10 of the Greatest Speeches That Changed History
The greatest speeches have a way of making an impact long after they are first spoken. These words of wisdom from the likes of world leaders, athletes, entertainers, and politicians are meant to inspire the masses and light a fire under them. The best speeches often touch on hardship and social matters and are said with great passion and hope for the world. Some are short and concise while others are long and informative speeches that have changed the course of history.
We’ve collected some of the great speeches that have given hope to humankind during dark days and are still just as arresting today as when they were first spoken. From Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic “I have a dream” speech to Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Gettysburg Address, these speeches will send chills down your spine.
10 of the Greatest Speeches That Changed History
1. Abraham Lincoln – The Gettysburg Address
The 16th president of the United States kept things short and sweet with his famous Gettysburg address. On November 19, 1863, near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Abraham Lincoln rallied the Union troops with an inspiring speech about uniting America as one and not losing the Civil War.
Lincoln’s 272-word speech followed Edward Everett’s two-hour-long monologue, managing to both eulogize the fallen soldiers and solidify those left to fight the war. As history shows, the Union forces would go on to win the American Civil War and Lincoln would abolish slavery, cementing his legacy as one of the great American presidents.
“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 here 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.” – Abraham LincolnRead the Entire Speech Here
2. Queen Elizabeth I – “Spanish Armada” Speech
With the Spanish on their way to invade England in 1588, Queen Elizabeth I gave a speech that had all those in attendance willing to put their life on the line for their country. The rousing speech talked about national pride and how the Queen herself was willing to take up arms against the evil Spanish, despite being a woman.
While the Spanish were easily repelled (they first got lost and then encountered storms that destroyed much of the fleet), Queen Elizabeth I’s speech still lives on as one of the great wartime motivational speeches.
“I am come amongst you, as you see, at this time, not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live and die amongst you all; to lay down for my God, and for my kingdom, and my people, my honor and my blood, even in the dust. I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach 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 realm: To which rather than any dishonor shall 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.” – Queen Elizabeth IRead the Entire Speech Here
3. Theodore Roosevelt – “Duties of American Citizenship” Speech
While he would go on to become the 26th president of the United States, one of Theodore Roosevelt’s most important contributions to his country came before he entered the White House. While serving as a New York assemblyman, Roosevelt gave a speech in Buffalo, New York, on January 26, 1883, where he urged everyone to become involved in politics, believing it was every man and woman’s duty to take an interest in those elected to office.
“But this is aside from my subject, for what I wish to talk of is the attitude of the American citizen in civic life. It ought to be axiomatic in this country that every man must devote a reasonable share of his time to doing his duty in the Political life of the community. No man has a right to shirk his political duties under whatever plea of pleasure or business; and while such shirking may be pardoned in those of small cleans it is entirely unpardonable in those among whom it is most common–in the people whose circumstances give them freedom in the struggle for life. In so far as the community grows to think rightly, it will likewise grow to regard the young man of means who shirks his duty to the State in time of peace as being only one degree worse than the man who thus shirks it in time of war.” – Theodore RooseveltRead the Entire Speech Here
4. Martin Luther King Jr. – “I Have a Dream” Speech
These powerful words from Martin Luther King Jr. will go down as arguably the greatest speech of all time. On August 28, 1963, the Reverend King Jr. delivered his speech about equal rights to 250,000 civil rights supporters on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. He had everyone captivated by his use of the English language and his commanding voice.
His speech was a historic moment for all African Americans as King Jr. delivered a message of hope, believing that a new dawn was coming for equality in America and across the world. Sadly King Jr. would be dead five years later, assassinated at the age of 39. While his speech was a momentous occasion, we still have much work to do before his dream of a fully united America comes to fruition.
“I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American 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 color of their skin but by the content of their character.” – Martin Luther King Jr.Read the Entire Speech Here
5. George Washington – Resignation Speech
The first president of the United States, George Washington was a great man who found himself in the right place at the right time. The founding father had no thirst for power like many of his contemporaries and just wanted to do his best to lead America into the future.
After two successful terms as the big boss, Washington refused a third, establishing the two-term presidency limit that is still in place today. Washington wrote a final address about his retirement that was published in the American Daily Advertiser on September 19, 1796. In the speech, Washington made it clear his time as president was not about him but about making America the greatest nation in the world. A truly honorable man.
“Happy in the confirmation of our Independence and Sovereignty, and pleased with the opportunity afforded the United States of becoming a respectable Nation, I resign with satisfaction the Appointment I accepted with diffidence. A diffidence in my abilities to accomplish so arduous a task, which however was superseded by a confidence in the rectitude of our Cause, the support of the Supreme Power of the Union, and the patronage of Heaven.” – George WashingtonRead the Entire Speech Here
See more about - 70 Weird History Facts That Have To Be Read To Be Believed
6. Winston Churchill – “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” Speech
When it comes to grandiose speeches, Winston Churchill was the master. During his time in politics, he delivered many illustrious speeches but none quite hit home like his “We shall fight on the Beaches” speech. In the midst of World War II, with Nazi forces continually bombing London, Churchill stood up in the British Parliament’s House of Commons on June 4, 1940, and gave one of the greatest performances of his career.
His words were a war cry for the British people that pledged the nation would take the fight to their enemies anywhere in the world and be triumphant. Despite suffering a devastating loss at the Battle of France, Churchill was defiant and his words helped propel the Allies to victory over the Axis and brought about the end of the war.
“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.” – Winston ChurchillRead the Entire Speech Here
7. Demosthenes – The Third Philippic
Unless you’re big on Greek history, Demosthenes might not be a familiar name. The Athenian orator composed several speeches to convince his fellow citizens to bear arms and take on the invading Phillip II of Macedon. It was his third speech in 341 BC, known as the Third Philippic, that actually inspired the Greek parliament to go against Philip and take a stand, but it proved futile, with the Macedonian eventually conquering Greece. Still, Demosthenes’ speech remains an important moment in history that shows sometimes the pen is mightier than the sword.
“You are in your present plight because you do not do any part of your duty, small or great; for of course, if you were doing all that you should do, and were still in this evil case, you could not even hope for any improvement. As it is, Philip has conquered your indolence and your indifference; but he has not conquered Athens. You have not been vanquished, you have never even stirred.” – DemosthenesRead the Entire Speech Here
8. Mahatma Gandhi – “Quit India” Speech
The Indian revolutionary Mahatma Gandhi made history with his “Quit India” speech on August 8th, 1942. Along with the All India Congress Committee, Gandhi implored the British to leave India and let the country be an independent nation. Gandhi staged a peaceful protest as he despised violence and believed words could change the world for good.
While the change wasn’t immediate, eventually the British left, and India won its independence on August 15, 1947. Gandhi is largely responsible for this, with his form of peaceful protest helping convince the British to leave.
“I, therefore, want freedom immediately, this very night, before dawn, if it can be had. Freedom cannot now wait for the realization of communal unity. If that unity is not achieved, sacrifices necessary for it will have to be much greater than would have otherwise sufficed. But the Congress must win freedom or be wiped out in the effort. And forget not that the freedom which the Congress is struggling to achieve will not be for the Congressmen alone but for all the forty cores of the Indian people. Congressmen must for ever remain humble servants of the people.” – Mahatma GandhiRead the Entire Speech Here
9. Chief Joseph – “Surrender” Speech
Chief Joseph was the leader of the Native American tribe Nez Perce when the United States government began forcibly removing his people from their lands. After several violent clashes, Chief Joseph and around 700 men, women, and children tried to flee to Canada seeking asylum. After months on the run, they were eventually trapped in the northern Montana Territory, where Chief Joseph was forced to surrender to the United States Army.
In doing so he read a heartfelt speech that addressed the pain and suffering he and his people had been through and their wish to live as free people again.
“I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. Looking Glass is dead. Toohoolhoolzote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say, ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ He who led the young men [Olikut] is dead. It is cold, and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are – perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.” – Chief JosephRead the Entire Speech Here
10. Nelson Mandela – “I am Prepared to Die” Speech
On April 20, 1964, the great Nelson Mandela stood on the dock in the Rivonia Trial and gave the most important speech of his life. Despite the risk of imprisonment, Mandela went ahead with his nearly four-hour speech, addressing the divide in South Africa between white and black citizens and demanding a democratic nation that would allow all people to live in harmony.
An important moment in South African political history, Mandela was indeed arrested and spent 27 years in prison. His release came about with the end of apartheid in 1990. Four years later he was elected prime minister of South Africa and helped the country heal from its traumatic past.
“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.” – Nelson MandelaRead the Entire Speech Here
See more about - The 15 Worst Years In History