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.
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.