2017-03-27

Which ones are the very best?

Throughout American history, our presidents have delivered some of the world’s most memorable and inspirational speeches. Which ones drove the nation and the world to greatness? Which were the most motivating? Here are excerpts from 10 of our favorites. We have selected two by Abraham Lincoln, two by John F. Kennedy, three by Ronald Reagan and one each by Theodore Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Several historic addresses are not included, including Richard Nixon’s famed Checkers speech, George Washington’s Farewell Address and Jimmy Carter’s Malaise speech. Why not? Perhaps we should have included Harry Truman’s Truman Doctrine challenge or Woodrow Wilson's Declaration of War on Germany. These and so many others marked important turning points in American history. However, today let’s consider the ten greatest presidential speeches that challenged us to greatness ... and inspired the entire world.

Lincoln's Gettysburg Address

On November 19, 1863, Lincoln spoke at the dedication of the National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. While his speech itself was only two minutes long, it is considered one of the most powerful ever delivered – and has been memorized by school children ever since. Here, in its entirety is Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which we rank as the most powerful and memorable presidential speech ever delivered:

 

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

 

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

 

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate   we can not consecrate   we can not hallow   this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.

 

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. 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 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.

Lyndon Johnson's "We Shall Overcome" Speech

In the mid-1960’s America was convulsed in race riots and freedom marches. On March 15, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson, a Southerner from a slave state, Texas, asked Congress and all Americans to unite in the cause of equal rights for every American. Johnson pointedly used the phrase “We Shall Overcome” which had been used by civil rights leaders and asked the nation not to think in terms of black and white, north and south, but as Americans.

 

I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of Democracy. I urge every member of both parties, Americans of all religions and of all colors, from every section of this country, to join me in that cause.

 

At times, history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man's unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama. There, long suffering men and women peacefully protested the denial of their rights as Americans. Many of them were brutally assaulted. One good man – a man of God – was killed.

 

There is no cause for pride in what has happened in Selma. There is no cause for self-satisfaction in the long denial of equal rights of millions of Americans. But there is cause for hope and for faith in our democracy in what is happening here tonight. For the cries of pain and the hymns and protests of oppressed people have summoned into convocation all the majesty of this great government – the government of the greatest nation on earth.

 

Our mission is at once the oldest and the most basic of this country – to right wrong, to do justice, to serve man. In our time, we have come to live with the moments of great crises. Our lives have been marked with debate about great issues, issues of war and peace, issues of prosperity and depression.

 

But rarely in any time does an issue lay bare the secret heart of America itself. Rarely are we met with a challenge, not to our growth or abundance, or our welfare or our security, but rather to the values and the purposes and the meaning of our beloved nation. The issue of equal rights for American Negroes is such an issue. And should we defeat every enemy, and should we double our wealth and conquer the stars, and still be unequal to this issue, then we will have failed as a people and as a nation. For, with a country as with a person, "what is a man profited if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?"

 

There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem.

 

And we are met here tonight as Americans – not as Democrats or Republicans. We're met here as Americans to solve that problem. This was the first nation in the history of the world to be founded with a purpose.

 

The great phrases of that purpose still sound in every American heart, North and South: "All men are created equal." "Government by consent of the governed." "Give me liberty or give me death." And those are not just clever words, and those are not just empty theories. In their name Americans have fought and died for two centuries and tonight around the world they stand there as guardians of our liberty risking their lives. Those words are promised to every citizen that he shall share in the dignity of man.

 

The last time a President sent a civil rights bill to the Congress it contained a provision to protect voting rights in Federal elections. That civil rights bill was passed after eight long months of debate. And when that bill came to my desk from the Congress for signature, the heart of the voting provision had been eliminated.

 

This time, on this issue, there must be no delay, or no hesitation, or no compromise with our purpose. We cannot, we must not, refuse to protect the right of every American to vote in every election that he may desire to participate in.

 

We must not wait another eight months before we get a bill. We have already waited 100 years and more and the time for waiting is gone.

 

It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause, too.

 

Because it's not just Negroes, but really it's all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.

 

And we shall overcome.

John F. Kennedy's Inauguration Address

Young, handsome with a young family and a beautiful wife, John F. Kennedy embodied the fresh optimism that had marked the 1960s. On January 20, 1961, he took the oath of office as the 35th President of the United States, the youngest president in U.S. history, He ushered the nation into a new era – and challenged them to think first of their country.

 

In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility — I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it — and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.

 

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.

Theodore Roosevelt, Five Minutes After Being Shot

Fiery orator, dramatic speaker Theodore Roosevelt was shot by a narchist John Schrank as the president rose to give an address in Milwaukee on October, 14, 1912. Schrank had stalked the Roosevelt for thousands of miles before getting a clear shot at him – and was immediately arrested. He spent the rest of his life in a mental institution. Roosevelt, on the other hand, propelled America into world power status and ended up on Mount Rushmore with Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln.

 

Friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible. I don't know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot; but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose. But fortunately I had my manuscript, so you see I was going to make a long speech, and there is a bullet - there is where the bullet went through - and it probably saved me from it going into my heart. The bullet is in me now, so that I cannot make a very long speech, but I will try my best.

 

And now, friends, I shall have to cut short much of that speech that I meant to give you, but I want to touch on just two or three points.

 

In the first place, we do not regard as essential the way in which a man worships his God or as being affected by where he was born. We regard it as a matter of spirit and purpose. Now, friends, in the same way I want our people to stand by one another without regard to differences or class or occupation.

 

I ask you to look at our declaration and hear and read our platform about social and industrial justice.

 

And now, friends, I want to take advantage of this incident to say a word of solemn warning to my fellow countrymen. First of all, I am telling you the literal truth when I say that my concern is for many other things. It is not in the least for my own life. I want you to understand that no man has had a happier life than I have led; a happier life in every way. I am in this cause with my whole heart and soul.

 

What I care for is my country.

Ronald Reagan's Remarks at the Brandenburg Gate

At the end of World War II, Europe was divided. No nation was more negatively affected than Germany – a free, democratic republic in the west, but the east under authoritarian, Communist control, ruled by the Soviet Union. When President Reagan took office, he committed not only to bringing freedom to Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary and all the other nations under Soviet domination, but to bring down the entire “Evil Empire” Soviet system. While Franklin D. Roosevelt led America to victory in World War II and Lincoln gets the credit for holding America together in the War Between the States, it is Reagan whose strategies won the 40-year-long Cold War. There is no more memorable and symbolic moment of his influence than his June 12, 1987 speech at the Berlin Wall, the most visible symbol of the Soviet “Iron Curtain.” There, he challenged Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev to bring down the concrete and barbed-wire barrier that barred East Germans from even being able to visit West Berlin.

 

We believe that freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace.

 

There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace.

 

General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate.

 

Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate.

 

Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!

Abraham Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural Address

The Union’s victory was only a month away as President Lincoln began his second term as president of a bitterly divided United States. The South had been devastated. The border statesMissouri, Kentucky, Maryland – were only marginally loyal to Washington. Texas stood ready to become an independent republic again. Here, on March 4, 1865, Lincoln wishes for an end to hostilities and the reunification of Americans.

 

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.

 

Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said 3,000 years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

 

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Ronald Reagan's 40th Anniversary of D-Day Speech

Ronald Reagan was perhaps as effective an orator as any president. On June 6, 1984, the 40th anniversary of D-Day – the Allied Invasion of Nazi-Occupied France, Reagan gave a powerful tribute to a group of American Army Rangers who assaulted an impossible Nazi stronghold – Pointe Du Hoc, a sheer 100-foot cliff between Omaha and Utah beaches. Thousands of American soldiers on the beaches were being mowed down by machine gunners atop the bluff. The Rangers scaled the cliffs, took the position, then without reinforcements or resupply for two days, fended off relentless German counterattacks. Only 90 of the 225 Rangers survived.

 

These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc. These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are the heroes who helped end a war.

 

Gentlemen, I look at you and I think of the words of Stephen Spender’s poem. You are men who in your ‘lives fought for life…and left the vivid air signed with your honor’…

 

Forty summers have passed since the battle that you fought here. You were young the day you took these cliffs; some of you were hardly more than boys, with the deepest joys of life before you. Yet you risked everything here. Why? Why did you do it? What impelled you to put aside the instinct for self-preservation and risk your lives to take these cliffs? What inspired all the men of the armies that met here? We look at you, and somehow we know the answer. It was faith, and belief; it was loyalty and love.

 

The men of Normandy had faith that what they were doing was right, faith that they fought for all humanity, faith that a just God would grant them mercy on this beachhead or on the next. It was the deep knowledge — and pray God we have not lost it — that there is a profound moral difference between the use of force for liberation and the use of force for conquest. You were here to liberate, not to conquer, and so you and those others did not doubt your cause. And you were right not to doubt.

John F. Kennedy's Decision to Go to the Moon

On April 12, 1961, the Soviets, who occupied much of eastern Europe and had nuclear missiles aimed at America, launched the first man into space, Yuri Gagarin. Then the Communist propagandists proclaimed that Gagarin had looked around the cosmos and seen no God. In actuality, Gagarin, a devout Russian Orthodox Christian, never made the claims the officially atheist Soviet government attributed to him. However, the Soviets used the successful space flight for the maximum propaganda purposes. Communist Party Chairman Nikita Khrushchev touted the Soviet triumph as prime evidence of Communism’s superiority. On May 25, 1961, President Kennedy spoke in Houston, declaring that America would go to the moon. And then we did. The Soviets never made it.

 

But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?

 

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.

 

Because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.

 

Because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept – one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Pearl Harbor Address

On December 7, 1941, the United States was shocked by a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, that sank the pride of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Our great battleships were destroyed and thousands of lives were lost. Overnight, America united in desire to enter World War II. Here is what President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared to the nation:

 

Yesterday, December 7, 1941a date which will live in infamythe United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.

 

Always will our whole nation remember the character of the onslaught against us.

 

No matter how long it may take us to overcome this, the American people in their righteous might will win – through to absolute victory.

 

We will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost but will make it very certain that this form of treachery shall never again endanger us.

 

With confidence in our armed forces – with the unbounding determination of our people – we will gain the inevitable triumph, so help us God!

Ronald Reagan's "Space Shuttle Challenger" Address

On January 28, 1986, millions of Americans witnessed the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger just 73 seconds after it lifted off from Kennedy Space Center. Just a few hours after the disaster, President Reagan spoke to the nation:

 

We’ve grown used to wonders in this century. It’s hard to dazzle us. But for 25 years the United States space program has been doing just that. We’ve grown used to the idea of space, and perhaps we forget that we’ve only just begun. We’re still pioneers. They, the members of the Challenger crew, were pioneers.

 

The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them.

 

We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for the journey and waved goodbye …

 

And ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’

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