The Most Famous Speeches in US History

JFK's inaugural address at his grave site in Arlington National Cemetery. Editorial credit: ZRyzner /
JFK's inaugural address at his grave site in Arlington National Cemetery. Editorial credit: ZRyzner /

Public speaking or oration is the act of giving a speech to a live audience. The US has had several speeches from several famous people ranging from presidents to human activists. The speeches have made an impact on the politics and history of the US. Martin Luther’s "I Have a Dream" speech has been one of the speeches that have been widely studied and referred to in the history of the US.

11. I Have a Dream - Martin Luther King Jr.

The “I Have a Dream Speech” was presented by Martin Luther on August 28, 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial to about 250,000 people. On the same day, black Americans had held the March on Washington which advocated for economic and civil rights for African Americans. At the end of his speech, King, at the prompt of Mahalia Jackson to tell the people about the dream, derailed from his written script to give a highlight of his speech on the theme I have a dream. Clarence Benjamin Jones and Stanley Levison helped King to draft the speech. As King finished his speech, he gave George Raveling, a college basketball player, the original typewritten copy of the speech. In 1963, Time magazine awarded King the man of the year award, after making the speech, and in 1964 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Martin Luther King Jr. Day is celebrated annually as a federal holiday in the United States on the third Monday in January.

10. Challenger Disaster Address - Ronald Reagan

On January 28, 1986, a NASA spaceship set for space with five crewmen, a New Hampshire schoolteacher-Christa McAuliffe, and an engineer exploded. Schoolchildren and several people around the US witnessed the disaster as it was televised live. On the same day, President Ronald Regan was set to have a state of the Union address, and he also had to address the accident. Penny Noonan wrote the speech read by Ronald Reagan about the disaster, and some famous phrases for presidents in the 1980s. The speech included an excerpt from High Flight by John Gillespie Magee. Reagan did not think the speech spoke to the American people at the time, but he was proved wrong.

9. First Inaugural Address - John F. Kennedy

JFK first Inaugural speech was presented by John F. Kennedy on January 20, 1961, during his swearing in as the 35th president of the US in the US Capitol, Washington D.C. Kennedy drafted his speech and had it written by Ted Sorensen. Kennedy took suggestions from several people and included his ideas to come up with a draft of the speech. His speech was the fourth shortest inaugural speech ever delivered. Kennedy’s speech centered on the dangers of nuclear power, the abolition of arms, and the focus on maintaining international relations and helping the needy. The theme of the speech focused on the relationship between duty and power.

8. The Gettysburg Address - Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln gave his Address at a memorial on November 19, 1863, while he was president. The address is seen as one of the influential pieces on American purpose. The speech focused on equality among all Americans, and Lincoln cited the founding principles of the US. Though the speech is one of America’s best speeches, the actual words of the speech are controversial as several handwritten scripts of the speech, with different wording and punctuation, have been found. The Bliss version of the speech has come to be accepted as the ideal text as it was the only copy signed by Lincoln. The Gettysburg Address is taught in American history and civics classes. Phrases from the speech have been used in some places; ship USS Abraham Lincoln has the motto shall not perish which is said to be gotten from the address.

7. Ich bin ein Berliner - John F. Kennedy

This oration was delivered at the time of the cold war and is considered the most famous anti-communist speech. The speech was given on June 26, 1963, on the Rathaus Schoneberg steps in West Berlin and in English it translates to “I am a Berliner.” The speech was intended to portray the US support for West Germany after the Soviet put up the Berlin Wall to separate East and West Germany. Kennedy used the phrase I am a Berliner in German twice in his speech.

6. Checkers Speech - Richard Nixon

The checkers speech, also referred to as the fund speech, was made by Nixon on September 23, 1952, while still the senator for California and a vice-presidential candidate. The speech was given after Nixon had been accused of irregularities in a fund set up to reimburse him his campaign expenses. In his speech Nixon defended himself, and he stated that he would keep a dog he was gifted and they had named him Checkers. The speech earned its name from the dog's name. The speech was delivered via a television and radio broadcast, and it earned him public support. The term, checkers speech, has come to be used as a term for an emotional speech given by a politician.

5. Women's Rights are Human's Rights - Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton made this speech on September 5, 1995, while still the first lady of the US. The speech aimed to put across that women are also human, and they have rights similar to those of their male counterparts. The speech has over the years been used in women empowerment around the world.

4. The Ballot or the Bullet - Malcolm X

Malcolm X was a human rights activist and a Muslim minister of African-American origin. To many he was a courageous advocate the rights of the black people, while to others he was seen as preaching violence and racism. Malcolm X delivered this speech on ballot or the bullet on April 3, 1964. In his speech, Malcolm X urged African Americans to keep voting, but he warned the government that if African Americans were not granted full equality, they would have to take up arms. In his speech, Malcolm X states, a ballot is like a bullet, and you should only throw your votes when the target is near.

3. Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death - Patrick Henry

This speech was delivered during the Second Virginia Convention in 1775. The speech played a vital role in convincing the convention to send Virginian troops to the Revolutionary War. The words liberty or death has been used in Uruguay’s national anthem as liberty or with glory to die, and the words also make up the Greek motto.

2. 2004 Keynote Speech - Barack Obama

The Keynote speech was presented at the Democratic National Convention by then Illinois Senator, Barrack Obama on July 27, 2004. Obama wrote most of the speech himself and in his 20-minute speech he talked about his life, his vision for America and his reasons for supporting Kerry for president.

1. First Inaugural Address - FDR

Franklin D. Roosevelt took office as the 32nd president on March 4, 1933 during the Great Depression. FDR's 20 minute long speech gave rise to the now-famous quote "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." He spoke about the economic crisis, the morality of shortsighted and greedy bankers and businessmen, unemployment, and foreign relations.


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