Sometimes words can be more powerful than actions and when spoken by great orators, they inspire us to greatness and connect us to the world around us. These are the greatest speeches ever spoken; a collection of messages from some of the greatest and most notable orators in history.
10. Socrates “Apology”
The Day: 399 BC
The Place: Athens, Greece
One of the greatest teachers in history, Socrates would wander throughout the streets of Athens talking to his fellow citizens about discovering the truth in all things. Socrates gained a following of young men, whom he taught to question everything, including the Athenian military. For this he was arrested on the charges of corrupting the youth, not believing in the gods and creating new deities. This speech acted as his defense as he attempted to persuade his jury with reason. Despite this, he lost and was sentenced to death by hemlock, dying as a martyr for free thinking.
“Someone will say: Yes, Socrates, but cannot you hold your tongue, and then you may go into a foreign city, and no one will interfere with you? Now I have great difficulty in making you understand my answer to this. For if I tell you that to do as you say would be a disobedience to the God, and therefore that I cannot hold my tongue, you will not believe that I am serious; and if I say again that daily to discourse about virtue, and of those other things about which you hear me examining myself and others, is the greatest good of man, and that the unexamined life is not worth living, you are still less likely to believe me.”
9. Mahatma Gandhi “Quit India”
The Day: August 8, 1942
The Place: Gowalia Tank Maidan in Bombay, India
At the time India had been under the direct rule of Britain for almost an entire century. Mahatma Gandhi and the National Indian Congress began a movement to push the Brits out of India by nonviolent means. On August 8, 1942, Gandhi passed the Quit India Resolution that demanded independence from the British.
“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.”
8. John F. Kennedy “Inaugural Address”
The Day: January 20, 1961
The Place: Washington, D.C.
One of the greatest inaugural addresses in American history, by the youngest ever U.S. President to be elected. Kennedy was young, dapper and incredibly intelligent, which made him one of the top celebrities of his time, but many of his critics believed he was too inexperienced to be the President of the United States. His speech addressed these issues and called the American people to act as one and uphold their duty to society.
“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.”
7. Queen Elizabeth I “Against the Spanish Armada”
The Day: August 8, 1588
The Place: Tilsbury, Essex, England
In the 1500s the battle over the seas was between Britain and Spain, and by 1588 Philip II of Spain had several grounds on which to wage war on England. Elizabeth had been mistreating Catholics within her borders, she had had Mary Queen of Scots (Philip’s ally) beheaded and she had aided William of Orange’s 1572 revolt. Philip and the entire Spanish Armada sailed for England, reaching the southeastern shore on July 12, 1588. Due to a combination of miscalculation, misfortune and an attack of English fire ships, the Spanish Armada was obliterated. From there, Elizabeth made her way to Tilsbury to inspect her army and it was there that she made her famous speech.
“My loving people, we have been persuaded by some, that are careful of our safety, to take heed how we commit ourselves to armed multitudes, for fear of treachery; but I assure you, I do not desire to live to distrust my faithful and loving people. Let tyrants fear; I have always so behaved myself that, under God, I have placed my chiefest strength and safeguard in the loyal hearts and good will of my subjects. And therefore I am come amongst you at this time, not as for my recreation or sport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live or die amongst you all; to lay down, for my God, and for my kingdom, and for my people, my honor and my blood, even the dust. I know I have but the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart of a king, and of a king of England, too; and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realms: to which, rather than any dishonor should grow by me, I myself will take up arms; I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field. I know already, by your forwardness, that you have deserved rewards and crowns; and we do assure you, on the word of a prince, they shall be duly paid you. In the mean my lieutenant general shall be in my stead, than whom never prince commanded a more noble and worthy subject; not doubting by your obedience to my general, by your concord in the camp, and by your valor in the field, we shall shortly have a famous victory over the enemies of my God, of my kingdom, and of my people.”
6. Franklin Delano Roosevelt “Pearl Harbor Address to the Nation”
The Day: December 8, 1941
The Place: Joint Session of Congress, Washington, D.C.
The attack on Pearl Harbor completely stunned all of America, a nation that was trying desperately to avoid any significant contribution to the Second World War.The day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt made a speech that shook every American family and in a few more hours it became official: America was going to war.
“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.”
5. Winston Churchill “Their Finest Hour”
The Day: June 18, 1940
The Place: The House of Commons, London, England
During the Battle of France in World War II, Winston Churchill made three famous speeches the third of which was the “Their Finest Hour” speech. This speech came four days after Paris fell into Nazi hands and the day after the French requested an armistice. The British were now alone in the fight against the Nazi war machine and Churchill tried to bring hope in one of Britain’s darkest hours.
“What General Weygand called the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us.
Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.
Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’”
4. Nelson Mandela “I am Prepared to Die”
The Day: April 20, 1964
The Place: Pretoria Supreme Court, South Africa
The son of a Tembu tribal chieftain, Nelson Mandela became a lawyer and in 1944 he joined the African National Congress. On August 5, 1962, he was arrested and along with twelve other members of the ANC (who were arrested on July 11, 1963 at a farm in Rivonia) they were charged with the capital crimes of sabotage and crimes that were equivalent to treason, as well as for plotting a foreign invasion of South Africa. At his trial, Mandela represented himself and in his statement from the dock at the opening of the defence he made this speech. Despite this he was found guilty and spent the next twenty-seven years between Robben Island and Pollsmoor Prison.
“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
3. Abraham Lincoln “The Gettysburg Address” – read by Gregory Peck
The Day: November 19, 1863
The Place: Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
Despite being only three minutes long, the Gettysburg Address, along with the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence is the cornerstone of American freedom. Four and a half months after the Battle of Gettysburg, enough money was raised to properly bury the 8,000 corpses that were left behind. On November 19, 1863, at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, Lincoln gave his famous speech. He had been invited to speak almost as an afterthought and that day he followed a 2-hour speech by Edward Everett as well as music and a prayer by Reverend T.H. Stockton.
“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.”
2. Jesus Christ “Sermon on the Mount”
The Day: 33 AD
The Place: An unknown hill in Galilee
No matter what you believe about Jesus Christ, no one can deny that he was a great teacher. Set down in the Gospel of St. Matthew, the Sermon on the Mount is the central tenets of Christianity. It contains both the Lord’s Prayer and the Golden Rule and is widely considered to be a commentary on the Ten Commandments.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
1. Martin Luther King “I Have a Dream”
The Day: August 28, 1963
The Place: The Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D.C.
After a century of supposed freedom and equality, America was still a dangerous place for African Americans, segregation ran rampant and black men, women and children were still treated like second class citizens. From this tumultuous time in history emerged a leader and hero, Dr. Martin Luther King, who led the African American people into an era of peace and equality between blacks and whites. While most men would resort to violence, Dr. King chose to get his message across peacefully, by arranging boycotts and peaceful protests and making speeches that inspired hope for a new era in American history. The most well known of these speeches is the “I Have a Dream” speech.
“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.”
“We will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.”