Famous Speeches That Changed the Nation

Peyton Duplechien • 08 Sep 2009 • 6 min read

From Patrick Henry’s fiery words at the start of the American Revolution to the slogan that launched Barack Obama’s successful campaign to become America’s 44th President, the United States has been host to many famous orators. Much of the progress that America has enjoyed in history has been influenced or started by speeches. Men and women alike have inspired the nation with words of power pertaining to everything from the right of the United States to be a sovereign nation, to civil rights for minorities to better wages and occupational conditions for workers. While some speeches were eloquent and others were simple, they were all-powerful and inspiring. The following article includes the most important speeches in America’s history.

  1. Patrick Henry’s Speech to the Second Virginia Convention (March 1775): This was a speech delivered to the Second Virginia Convention in Richmond, Virginia by Patrick Henry, one of the founding fathers of the United States of America. It would not appear in print until 41 years later, in 1816, long after Patrick Henry’s death. His speech, which included the famous phrase “Give me liberty, or give me death!” resulted in the committing of Virginia’s troops to join the American Revolution.
  2. Benjamin Franklin’s Speech to the Constitutional Convention (September 1787): Benjamin Franklin was Pennsylvania’s delegate to the 1787 Constitutional Convention. His letter was read aloud by fellow delegate James Wilson on the final day of the Convention because he was too sick to do it himself. His speech was instrumental in achieving the passage of the Constitution.
  3. George Washington’s Inaugural Address (April 1789): The inaugural address by the first President of the United States. The speech was given in the Senate Chamber on Wall Street, in front of both houses of Congress.
  4. The Monroe Doctrine Speech by James Monroe (Seventh Annual Message) (December 1823): In President James Monroe’s seventh annual State of the Union Address, he announced what would be known as the Monroe Doctrine. In this speech, he announced that the United States would tolerate no more threats to its national security, particularly by continued European incursions in North or South America. The Monroe Doctrine would become a permanent, integral part of United States foreign policy from then on and through the next century.
  5. Maria W. Stewart Advocates Education for African-American Women (September 1832): A speech given at the African-American Female Intelligence Society. It was a message advocating the power of education as a tool for black women to gain equal rights. It was one of the first speeches ever given in public in America by a woman.
  6. Seneca Falls Keynote Address (July 1848): Elizabeth Cady Stanton delivered this address on the first day of the Seneca Falls women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York. Her speech had the effect of bringing the issue of women’s suffrage and property rights to the nation’s attention.
  7. Sojourner Truth: Ain’t I A Woman? (May 1851): A speech given by Isabella Baumfree (later known as Sojourner Truth) at the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio. Originally untitled, her unprepared speech was given its popular title “Ain’t I a Woman?” by convention organizer Frances Dana Gage over a decade later, during the Civil War. Her words raised awareness of women’s rights and the difference in society’s views toward black women versus white women.
  8. Independence Day Speech at Rochester by Frederick Douglass (July 1852): Frederick Douglass delivered this speech on July 5 to the Rochester Anti Slavery Sewing Society. In it, he described Independence Day as a day of mourning for African-Americans and an example of America’s hypocrisy. His speech showed the world the logical contradiction between slavery and America’s purported values of freedom.
  9. The Gettysburg Address (November 1863): Before an audience of 15,000 people, President Abraham Lincoln issued his famous “Four score and seven years ago” speech that exhorted the Union to continue the war against the Confederacy. With the draft riots in New York, a little over a week old, his support for re-election was plummeting and he needed to preserve the Union’s morale and resolve to achieve victory and save the country. His speech, dedicated to the Union victory at Gettysburg, is widely agreed to have saved the war effort.
  10. Susan B. Anthony’s Speech After Being Convicted Of Voting In The 1872 Presidential Election (November 1872): Susan B Anthony, the famous women’s suffragist, delivered a historic speech in favor of women’s voting rights across Monroe County, New York, in response to her arrest for illegally voting. She cited the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution as legal justification for her right to vote. Titled “Is it a Crime for a Citizen of the United States to Vote?”, her speech succeeded in gaining increased popularity for women’s rights.
  11. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s First Inaugural Address (March 1933): In March of 1933, during the depths of the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave his first inaugural address upon taking the oath of office. His speech, broadcast nationwide by radio, gave voice to America’s animosity toward the banking system which was blamed for the Depression; in addition, he issued a call for action to save the country’s economy. Among the many memorable quotes of his speech was the famous words “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” which strengthened America’s resolve to recover from the crisis.
  12. John L. Lewis: Labor and the Nation (September 1937): John Llewellyn Lewis was a prominent labor rights activist in the mid-20th century. His speech “Labor and the Nation,” delivered in Washington, DC in 1937, spoke about the importance of labor, denounced the tactics of corporations and Government in fighting labor unions, and called for workers’ rights to organize and to earn a fair wage. This speech is widely regarded as the most influential in the labor movement throughout the mid 20th century.
  13. Franklin D. Roosevelt: Pearl Harbor Speech (December 1941): One day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed the nation via a live radio broadcast. Over 80% of Americans tuned in to listen to what was then the most popular radio address in American history. His speech, which that launched America into World War II, started off with the famous words, “Yesterday, December 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy”.
  14. Eisenhower’s Farewell Address to the Nation (January 1961): President Dwight Eisenhower’s final address to the nation was delivered a few days before the inauguration of John F Kennedy. The televised speech contained the famous warning against the unchecked growth of the military-industrial complex. Historians have noted how many of his implied predictions about the consequences of the military-industrial complex’s expansion have come true.
  15. President John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address (January 1961): Written with the help of Ted Sorenson, President Kennedy’s inaugural address was, at just under 14 minutes, one of the shortest Presidential inaugural addresses in history. Many quotes from this speech have since become famous, including “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”
  16. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Address at the 1963 March Washington (August 1963): Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered this speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. His oratory included the famous words “I have a dream”, “let freedom ring”, and the rousing final words “thank God almighty, free at last!” It is considered by many scholars to be the most important speech of the 20th century and is responsible for pressuring President John F Kennedy to continue his fight for civil rights, which led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 under President Lyndon B. Johnson.
  17. “The Ballot or the Bullet” by Malcolm X (April 1964): In an address to African-Americans of all religions, Malcolm X called for unity and preached the virtue of voting and the right of blacks to arm themselves in self-defense. He spoke figuratively, likening the power of the ballot to the power of a weapon, while also saying that voting would not guarantee equal rights for African-Americans. He also spoke literally, explaining that if voters did not work, violence might be unavoidable. His speech affirmed his opposition to the Nation of Islam’s rule against participating in politics; it also reaffirmed his support for black nationalism while also seeking common ground with other civil rights leaders.
  18. “The Wrath of Grapes” by Cesar Chavez (May 1986): César Estrada Chávez was the co-founder of the United Farm Workers and a famous activist for the rights of farm laborers. His “Wrath of Grapes” speech called for a boycott of grapes not only to force farmers to enter into good faith bargaining with farmworkers but to also stop the use of certain pesticides which poisoned the grapes and the workers who picked them. It brought awareness to the country of the dangers that pesticides posed to farmworkers.
  19. Urvashi Vaid’s Speech At The March On Washington (April 1993): Urvashi Vaid is a prominent activist for equal rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people (collectively known as the GLBT community). Her speech was delivered to at least 300,000 people at the March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation in 1993. Her speech is widely respected among GLBT rights activists, as well as others who sympathize with the cause.
  20. Barack Obama’s New Hampshire Primary Speech (January 2008): After coming in second place in the 2008 New Hampshire Democratic Presidential Primary, future President Barack H. Obama gave his concession speech to first-place Hillary Clinton. In this speech, he spoke the famous words “Yes, we can,” which is similar to César Chávez’s United Farm Workers slogan from 1972: “Sí, Se Puede,” which translates to “Yes, it can be done” in English. It became one of the major slogans of Barack Obama’s successful campaign for the U.S. Presidency.