“Carve your name on hearts, not tombstones. A legacy is etched into the minds of others and the stories they share about you.”
― Shannon L. Alder
Well chosen words can have a powerful impact and we have all heard rhetoric that that has transcended time, from Lincoln's Gettysburg Address in 1863 to Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. Powerful and moving speeches remain long after their orators have gone and we are going to examine some of the most influential political speeches ever delivered.
Winston Churchill speech: “We shall fight on the beaches” 1940
Regarded as one of the most important speeches made by any leader during WWII, Churchill’s address to the House of Commons in 1940 inspired a nation.
“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.”
In what was meant to be a regular update on the progress of troops on the war front in Dunkirk, Churchill produced a powerful call to action, asking the British public to not give up the fight. Facing a tyrannical Nazi Germany, Churchill was forced to fall back on his rhetorical skills to bolster flagging British resolve. His words blasted through the fear that was felt by the British population and stirred an unconquerable strength.
John F.Kennedy: Inaugural address 1961
“It wasn’t even his best, but Kennedy’s inaugural speech was wide and courageous”, these are the words of Kennedy’s chief speechwriter Ted Sorenson. After coming through a tough and close election, Kennedy laid down the gauntlet, banishing any doubts that he wasn’t a serious leader. At 43, he became the youngest President-elect and first Catholic to enter the Oval office. Kennedy challenged the American people to contribute all they could for the good of democracy. Set against the backdrop of the Cold War and inspired by Lincoln's Gettysburg address, Kennedy stressed the importance of civic action and public service.
"Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country"
54 years on, his words remain etched in the American psyche.
“In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility -- I welcome it.”
Padraig Pearse: Graveside oration at the funeral of O’Donovan Rossa 1915
On the 1st of August 1915, a call to arms was made at Glasnevin cemetery in Dublin. Padraig Pearse was among 5,000 other mourners remembering the cause that Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa gave his life for. Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa (10 September 1831 – 29 June 1915) was an Irish Fenian leader and prominent member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood.
“Life springs from death, and from the graves of patriot men and women spring live nations. The defenders of this realm have worked well in secret and in the open. They think that they have pacified Ireland. They think that they have purchased half of us, and intimidated the other half. They think that they have foreseen everything. They think that they have provided against everything; but the fools, the fools, the fools! They have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.’
Pearse’s speech will be forever thought of as the catalyst for the 1916 Easter Rising and Ireland’s valiant break for freedom from British rule. Seen as a critical moment in Irish history, Pearse placed Rossa at the core of Ireland’s public struggle for independence, calling on people to finally wake up and fight for ‘our Fenian dead’. The exiled hero who served as Skibbereen shopkeeper before he enlisted in the fight for sovereignty was the mast that Pearse was flying his Republican hopes from. Invoking passions Pearse concluded the legendary speech with a stark reminder that “Ireland unfree shall never be at peace”
Barack Obama: Presidential victory speech - Illinois 2008
Obama will likely find a place as one of the best orators of his generation. It is difficult to pick just one speech, but one of Obama’s best moments at the podium happened after he was elected as President of the United States in 2008. Aside from creating history as the first African-American to become President, Obama anchored his place in time by delivering a masterclass in emotionally engaging dialogue. Beginning by echoing the words of Martin Luther King, Obama referenced the all allusive ‘dream’.
“If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer”
Gordon Brown: ‘Better together’ speech day before the Scottish Referendum 2014
In a referendum largely sold on the basis that Scottish identity was on the line Gordon Brown came out at the last hour to deliver a passionate plea to the undecided voters in Glasgow. Speaking without notes, guided only by his beliefs, Brown laid out the risks that independence would bring to Scotland. Creating a positive image of life that staying within the UK would bring, the former Prime Minister was the secret weapon that the Labour party had banked on to rouse the group of people who had gathered in the Maryhill area of Glasgow.
“And you know, what sort of message would we in Scotland send out to the rest of the world, we the people who found a way of cooperation across borders, we who pioneered a partnership between nations, we who have stood as a beacon for solidarity and sharing?
*What kind of message does Scotland send to the world if tomorrow we say we’re going to give up on sharing, we’re going to smash our partnership, we’re going to abandon cooperation and conflict and we’re going to throw the idea of solidarity into the dust?
This is not the Scotland I know and recognize and we must make sure it is not the Scotland we become. Now tomorrow the vote I will cast is not for me.
It is for my children. It is for all of Scotland’s children. It is for our children’s future. “
Donald Trump's first address to Congress 2017
Maybe we are being stupid including this speech under "Great Political Speeches" because let's be honest, it wasn't. It was, however, a change from the "norm". I know, there has been nothing normal about Trump's presidency so far and that's why his toned down rhetoric in his latest speech could be so important. It was a far cry from the theatrics and sometimes vitriol talk that saw him elected. Surprisingly Trump seemed conventional, and for many, even boring.
The President promised a new era of "American greatness" was at hand -- but warned his audience: "The time for small thinking is over. The time for trivial fights is behind us." All this is so cosmically at odds from the Trump who made a habit of belittling his opponents, argued for days about the size of his inaugural crowd and peddled untruths about millions of illegal voters in the election.
If Trump's tonal shift on Tuesday night did offer a glimpse of a new mode of operation, then let it be a lesson to anyone who thinks they can predict what the US President will do next. For a full glimpse at the speech, click here.