The Greatest Speeches (Updated)

Via my friend, Mark Safranski, I’d like to draw your attention to an intriguing post at the blog, The Art of Manliness, on the thirty-five greatest speeches of all time. It’s certainly an interesting starting-off point for discussion but, as was pointed out in the comments, the list was (in my words) altogether too pale, too male, and too American. I think the list is better thought of as the greatest speeches in Whig history than the greatest speeches in history. How else can one draw so direct a line from Jesus of Nazareth and classical antiquity through Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt to John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan?

Another reasonable criticism is that some of the speeches, in my view probably anything from before about 1500 CE, are fictional.

But it’s a good, interesting, thought-provoking list that includes George Washington’s Farewell Address, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, his Gettysburg address, several memorable speeches from Theodore Roosevelt, FDR’s first inaugural speech, several of Churchill’s wartime speeches, Douglas MacArthur’s farewell address, several of John Kennedy’s speeches, and several of Ronald Reagan’s speeches.

Ignoring speeches less than twenty years old which can reasonably be thought not to have withstood the test of time and just off the top of my head, here are several speeches in chronological order that I think are worthy of consideration in a “best” list:

  • Elizabeth I’s Golden Speech
  • Napoleon’s farewell to the Old Guard
  • John Quincy Adams’s speech on the Fourth of July, 1837
  • Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman” speech
  • Garibaldi’s speech of 1860 to the troops
  • Bismarck’s “Blood and Iron” speech
  • Lenin’s speech on the Soviet power
  • Nehru’s “Tryst With Destiny” speech
  • Mao’s speech of June 30, 1949, the 28th anniverary of the Chinese communist party
  • Khrushchev’s “We will bury you” speech

I don’t agree with everything in all of those speeches but I think they’re all great speeches.

Please check out the post linked above and propose your own candidates for greatest speeches in comments. Again, nothing from the last twenty years, please.

Update

There’s one speech that was in my initial draft of this post that somehow was omitted from the final version: Adolph Hitler’s January 1937 speech before the Reichstag. To give the devil his due, he was a reprehensible man but a great orator.

7 comments… add one
  • steve

    The Gettysburg Address is the best American speech, but Washington’s farewell the most important just because it occurred.

    I have a special fondness for Spartan oratory. Its brevity probably excludes it from qualifying as true speeches, but the following from Leonidas says more in one sentence, IMHO, than say Constantine did in his speech to the Assembled Saints.

    6 When someone said, “Because of the arrows of the barbarians it is impossible to see the sun,” he said, “Won’t it be nice, then, if we shall have shade in which to fight them?”

    Steve

  • PD Shaw

    I’m more partial to Washington’s resignation address, which is listed, but I would also include the Answer that was given by the President of the Congress (but written by Jefferson).

    A great piece of theatre, Washington goes to Congress, where he bows to civilian authority among a crowd come to see Cesar, reaffirms civilian authority, expresses deep love and admiration of his army and officers (some of whom are plotting against Congress).

    Jefferson’s answer accepted the resignation with gratitude, praised Washington’s steadfast resolve “regarding the rights of the civil power through all disasters and changes,” and resolved Congress to take responsibility and care for the army and officers Washington loves. Congressional failures would bring Washington back, but the two speeches together ended the threat of military coup or agitation that would have threatened civil rule.

    Washington’s contribution was key, but I think there were two great, reciprocal speeches given that day.

    http://gwpapers.virginia.edu/documents/revolution/congress.html

  • I have always loved Daniel Webster’s eulogy for Adams and Jefferson.

  • Thanks, T. Greer. That’s a wonderful speech and I was unfamiliar with it.

  • sam

    Well, it may be fictional, but this one was read to British troops by their commanding officer as they embarked for the beach at Normandy, and so became in a sense a real speech. I’ll just give the end of it:

    But we in it shall be remembered-
    We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
    For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
    Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
    This day shall gentle his condition;
    And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
    Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
    And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
    That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

  • Yes, I agree. The St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V is a good one.

  • As orations go, I believe Mark Antony’s speech concerning Brutus’ perfidy is a masterclass in invective. The dripping sarcasm and controlled venom is so evocative it must have left the roman mob frothing at the mouth. As for my asian bias, check out carlos p. romulo’s “I am a filipino” piece. Almost makes me want to enlist and carry ’em guns…

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