What makes a good speech? Timing, content, humour, eloquence. But what makes a great speech, an important speech, an era-defining speech? This requires masterful oratory, the ability to convey a message with passion and emotion, one which those listening will not forget. A speech which inspires action and brings about change. We’ve rounded up six speeches in history which caused major changes, both in action and thought.
Pope Urban II – Speech at Clermont (1095)
The exact words spoken by Pope Urban II in November 1095 have been lost to history – several medieval writers have offered their versions, all varying somewhat. However, the impact of Pope Urban’s speech was monumental: the speech included the call to arms which launched the First Crusade.
Several versions of the speech use highly emotive language to refer to the ‘base and bastard Turks’ who ‘torture Christians’ and destroy churches. Whether or not Urban used words to this effect is unclear, but large swatches of men from across Europe took up the call to crusade, and embarked on treacherous journeys to the Middle East to fight in the name of Christendom.
The Crusades had a deep and long-lasting impact in the European and Islamic worlds, and aspects of the imagery, rhetoric and politics can be seen in the 20th and 21st century. The meeting of two such different worlds also had a huge secondary effect on understandings of identity, religion, science and literature.
Frederick Douglass – What to the Slave is the 4th of July? (1852)
One of the more poignant speeches in American history, Frederick Douglass was born a slave, but rose to prominence as an abolitionist. Addressing his audience on 5th July, deliberately choosing the day after celebrations for American independence day, Douglass highlighted the injustice and hypocrisy of celebrating ‘independence’ whilst slavery was still legal.
It took another 13 years for the Emancipation Proclamation to finally be declared. Douglass’ speech was a hit, and printed copies of it were sold immediately after it was given, ensuring its circulation across the country. Today it can be seen as a powerful reminder of the injustices and contradictions in politics around the world.
Emmeline Pankhurst – Freedom or Death (1913)
In 1903, Emmeline Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), determined to make progress on the issues of women’s suffrage after years of debates which had achieved nothing.
Delivered in Hartford, Connecticut in 1913 on a fundraising tour, Emmeline Pankhurst’s ‘Freedom or Death’ speech remains an incredibly powerful summary of the cause she dedicated her life to, as she highlighted why women were fighting for equality under the law, and why this battle had turned militant.
Using powerful imagery – referring to herself as a ‘soldier’ and likening the battle for female suffrage to fighting for liberty in the American War of Independence.
Winston Churchill – We Shall Fight on the Beaches (1940)
Churchill’s 1940 speech is widely considered to be one of the most iconic and rousing addresses of the Second World War. This speech was given to the House of Commons – at the time, it was not broadcast through any wider medium, and it was only eventually in 1949 that he made a recording, at the wishes of the BBC.
The speech itself was important – not just for Churchill, who had only recently been elected Prime Minister – but also because America was yet to enter the war. Churchill knew England needed a powerful ally, and his words were designed to elicit a sense of security in Britain’s absolute commitment and determination to win the war.
The lines ‘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’ have been quoted repeatedly since, and are seen by many to epitomise British “Blitz spirit”.
Mahatma Gandhi – Quit India (1942)
Given in 1942, on the eve of the Quit India movement, Gandhi’s speech called for Indian independence and set out his desire for committed passive resistance to British imperialism. By this point, India had already provided over 1 million soldiers to Allied powers, as well as large numbers of exports.
Gandhi’s speech saw the Indian National Congress agree that there should be a mass non-violent resistance movement against the British – resulting in the subsequent arrest of Gandhi and many other Congress members.
The ‘do or die’ nature of the speech, made on the eve of the movement which did eventually result in the 1947 Indian Independence Act, has cemented its place in history as one of the most importance speeches, particularly in terms of its political consequences.
Martin Luther King – I Have A Dream (1963)
Undoubtedly one of the most famous speeches in history, when Martin Luther King took to the podium in August 1963, he cannot have known exactly how powerful his words would prove. Speaking to a crowd of 250,000 at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C., King’s words have been echoed by those fighting for social justice across the world.
Moreover, the speech is full of allusions to biblical, literary, and historical texts, grounding King’s dream firmly in recognized and familiar rhetoric and stories. However, it was not just the words which made this speech so memorable – King’s skill as an orator ensured that the passion and urgency of his words were fully conveyed to his audience.
Today, the opening lines of ‘I Have A Dream’ are known around the world, and their power has not diminished. The fact that Martin Luther King was assassinated just five years later, never living to see his dream fully achieved, adds further poignancy to the speech.