Aristotle’s Rhetoric has defined what empowers a speaker and their audience, rating persuasion based on its appeals toward emotion, logic, and credibility. Speeches aim to inspire or convince. Key speeches by U.S. presidents are carefully constructed—usually by professional ghostwriters—to call Americans to action in vital historic moments. The following addresses are some of the greatest presidential speeches of all time because they have identified unity as an American goal, in the face of opposition, infringement of civil rights, war, and crisis.
George Washington, September 19, 1796: Farewell Address
Fans of Hamilton, you may remember Washington saying goodbye in the tearful song “One Last Time.” As the first President and the key figure responsible for navigating ambiguous political precedents, Washington helped set standards for upcoming candidates. He declined a third term and expressed his gratitude, humbling himself before the American public. His parting advice instructed Americans to foster patriotism and be wary of foreign alliances. The speech was never delivered, but was immortalized in newspapers across the country. Read it here.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, March 12, 1933: Fireside Chat 1: On the Banking Crisis
FDR’s first term was marked by economic panic. The Great Depression had immobilized industrial production and restricted banks. His “fireside chats” were radio addresses; families gathered round the radio and listened to these informal speeches as conversation. Using mass media to communicate established immediate and national intimacy. FDR’s first fireside chat addressed the banking crisis, in which he commended the public for adhering to the bank holiday and explained his solution to restore the system. Listen here.
Dwight D. Eisenhower, December 8, 1953: Atoms for Peace
The possibility of world destruction via nuclear war was sobering during the height of the Cold War. Eisenhower addressed the United Nations, speaking on behalf of the United States’ progress in atomic warfare and potential to execute on that progress. The American public, he reasoned, was aware of the Soviet Union’s threats. He implored the UN to facilitate a negotiation between the United States and its allies, France and Great Britain, and the Soviet Union. Eisenhower promised that the United States would find a solution to the anxiety surrounding the threat of nuclear war. Listen here.
John F. Kennedy, January 20, 1961: Inaugural Address
Even if you haven’t heard all of Kennedy’s Inaugural Address, this famous line has entered our cultural lexicon: “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” Although he acknowledges the changing United States, he describes the inherited revolution from America’s forefathers and places the nation in God’s hands. This speech directly references his audience, citing that change is their responsibility as well. Listen here.
Lyndon B. Johnson, March 15, 1965: Speech Before Congress on Voting Rights
Following racial violence in Selma, AL, Johnson responded with a plea for voting rights before Congress. Although the Fifteenth Amendment stated that all citizens were guaranteed the ability to vote, some states had instituted barriers to prevent African Americans from voting. Johnson argued that the impact of voting rights would bolster or destroy the American legacy. He asked that Congress pass clear and undeniable legislation to allow citizens an accessible method of vote registration. Today, as voter registration is used as a tactic to scare undocumented citizens, Johnson’s speech especially resonates in its appeal for humanity. Listen and watch here.
Ronald Reagan, June 6th, 1984: 40th Anniversary of D-Day
Reagan uses the 40th anniversary of D-Day, an operation to liberate Allied France from German control, to speak about the future. He recounts the haunted history of WWII and conjures D-Day’s smoky atmosphere, its losses and gains. After saluting the veterans, Reagan contrasts the old threat of fascism with the shadow of communism. In juxtaposing historical and contemporary struggles, Reagan aims to convince his audience that the time to act is now. Listen here.
Ronald Reagan, June 12, 1987: Address from the Brandenburg Gate (Berlin Wall)
In perhaps his best-known speech, Reagan delivered this address in front of the Berlin Wall. The structure, a symbol of totalitarianism, has separated people by checkpoints and soldiers—a toxic ideology manifested. Reagan expresses his hope that the world can see no difference between the people behind and in front of the wall. He points to the West, exclaiming that art and creation thrive in a free world. He demands, famously: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” The sentiments can be applied to the impending threat of Trump’s wall today. Watch here.
George W. Bush, September 22, 2001: Address on the U.S. Response to the Attacks of September 11
The attacks on September 11, 2001, created a generation acutely aware of terrorism and desensitized to violence. Bush laments the destruction and describes the universality of prayer, regardless of language, that blossomed in its wake. He promises that the United States will never forget this loss of life and that the country’s future would drastically change. But, Bush remarks, the wreckage should not prevent the country from making new memories. He encourages the public to continue living—that carrying on would be the greatest form of rebellion against the intentions of the attackers. Watch here.
Barack Obama, March 18, 2008: A More Perfect Union
Kennedy once referred to the United States as a melting pot, a nation formed of immigrants. Obama passes over this generalization, highlighting the wounds of America’s internal racial and cultural conflicts throughout history. He asserts that, while he is a single candidate and cannot erase history, healing is the only path that can lead to “a more perfect union.” Unity, Obama argues, accepts the distinctions between all people and that choosing to move forward, to acknowledge and forgive, will make all the difference. Watch here.
Barack Obama, March 7, 2015: Remarks at the 50th Anniversary of the Selma Marches
The Selma marches were immortalized as a defining American memory. Obama compares the magnitude of Selma to battles of the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, in which all players fought for equality. Those who marched were not traditional soldiers, but they died for a fight that belongs to people of all colors. Obama argues that the fight has not yet ended, as America needed to rise for Selma as it did in moments that threatened national pride. Watch here.
For more information about these speeches, check out the Miller Center.
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