Before every heavy weight lifting session when I was in college, I would listen to the Al Pacino’s “Inch by Inch” speech from the movie Any Given Sunday. I’m not sure why that speech pumped me up the way that it did; but words do have a way of inspiring us. It’s not just famous movie speeches that bring us to our feet and and motivates us to action as we clap our hands in awe of what we heard. A great orator always persuades his listeners without berating them. The speeches that find the most impact are the ones that change the hearts and minds of the listeners. The text will find itself relevant for decades to come; and the charismatic presentation will broadcast the theme into the audience’s hearts while speaking to their core values and ideals. The list that I have compiled is my personal opinion; but it is influenced by the cultural impact, substance, and the orators ability to reach his/her audience. I am going to give you my favorite excerpt from the speeches; but please seek out the speeches in their entirety because ‘(w)e will not go quietly into the night! We will not vanish without a fight! We’re going to live on, we’re going to survive.’ Today we celebrate’ our Top Cat’s Top 10: Most Influential Speeches –
Honorable Mentions: Chief Joseph‘s “Surrender Speech“, Barack Obama’s “Keynote Speech at the Democratic National Convention“, William Faulkner’s “Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech“, Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?“, Fredrick Douglass’s “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July, and Ronald Reagan’s “Address to the Nation on the Challenger”
10. Maya Angelou “On the Pulse of Morning”
Maya Angelou is a lot of things, to a lot of people. She just so happens to be one of my top five favorite poets; but she is also regarded as the second poet in history to read a poem at a Presidential inauguration. Her touching recital of her poem “On the Pulse of the Morning at President Bill Clinton’s 1993 inauguration, thusly became the first African American and first woman to read a poem at a President inauguration. The poem (which calls for change, inclusion and moral responsibility) is regarded as Angelou’s ‘autobiographical poem’; but to me it is a poem that speaks deeply to my inner man. The poem speaks volumes and the imagery flows beautifully to your mind’s eye.
Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes,
Into your brother’s face, your country
And say simply
9. President Ronald Reagan “Remarks at the Brandenburg Gate”
I remember sitting with my mom in our living room on the day before my birthday in 1986, when the Challenger space shuttle burst into a fireball and came plummeting back to Earth. I remember the tears my mom cried and I remember trying to comprehend the events of that day. Though I remember Ronald Reagan’s “Address to the Nation on the Challenger” speech more; I cannot deny the cultural impact that the speech that he gave the next year had on not just me…but the world. When Ronald Reagan took office, he was committed to bringing an end to communism. Though President Reagan might not have single-handedly brought an end to the Cold War; his speech in front of the most visible symbol of the division between a literally divided Germany is undeniably influential. Since the end of World War II, Germany had stood (quite literally) divided and the world deserved peace. President Reagan stood in front of the ‘Iron Curtain’ and boldly said:
We welcome change and openness; for we believe that freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace. There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!
8. Virginia Woolf “A Room of One’s own”
I have spoken before about the Feminist Literature course that I took in college. I was already in for a treat as a somewhat conservative Christian at a liberal college with a very liberal major. The Feminist Literature course fit my schedule and the professor was praised by my advisee; so I took the class. I am very glad that I did because after a rough start (due to an angst filled feminist who found a great deal of disgust that I tried to open the door for her and argued that I even be allowed to take a feminist course to begin with) I learned a great deal. One of the required readings for the course was Virginia Woolf’s series of lectures originally delivered at Newnham and Girton Colleges (at Cambridge University). Though these lectures were done in October of 1928 and were on the topic of Women and Fiction; the thesis had universal applications. I found her words cutting me deeply. She speaks of the unequal treatment of women; but does so without bashing men. I found myself questioning societal ‘norms’ of which I had never began to think of the impact. The words which set a fire under the feet of patriarchy and are continuing to inspire women nearly a century later. Her quote, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction,” gained a stronghold in popular culture to the extent that the cliche’-like phrase took on a life of its own. She argued that unlike her male counterparts, women are denied the time, space and resources necessary to write. This was a revolutionary thought at the time, but it forced people to see (both then and now) the inequalities of our society.
7. Mahatma Gandhi “Quit India”
Freedom is something that we all deserve. It seems that the fight for freedom and democracy lies at the foot of most of these great speeches. For almost a century, India had been under the rule of the British crown, and the time had come for many Indians that this must come to an end. While other battles were being waged around the world, Mahatma Gandhi and the National Indian Congress yearned for a completely non-violent end of the British rule over India. They were forcing Britain to “quit India” but yearned to do so in a non-violent way. In a speech on August 8, 1942; he said:
I believe that in the history of the world, there has not been a more genuinely democratic struggle for freedom than ours. I read Carlyle’s French Resolution while I was in prison, and Pandit Jawaharlal has told me something about the Russian revolution. But it is my conviction that inasmuch as these struggles were fought with the weapon of violence they failed to realize the democratic ideal. In the democracy which I have envisaged, a democracy established by non-violence, there will be equal freedom for all. Everybody will be his own master. It is to join a struggle for such democracy that I invite you today. Once you realize this you will forget the differences between the Hindus and Muslims, and think of yourselves as Indians only, engaged in the common struggle for independence.
6. Winston Churchill “Blood, Sweat, and Tears“
Whether history would try and slander his name (thanks to claims of alcoholism and racism); none can deny the amazing oratory skills of former Britain Prime Minister Winston Churchill. In fact he may be one of the greatest of all time. In his first speech to the House of Commons as the new Prime Minister, he was met with some distaste. The outgoing Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain found an uplifting round of applause while the assembly was tepid due to their distaste of Churchill. The first of three speeches that he gave during the Battle of France would allow England (and the world) to see that the country was in capable hands. Churchill used his powerful words to call his people to arms to defeat what seemed to be the unstoppable force of Hitler.
I say to the House as I said to ministers 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 months of struggle and suffering.
You ask, what is our policy? I say it is to wage war by land, sea, and air. War with all our might and with all the strength God has given us, and to wage war against a monstrous tyranny never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy.
You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word. It is victory. Victory at all costs – Victory in spite of all terrors – Victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival.d
5. John F. Kennedy “Inauguration Address“
35th President of the Unites States, John F. Kennedy took office on January 20, 1961; and his presidency was ushering in the ‘new frontier’ that the post-war populous needed. The inaugural address of the first president born in the 20th century and youngest president in US history brought about a new era to a nation and issued a request that still rings true to all Americans.
Can we forge against these enemies a grand and global alliance, North and South, East and West, that can assure a more fruitful life for all mankind? Will you join in that historic effort?
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. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it — and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.
And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.
My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.
4. Franklin Delano Roosevelt “Pearl Harbor Address to the Nation”
Following the attack of Pearl Harbor, the United States stood between states of fear and outrage. The next day President Roosevelt addressed the nation and declared war on Japan while giving assurance to the American people that we would be victorious. Every American family sat in their homes, listening to the words echoing from their radio; as FDR’s immortal words were emotionally spilled forth into the world. Congress cheered and applauded after hearing his words; and you can imagine the people of the United States doing the same back home.
Mr. Vice President, Mr. Speaker, members of the Senate and the House of Representatives: yesterday, December 7, 1941-a date which will live in infamy-the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan…..
But always will our whole nation remember the character of the onslaught against us. No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.
I believe that I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost but will make it very certain that this form of treachery shall never again endanger us.
Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory and our interests are in grave danger.
With confidence in our armed forces-with the unbounding determination of our people-we will gain the inevitable triumph-so help us God.
3. Patrick Henry “Give me Liberty or Give me Death!“
After a decade of dissidence and revolutionary sentiments, Patrick Henry was tired of just stirring the pot. His metaphorical flame was engulfed by the Stamp Act of 1764 and was prompted to give his ‘treason speech;’ and in the years to come, the tension between colonies and the Crown continued to build. On March 23, 1775 in a meeting held at St. John’s Church in Richmond, Patrick Henry sought out his fellow delegates to make preparations for war. A speech, whose ripple led to a wave of revolution, climaxed with the now legendary line; “Give me liberty, or give me death!”
The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave. Besides, sir, we have no election. If we were base enough to desire it, it is now too late to retire from the contest. There is no retreat but in submission and slavery! Our chains are forged! Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston! The war is inevitable — and let it come! I repeat it, sir, let it come!
It is in vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry, “Peace! Peace!” — but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!
2. Abraham Lincoln “The Gettysburg Address”
The Gettysburg Address was only 272 words and lasted a mere 3 minutes; but it is quite arguably one of the greatest pieces of rhetoric in American History. While Edward Everett spoke to the people in attendance for the dedication of the new cemetery on the field where 8,000 men lie dead for two hours; Lincoln penned his speech on a the back of an envelope on the way to the Gettysburg battlefield. Lincoln called that the American people not forget what the men who died on that battlefield bled for, the tasks that they nobly dedicated their lives to and the freedoms that they knew to be evident. The Constitution would live up to its promise of freedom and equality for all and while the nation was still writhing from the death of its sons; Lincoln sought to unify the people of the United States.
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.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate – we cannot consecrate – we cannot hallow – this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – 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.
1. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “I have a Dream”
It wasn’t just the Southern Preacher-esque delivery. It wasn’t the skill and rhetoric in his charismatic delivery. It wasn’t just the passion in his voice that would make Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a Dream” speech go to be one of the greatest speeches in American History (if not one the greatest of all time). King’s speech resonated across the American landscape nearly a century after the abolishment of slavery and the promise of equality; but African American’s had yet to see any resemblance of that. From the black children being hosed down in the streets of Birmingham to families being violently denied service in restaurants to because of the color of their skin. Dr. King told us of his dream. He spoke a message of hope and his words need to be heard by every generation, so the future that we must grow from should not ever be repeated.
I have a dream that one day down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification – one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today.
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.
This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
This will be the day, this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning “My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my father’s died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring!”
And by far the Greatest Speech of all time: Jesus Christ “The Sermon on the Mount“
Whether you believe Jesus to be the actual Son of God or not, you cannot deny the importance of and the quality of writing found in what I am considered to be the Greatest Speech of all time. I am thusly not even including it on the main list.
Just after his baptism by John the Baptist, we find Jesus early in his ministry. After he spent time fasting and praying in the desert, he began to preach in Galilee. The crowds that followed Jesus would be made up of many types of people from multiple backgrounds. Religious leaders, Jews and Gentiles would all be in the throngs of people who followed him and would have been in attendance the day of this specific sermon. There has been tremendous speculation on whether the Sermon was heard by the large crowds of people or if it was meant to be heard only by the disciples who it is said ‘followed him up the mountainside’ (as written in Matthew 5:1-2). Whether or not it was given to the thousands in attendance or the primary audience the few on the mountainside with him; what matters is that the words that Jesus elegantly spoke are quite possibly some of the most important words ever spoken. The sermon is presented in many parts (some speculate that it could have been taught over many days). From the Beatitudes (which many thought that these were given to the disciples to memorize and use as a source of constant meditation) to instructions on how to pray (the Lord’s Prayer) to telling us to watch out for false prophets; the Sermon on the Mount is a key element of Christian ethics, and is a fundamental part of the follower of Jesus. The Sermon itself is admired and has been celebrated by non-Christians like Tolstoy and Gandhi along with many Christian theologians claiming that it is the most important bit of teaching Jesus gave us.
Was the Sermon meant for all the people there that day or was it a moment of sincere teaching to his most loyal followers and disciples? I don’t think it matters. Either way, I believe that the words spoken to them that day over 2,000 years ago are just as applicable to the readers of those words today. These words have held relevance to the lives of all believers since 33 AD and will continue to do so. That’s why, without reservation I would think that the words Jesus spoke in the Sermon on the Mount are some of the most important words ever spoken.
Conference Clapping by Henri Bergius from Finland – Conference starting ceremony audience, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2085474
Featured Image: Chief Joseph in 1902 by Rudolph B. Scott – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3a03792. This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12073178
Maya Angelou at Clinton Inauguration by Clinton Library – William J. Clinton Presidential Library, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47410239
President Reagan giving a speech at the Berlin Wall, Brandenburg Gate, Federal Republic of Germany, challenging Gorbechev to “tear down this wall!” by White House Photographic Office – Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, ID C41244-9., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=189219
Photograph of Virginia Woolf by Unknown – Harvard Theater Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36753923
Gandhi with Maulana Azad and Acharya Kripalani in 1942 by Unknown – scanned by Yann. See File:Film Gandhi Smarak Sangrahalaya Samiti.jpg., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6088737
Winston Churchill during the General Election Campaign by Unknown – released by the Imperial War Museum on the IWM non Commercial License. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/
John F. Kennedy Inauguration Speech attributed to White House Photographic Office – Public Domain, https//commons.wikimedia.org/
US President Franklin D. Roosevelt signing declaration of war against Imperial Japan on December 8, 1941 by National Archive and Records Administration – Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/
Painting of Patrick Henry speech against the Stamp Act of 1765 by Peter F. Rothermel (1817–1895) – http://www.patrickhenrylibrary.org/islandora/object/islandora%3A308, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=365453
Abraham Lincoln at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, PA by David Bachrach – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID ds.03106.This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5127661
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. giving his “I have a Dream” speech by Unknown – This media is available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, cataloged under the National Archives Identifier (NAID) 542069., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=294345
Sermon on the Mount by Carl Bloch – This is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art., Public Domain, http://commons.wikipedia.org/