Great oratory can send a shiver down the spine, but a speech will only be truly great when it chimes with the times in which it is delivered. If the historical circumstance is the most important factor in any great speech, the choice of the right words for the occasion is another essential part of the mix. Many great speeches paint a picture of what a better world might look like. Though their consequences are varied, each of the speeches in this selection had an impact on the world.
Freedom or death
November 13, 1913
In the nineteenth century, women had no place in national politics. They could not stand as candidates for Parliament. They were not even allowed to vote. It was assumed that women did not need the vote because their husbands would take responsibility in political matters. A woman's role was seen to be child-rearing and taking care of the home.
The women’s suffrage movement was the struggle for the right of women to vote and run for office and is part of the overall women’s rights movement. In the mid-19th century, women in several countries—most notably, the U.S. and Britain—formed organizations to fight for suffrage.
In 1903, Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) - an organisation that gained much notoriety for its activities and whose members were the first to be christened 'suffragettes'. Emmeline believed that the movement had to become more radical and militant if it was to succeed. British politicians, press, and public were astonished by the demonstrations, window smashing, arson and hunger strikes of the suffragettes.
This period of militancy was ended abruptly on the outbreak of war in 1914 when Emmeline turned her energies to supporting the war effort. In 1918, the Representation of the People Act gave voting rights to women over 30. Emmeline died on 14 June 1928, shortly after women were granted equal voting rights with men (at 21).
Emmeline Pankhurst made her most famous ‘freedom or death’ speech on a fundraising tour of the US at Hartford, Connecticut, in autumn 1913. During the preceding 18 months, she had been imprisoned 12 times but had served no more than 30 days, all of them on hunger strike.
I am here as a soldier who has temporarily left the field of battle in order to explain what civil war is like when civil war is waged by women. It is about eight years since the word militant was first used to describe what we were doing. We were called militant, and we were quite willing to accept the name. We were determined to press this question of the enfranchisement of women to the point where we were no longer to be ignored by the politicians.
The grievances of those who have got power, the influence of those who have got power commands a great deal of attention; but the wrongs and the grievances of those people who have no power at all are apt to be absolutely ignored. That is the history of humanity right from the beginning.
We wear no mark; we permeate every class of the community from the highest to the lowest, and so you see in the women’s civil war the dear men of my country are discovering it is absolutely impossible to deal with it. ‘Put them in prison,’ they said; ‘that will stop it.’ But it didn’t stop at all: instead of women giving it up, more women did it.
They have said to us, government rests upon force, the women haven’t force, so they must submit. Well, we are showing them that government does not rest upon force at all: it rests upon consent. No power on earth can govern a human being, however feeble, who withholds his or her consent.
I have seen men smile when they heard the words ‘hunger strike’, and yet I think there are very few men today who would be prepared to adopt a means of that kind. Well, they little know what women are. Women are very slow to rouse, but once they are aroused, once they are determined, nothing on earth and nothing in heaven will make women give way; it is impossible. Human life for us is sacred, but we say if any life is to be sacrificed it shall be ours; we won’t do it ourselves, but we will put the enemy in the position where they will have to choose between giving us freedom or giving us death.
The only thing we have to fear is fear itself
March 4, 1933
The American economy was doing well throughout the 1920s. Because the economy kept doing well, there were more share buyers than sellers and the value of shares rose. Anyone could buy shares, watch their value rise and then sell the shares later at a higher price. Many Americans decided to join the stock market as it was an easy way to get rich. By 1928 demand for shares was at an all-time high, and prices were rising at an unheard-of rate.
One vital ingredient in all this is confidence. If people are confident that prices will keep rising, there will be more buyers than sellers. However, if they think prices might stop rising, all of a sudden there will be more sellers and…crash, the whole structure will come down. This is exactly what happened in 1929 in what is known as the Wall Street Crash.
The rich lost most because they had invested most. They had always been the main buyers of American goods, so there was an immediate downturn in spending. Many others had borrowed money in order to buy shares that were now worthless. They were unable to pay back their loans to the banks so they went bankrupt. Many banks themselves went bankrupt. As banks failed people stopped trusting them and many withdrew their savings. This was the worst failure in American history.
Do words have power? It was, as Franklin D Roosevelt said, ‘a stricken nation’ that he was addressing for the first time as a president-a nation of closed banks, shut down factories, shattered confidence and millions without work or hope. He left his wheelchair and descended the steps outside to the inaugural platform, supported by steel braces and the steadying arm of one of his sons. As his powerful cadences reverberated across the vast throng and on radio across a vast continental expanse, this man who could not walk unaided lifted a great and prostrate nation to its feet.
From the first lines of this speech, lifted to the heights by Roosevelt’s famous cry -The only thing we have to fear is fear itself - America knew that here was a lion of a leader. As he spoke of ‘action and action now’, the dark clouds began to lift – literally from the skies of Washington, and in the hearts of Americans. On March 4, 1933, he was a prophet of the American dream who summoned his fellow citizens to confront the ‘nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance’.
It was one of those rare speeches that in themselves change the course of events. These great words were great works that altered the consciousness of a nation. These words had the power to move America. And they have an imperishable power to move us all.
This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. This great nation will endure, as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself-nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.
Yes, the money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of that restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit. Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort.
Restoration calls, however, not for changes in ethics alone. This nation is asking for action, and action now. Our greatest primary task is to put people to work. This is no unsolvable problem if we face it wisely and courageously. There must be a strict supervision of all banking and credits and investments. There must be an end to speculation with other people’s money. And there must be provision for an adequate but sound currency.
We now realize, as we have never realized before, our interdependence on each other; that we cannot merely take, but we must give as well; that if we are to go forward, we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline. I am prepared under my constitutional duty to recommend the measures that a stricken nation in the midst of a stricken world may require. For the trust reposed in me, I will return the courage and devotion that befit the time. I can do no less.
We shall fight on the beaches
June 4, 1940
In May 1940, during the Second World War, British and French forces entered Belgium at the appeal of the Belgian king. German forces advanced through Belgium and forced the Allied troops to retreat. German eruption swept like a sharp scythe and severed the communications for food and ammunition of the Allied forces. The Belgian, British and French armies were almost surrounded. Their sole line of retreat was to a single port of Dunkirk and its neighbouring beaches.
The Allies withdrew to Dunkirk where the situation became very grim. They were trapped by the advancing German army. German bombers and artillery pounded the troops and equipment on the beaches. They were pressed on every side by heavy attacks and far outnumbered in the air. The enemy attacked all sides with great strength and fierceness. Pressing in both from the east and the west upon the beaches by which alone the shipping could approach or depart.
The Royal Navy, with the willing help of countless merchant seamen, strained every nerve to embark the British and allied troops; 220 light warships and 650 other vessels were engaged. They had to operate under an almost ceaseless hail of bombs and an increasing concentration of artillery fire. With little or no rest, for days and nights on end, making trip after trip across the dangerous waters bringing with them always men whom they had rescued. Between May 26 and June 4, 335 000 men, French and British were carried out of the jaws of death and shame to their native land. The evacuation of Dunkirk was celebrated as a great achievement.
Churchill’s words went to war when Britain’s armed forces seemed to be going under. Though there was national euphoria at the unexpected deliverance at Dunkirk, the peril facing Britain was now universally perceived. But Churchill told the world that Britain would stand firm.
We must be careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations. But there was a victory inside this deliverance, which should be noted. It was gained by the air force. The enemy tried hard, and they were beaten back; they were frustrated in their task. We got the army away, and they have paid fourfold for any loses which they have inflicted.
We are told that Herr Hitler has a plan for invading the British Isles. This has often been thought of before. When Napoleon lay at Boulogne for a year with his flat-bottomed boats and his Grand Army, he was told by someone, ’There are bitter weeds in England.’
We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.
Even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the new world, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.
I have a dream
August 28, 1963
On August 28, 1963, some 250,000 people gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. to demand equal justice for all citizens under the law. The event aimed to draw attention to continuing challenges and inequalities faced by African Americans. The crowd was uplifted by the emotional strength and prophetic quality of the address given by Martin Luther King, Jr., that came to be known as the “I Have a Dream” speech, in which he emphasized his faith that all men, someday, would be brothers. The march was successful in pressuring the administration of John F. Kennedy to initiate a strong federal civil rights bill in Congress.
Like all great oratory, its brilliance was in its simplicity. Like all great speeches, it understood its audience. And like all great performances it owed as much to delivery as content. But it stands out because it was both timely in its message and timeless in its appeal. Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ is still pertinent, even though many of its immediate demands have been met, and is still relevant.
I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation. Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of negro slaves, who had been seared into the flames of withering injustice. But one hundred years later, the negro is still not free.
One hundred years later, the negro still lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.
Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating ‘For whites only.’
Let us not wallow in the valley of despair. I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow. I still have a dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.’ I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.
Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California. Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi, from every mountainside. Let freedom ring. And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all God’s children will be able to join hands and sing in the words, ‘Free at last, free at last.’
An ideal for which I am prepared to die
April 20, 1964
In 1948, the South African government made new laws to keep white and black people apart. This new system was called apartheid. Suddenly, a white person and a black person could not marry. Black and white people could not share a table in a restaurant, or even sit together on a bus, and black children and white children were forced to go to different schools.
Nelson Mandela led the African Nation Congress to speak out against apartheid. Mandela hoped that peaceful protest could get rid of the policy, but what he was trying to do was very dangerous, and in 1956, Mandela and 155 other people were arrested and imprisoned for treason. It was only after a trial lasting five years that he was set free. In 1960, some people held a demonstration against apartheid at Sharpeville, near Johannesburg. The police shot dead 69 black people. Despite this, the government blamed the ANC and subsequently banned the organisation.
It was at this point that instead of being the leader of the ANC, Mandela became that of a secret army, known as Umkhonto we Sizwe, or ‘Spear of the Nation’. As a result, he was hunted by the police and had to hide and use a disguise. He also travelled to other countries to ask for help, but on 5th August 1962 Mandela was arrested again and accused of plotting to overthrow the government. In 1964, at the age of 46, he was given a life sentence.
After 27 years in prison, Mandela lived to lead his people to the non-racial democracy that he had envisioned. He became the first president of South Africa’s non-racial democracy and worked tirelessly for reconciliation. And so Nelson Mandela’s vision was broadly fulfilled. Before he was sentenced, Mandela made a famous speech from the dock at the opening of his defence in the 1964 trial.
I am the first accused. I have done whatever I did because of my experience in South Africa and my own proudly felt African background. In my youth, I listened to the elders of my tribe telling stories of the old days. Amongst the tales they related to me were those of wars fought by our ancestors in defence of the fatherland. I hoped then that life might offer me the opportunity to serve my people and make my own humble contribution to their freedom struggle.
I do not deny that I planned sabotage. We were placed in a position in which we had either to accept a permanent state of inferiority or to defy the government. We chose to defy the law. We first broke the law in a way which avoided any recourse to violence; when this form was legislated against, and then the government resorted to a show of force to crush opposition to its policies, only then did we decide to answer violence with violence.
The government’s answer was to introduce new and harsher laws and to send armed vehicles and soldiers into the townships in a massive show of force designed to intimidate the people. We decided therefore to make provision for the possibility of guerrilla warfare. I started to make a study of the art of war and revolution and, whilst abroad, underwent a course in military training. I wanted to be able to stand and fight with my people.
The whites enjoy what may be the highest standard of living in the world, whilst Africans live in poverty and misery. Poverty goes hand in hand with malnutrition and disease. The complaint of Africans, however, is not only that they are poor and the whites are rich, but that the laws which are made by the whites are designed to preserve this situation. The government has always sought to hamper Africans in their search for education. Pass laws render any African liable to police surveillance at any time. Hundreds and thousands of Africans are thrown into jail each year.
Africans want to be paid a living wage. Africans want to perform work which they are capable of doing, and not work which the government declares them to be capable of. Africans want a just share in the whole of South Africa; they want security and a stake in society. Above all, we want equal political rights, because without them our disabilities will be permanent. During my lifetime 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 for which I am prepared to die.