Many great orators have walked the face of this planet from time to time. From the great Demosthenes and Cicero of ancient times to Lincoln and Roosevelt, there has never been any dearth of great speakers. To select the top 10 speeches out of them would be an almost impossible feat but nevertheless we are going to give it a try. A lot many good ones might be left out but you will definitely come across a great many fantastic ones, some of which you might have never heard before.
There are a lot of criteria that may be used to judge the greatness of a speech out of which the content, the setting and the impact are the most vital. But most importantly, it is the oratory skills of the speaker which can transform a seemingly commonplace speech into a fascinating one and embed it in history’s pages for years to come. So without much ado, let us take a plunge into some of the greatest speeches ever made in the history of mankind.
1. “The Gettysburg address” by Abraham Lincoln
Short yet impactful, there are very few people and hardly any American who haven’t read this famous speech by Lincoln. Even Lincoln’s “second inaugural address” is very famous but it pales in comparison to the Gettysburg address. If you have seen the recent movie on Lincoln by Spielberg, you must be aware of it. There is widespread difference opinion as to the exact words of the address as the copies that remain all vary in content. Nevertheless, the statement that “all men are created equal” caught on the imagination of the people and is still widely quoted in every other speech and writing. Whenever people talk of the American Civil War, they will remember the Gettysburg address. No wonder Lincoln is regarded by many as the greatest American President. Words do matter after all.
2. “Give me blood and I will give you freedom speech” by Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose
These words became a slogan of India’s freedom struggle against the British. Delivered on July 4, 1944 at a rally in Yangon (present day Burma), this is the most electrifying speech ever given by a freedom fighter. It was a siren-call to the nation’s youth to stand up and fight. In stark contrast to M.K. Gandhi’s non-violent ways and preference for dialogue, Netaji preferred a more drastic way of handling things. When rallies and dialogues seemed to go nowhere, he formed the Azad Hind Fauj to fight the British and gave a great many historic speeches to churn the spirit of freedom inside the Indians. It was during one such speech that he uttered these famous words that still ring in the ears of every true patriot irrespective of their country of origin.
3. “I have a dream speech” by Martin Luther King Jr.
These simple yet profound words have been uttered innumerable times by some of the greatest of men in the years following Martin Lither King Jr.’s death. No other speech has acquired such a cult status. This speech was delivered in August 28 in the year 1963, not too long ago in comparison to the other speeches in this list. More than just the words, it was the truth and passion with which these words were uttered that made them even more fascinating. Even though it had been a century or so that slavery had been abolished in America, the black Americans still faced extreme prejudice from the whites. Racism was as normal as bread and butter. It was in this setting that King Jr. delivered this historic speech and uttered: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed”. It was only fitting that this speech was delivered on the steps of the Lincoln memorial.
4. “I am the first accused speech” of Nelson Mandela
There is hardly a sane person walking the face if earth who hasn’t heard if Nelson Mandela. His perseverance and ability to endure the hardship of 30 years in prison has set a precedent for citizens all over the world. In Pretoria, South Africa in April 20, 1964; at the opening of his trial on false charges of sabotage and treason, Mandela delivered this famous speech standing at the dock and facing years of imprisonment. His unflinching faith in equality and courage to stand up against the toughest is what makes this speech really historic. Talking about democracy and free society, Mandela said: “…it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
5. “We shall fight on the beaches speech” by Winston Churchill
On June 4, 1940; shortly after Churchill became the Prime Minister of England, he gave this historic speech. Just reading the title may leave one amused. Fights and beaches don’t exactly go together, do they? But in the context of the Battle of France, it fitted perfectly. This speech was actually the second in Churchill’s famed trinity of speeches, the others being his speech on “blood, toil, tears and sweat” and “this was their finest hour” speech. But this speech in particular has become synonymous with Churchill. This speech was given following the miraculous evacuation of troops from Dunkirk by “Operation Dynamo”. A major military setback was thus projected as a heroic endeavour. Only Churchill was capable of such a thing.
6. “Inauguration address” of John F. Kennedy
If there ever was an American president in the modern era, who had a real way with words, it was beyond doubt the famous John F. Kennedy or JFK. This 35th President of the states was not only young and ebullient but was also a great speaker. ON January 26, 1961; when the youngest ever President of the United States took oath, it marked the hope of a new era for the country and its people. JFK’s inaugural address only strengthened that belief. His words, “ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country” became a gospel for America’s youth and still is quoted and requited again and again.
7. “The Hydaspes speech” of Alexander the Great
Who has not heard of this truly great king and warrior? Anyone who has glanced into the amount of area his empire covered in his heyday will not question the “great” part in his name. It was 326 years before the birth of Christ, on the banks of the Hydaspes river in India that Alexander the Great gave a speech to boost the fledgling morale of his soldiers. They had already spent a decade fighting and starting a fresh conquest onto India seemed too much to take. But Alexander’s words: “I will make those who stay the envy of those who return” abruptly shook up the most dejected if his soldiers and the battles the followed are perhaps the most famous of Alexander’s.
8. “Citizenship in a republic speech” by Theodore Roosevelt
You can pick up any book or treatise on greatest speeches ever delivered and nine out of ten times, Roosevelt’s speech will find a pride of place in the list, not once but twice or thrice perhaps. His speeches have a fan following of their own. Whether it is the “strength and decency” speech or the “duties of American citizenship” speech, Roosevelt’s words will forever be etched in gold in the annals of history. But of all these famous speeches, the one that we have selected is the “citizenship in a republic” speech. Delivered in April 23, 1910 in the University of Paris, this is one of his most admired speeches. Who can ever forget the words, “the credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood…”? A gem of a speech on citizenship and its vitality in a democracy, it is equally applicable in the modern world as it was a century ago.
9. “The sermon on the mount” by Jesus Christ
Undoubtedly the most well-known words which any person who has even a remote idea of Christianity must have heard: “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth”. The year was 33 AD. The date is unknown. But what we do know is that never again will such a speech be delivered that will basically change how we think and impact the lives of billions to come. Call him God or His son or just a great teacher, but there is no denying the depth and wisdom in his sermons. And of all of them, “the sermon on the mount” is most probably the most famous and the most quoted.
10. “Abolition speech” by William Wilberforce
It was in the summer of 1789, May 12 to be precise, that William Wilberforce gave this historic speech in the House of Commons. But who exactly was this Wilberforce? Well, unless you have taken a keen interest in British history or politics, it is very much possible that you may have never heard of this man. Well, Wilberforce was a member of the British parliament in an age when colonialism and slavery was at a peak. In the autumn of his youth, Wilberforce had converted into Christianity and set on a quest of abolishing the slave trade which he believed would ultimately lead to the abolition of slavery itself. With that end in sight, he gave this famous “Abolition speech” in the House of Commons: “….. I shall be able to justify upon the clearest principles, every resolution in my hand, the avowed end of which is, the total abolition of the slave trade.” His continuous persistence finally led to the passing of the Slave Trade Act in 1807.