Democracy is often shaped by great orators and their speeches. American history is filled with these speeches that defined and built eras.

The Lincoln Memorial, Washington, DC.
The Lincoln Memorial, Washington, DC.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Speeches play a major role in public discourse. They shift the contours of the debate. They also corral new supporters and rally old ones. They articulate ideals and represent the context of their times. In effect, they are the lifeblood of the democratic process.

Patrick Henry Throws Down the Gauntlet, March 23, 1775

A painting of Patrick Henry
A painting of Patrick Henry
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

In March of 1775, there was a serious discussion about what to do about the British. This was a time of revolutionary fervor. The Boston Tea Party happened in December of 1773. It was roughly five years after the Boston Massacre. The American Revolution would begin on April 19 in the Battle of Lexington.

A major topic of discussion was whether the colonies should arm themselves. Virginia was the most important state during this time. As a result, the effect of its vote to arm had massive implications. A set of resolutions to this end was introduced by a young firebrand in the Virginia House of Burgesses named Patrick Henry.

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!

Patrick Henry, Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death, accessed via Yale’s Avalon Project

Henry argued that war was already underway. As a result, it was ridiculous for the Virginian delegates to do nothing. He laid out the fight as one between freedom and slavery. He reasoned that the British war preparations proved they were not interested in peace. Henry also mentioned the continued infringement of freedom over the previous ten years. In effect, he argued that it was better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.

“Give me liberty or give me death” is perhaps the most famous line of the Revolution. The literal and figurative call to arms embodies the spirit of the Revolution. It was a rallying cry for the Revolutionary Generation. It remains one for all seeking freedom today.

A Eulogy for the Fallen, November 19,1863

Photograph of Abraham Lincoln by Matthew Brady, 1862.
Photograph of President Abraham Lincoln by Matthew Brady, 1862.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

The Gettysburg Battlefield holds the remains of over 3000 soldiers today. In July of 1863, Gettysburg was the home of the bloodiest battle in American history. The carnage is truly hard to fathom for only a 3-day battle. After the battle, a national cemetery was established. In November of that year, it was christened.

The Gettysburg Address is one of the greatest speeches ever given in the English language. Surprisingly, President Abraham Lincoln was not the main speaker that day. He was simply there to make some brief comments on the battlefield.

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.

Abraham Lincoln, The Gettysburg Address, accessed via Yale’s Avalon Project

The fact that President Lincoln was not the main speaker, however, lead to its brevity. This is the greatest trait of the speech. In only 266 words, Lincoln explains the reasons for the war. He speaks of the need to continue the fight for freedom and national union for which the fallen gave their lives.

The Gettysburg Address is an American creed. It is incredibly idealistic rhetoric but is not pretentious. It is an ideal we are still attempting to reach. It is also the greatest defense of democracy in history.

Crosses and Money, July 8, 1896

William Jennings Bryan, 1896.
William Jennings Bryan, 1896.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

We move now from a portrayal of American ideals to the rough and tumble of politics. In 1896, America was a nation in flux. A populist fervor swept over the nation in the 1880s and early 1890s. This was especially true for farming communities which had struggled mightily amid economic turmoil. This even leads to a strong 3rd party called the People’s Party, typically just called the Populists.

The biggest issue of the day was monetary policy. In particular, it was a debate between the gold standard and bimetallism or using gold and silver. The Populists supported free silver in order to inflate the money supply to help farmers pay off their debts. They intended to make an impact on the issue at the Democratic National Convention.

If they dare to come out in the open field and defend the gold standard as a good thing we will fight them to the uttermost. Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the commercial interests, the laboring interests, and the toilers everywhere, we will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.

William Jennings Bryan, “Cross of Gold” Speech

The “Cross of Gold” Speech is a premier example of the Populist elements circulating around the Democratic Party at the time. William Jennings Bryan was a 36-year old Nebraska congressman who made his mark on the back of free silver. His speech is what catapulted him into being the Democratic nominee in 1896. This is incredibly important because the 1896 election would reshape American politics.

Bryan’s speech is what catapulted him into being the Democratic nominee in 1896. The Cross of Gold speech represented a true shift. It firmly established the Democratic Party as the party of economic populism. It also made Bryan a national figure. Bryan would run for the presidency three times in his life. Although he would never win, he is one of the most important political figures in the history of the United States.

Martin Luther King’s Dream, August 28, 1963

Martin Luther King gives a speech.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gives a speech.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

The Civil Rights Movement was a time of great change in the United States. It came to a head during the March on Washington in 1963. This was organized in order to advocate for anti-discrimination laws protecting the long-denied rights of black Americans.

The speech criticizes the deep racism that existed in the South at that time. It attacks the violation of African-Americans’ rights as citizens such as the right to vote. He even criticizes some things that are major aspects of our modern debates on race such as police brutality. He also reiterates his long-standing belief in nonviolence and criticizes those who distrust all white Americans.

However, it also is imbued with a religious optimism that his dream will one day be realized. It is a dream of a world where race doesn’t matter and where everyone is only known for who they are. It is an ideal we strive to meet in this country. However, his view of a colorblind society is also one we have fallen short of many times.

Ronald Reagan At the Brandenburg Gate, June 12,1987

President Ronald Reagan in front of the Brandenburg Gate.
President Ronald Reagan in front of the Brandenburg Gate.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

The end of the Cold War is a fascinating time period. The Berlin Wall had, since its erection in 1961, been a symbol of the divide between East and West. It was a physical manifestation of Winston Churchill’s “Iron Curtain.” By extension, its fall was an especially symbolic moment regarding the loosening of US-Soviet tensions.

In June 1987, President Ronald Reagan recognized this and confronted it strongly and fiercely. He challenges Gorbachev to prove his commitment to his reforms of glasnost(“openness”) and perestroika(“restructuring.”) Reagan asserts that the only way for Gorbachev to prove he was committed to reform was to eliminate the buffer between East and West. Reagan also extends an olive to Eastern nations through a promise to bring Western companies and sports to their nations. He portrays the fight between freedom and pain.

The Berlin Wall would fall two years later in 1989. The Soviet Union itself would not be far behind. The speech at the Brandenburg Gate represented a major milestone in the ending of the Cold War. It may not have been directly responsible for its fall but it did articulate well the reason it needed to come down.


Speeches are a major part of any democracy. They change the history we all read. They give meaning to causes and represent their times. They also explain ideals and give people goals to try to reach. It is no surprise that the great speeches, tend to stick in our consciousness, long after their speakers and audience have gone.

Sources

  • Kazin, M. (2007). A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan. New York, NY: Anchor Books.
  • Unger, H. G. (2011). Lion of Liberty: Patrick Henry and The Call to a New Nation. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press. Retrieved October 09, 2020, from https://books.google.com/books/about/Lion_of_Liberty.html?id=G5WFFK-4HGsC.