F. Kennedy’s inaugural, Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Beyond this short pile, the controversies would begin, politics would intervene, and personal prejudice would play a greater and greater role. Would we include Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death”? How about Ronald Reagan’s Challenger disaster speech? Or FDR’s “Fear itself”? There would be lots of opportunities to argue about what makes a great speech and which speeches meet the criteria.
Into this imaginary debate Christopher Webber fearlessly plunges, with a selection of 14 speeches that he believes are significant in his book, “Give Me Liberty: Speakers and Speeches that have Shaped America.”
They include the Top Three, as well as Henry, Daniel Webster’s “Liberty and Union” speech, William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold,” FDR, Adlai Stevenson’s “Free Society” speech, a different Reagan speech—”Man is not free unless government is limited”—several abolitionists (James Pennington, Wendell Phillips and Frederick Douglass) and several suffragists (Angelina Grimke, Abby Foster, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton).
Webber surrounds discussion of the speeches with commentaries on the speakers themselves, their other speeches, and their roles in history. I recommend the book highly, even though you won’t necessarily agree with his analysis at every point—nor even at most points.
The only thing worse than the ridiculously partisan and stupid level of debate in the public sphere about important public issues we have sunk to today would be no debate at all. A democratic society that doesn’t debate is on its way to tyranny or oblivion.
Webber’s book got me thinking about the criteria I would use for picking the greatest speeches from a particular society. Here goes:
1. The speech has to be of the moment but also transcend it. Lincoln’s brief elegy to the fallen at Gettysburg nonetheless managed to look back to the founding of America and ahead to its future. What does it take to be able to look beyond current problems and concerns and foretell the course of future events? Greatness of vision, always in short supply. I’m tempted to say, “especially today,” but it was ever thus—except when those few who are great come along and teach us to think beyond our own predilections and see humanity steadily and as a whole.
2. The language has to sing—simply. Kennedy’s inaugural address, with its balanced, elegant negations, “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” has been analyzed many times, and speechwriter Ted Sorenson’s role has been discussed thoroughly. One of the less-understood processes of creating the speech is Kennedy’s editing—and a perusal of his alterations indicates that he always chose the shorter, simpler, plain English option. Speeches are made to be spoken out loud, and long words bog the speaker down. Think your great thoughts, and then find a way to say them as simply as possible.
3. The speech has to address some real and pressing need. Aristotle talked about three kinds of speeches: informative, persuasive, and decorative. I’ve always argued that the only reason to give a speech is to change the world. That means the speech must be persuasive, almost certainly informative in some part, and of course decorative—all three of Aristotle’s categories at once. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech addressed the urgent need of ending segregation in the United States, and his memorable phrasing made it impossible for Americans to forget his words and to continue longstanding Jim Crow practices.
What are your nominations for the greatest American speeches?
A version of this article first appeared on PublicWords.