The influence of a brilliant speech knows no boundaries. The spoken word has the power to inspire, to persuade and to lift hearts and minds. Many of the greatest movements towards a freer world began with a remarkable speech. These speeches continue to impact our world.
1. Winston Churchill (1874-1965): “This was their finest hour” (1940)
Winston Churchill was not only one of the boldest Second World War leaders, he was arguably the most eloquent. Revered for his stirring oratory, he gave “the British Lion its roar during the darkest days.” Churchill, one of the first public figures in Britain to renounce Hitler, became the backbone of the Allied war effort. Not only was he instrumental in bringing America to Britain’s side, he inspired Britons to defend their nation and the principles of liberty that National Socialism sought to eradicate entirely.
Churchill gave thousands of awe-inspiring speeches during his lifetime. One of his most celebrated was delivered to the House of Commons in June 1940. After Hitler’s forces invaded Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg and France in under three days, Britain needed reassurance to repel the Nazi onslaught by itself. He began with a sobering statement: “whatever happened to France [will] make no difference to the resolve of Britain and the British Empire [will] fight on, if necessary, alone.” In the prudent realisation of Britain’s effective but relatively inferior military capabilities he declared “much will depend upon our country men to stand up to the severity of the ordeal … Every man and woman will have the chance to … render the highest service to their cause.”
He went on to point out the extensive Navy, Air Force and Army arrangements that would ensure the protection of Britain. Referring to the Allied and American assistance also in place, he made sure to mention the “consultations of the self-governing Dominions … built on our laws and civilisations who are free to choose their course and are devoted to the Motherland.” There was a deliberate emphasis on the inherent values of the British Empire, wholeheartedly of a different nature to the Nazi aggression Britain was fighting against.
Churchill heeded: “The Battle of France is over. The Battle of Britain is about to begin.” He continued “Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization… Upon it depends our British life and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire.” Whilst he elevated his audience in saying “All Europe may be free … if final victory rewards out toils” he also warned “If we fail, then the whole world will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister and perhaps more protracted the lights of perverted science.” These poignant words were concluded with the role of the British Empire “where men will declare ‘This was their finest hour.’”
The impact of his speech was far reaching, not only in lifting the British spirit but in motivating the entire Allied war effort. Churchill’s words made an unmistakable distinction of a war between a totalitarian ideology that worshipped one race and one state and an established Empire grounded in safeguarding democracy, the rule of law and individual liberties. He ensured that Britain would remain on the right side of history.
2. Ronald Reagan (1911-2004): “Mr Gorbachev, Tear Down This Wall!” (1987)
The Cold War was more than a battle of power, it was a battle of ideas. Defeating the Soviet bloc meant defeating the principles of communism. America required both military prowess, as well as unequivocal and worldwide support for the democratic principles of a free society.
Ronald Reagan, the great communicator of the 20th century, was up to the task. He exercised bold leadership, as well as the masterful rhetoric that would capture the hearts and minds of a global audience. His most influential speech was delivered in West Berlin in 1987. Reagan spoke about the most potent symbol in the war on liberty: the Berlin Wall. Built by the Communist regime in 1960, it trapped hundreds of thousands of East Germans under dictatorial control. Almost 100 people had died trying to escape communist East Berlin by the time Ronald Reagan assumed presidency.
Reagan began his speech by poignantly addressing the people stuck under dictatorial rule. “To those listening in Eastern Europe, a special word: Although I cannot be with you, I address my remarks to you just as surely as those standing here before me … Es gibt nur ein Berlin [There is only one Berlin].” He labelled the Wall “an instrument to impose upon ordinary men and women the will of a totalitarian state. As long as the gate is closed … it is not the German question alone that remains open but the question of freedom for all mankind.” His words were highly significant in chipping away the authority and legitimacy of the East German regime. With every admonition against the Berlin Wall, Reagan discredited Soviet totalitarianism entirely.
He then proceeded to discuss the West German Wirtschaftswunder (Economic miracle) that showed “the practical importance of liberty … just as truth can flourish only when the journalist is given freedom of speech, so prosperity can come about only when the farmer and businessman enjoy economic freedom.” He juxtaposed the “free world of West Berlin that has achieved … unprecedented prosperity in all human history” with “the Communist world [of] failure, technological backwardness and want of the most basic food”. Reagan also states that “Freedom leads to prosperity. Freedom replaces ancient hatreds with peace. Freedom is the victor.” This leads into his most famous line “General Gorbachev, if you seek peace and prosperity for the Soviet Union … come here to this gate! Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
Unbeknown at the time, the fall of the wall and Soviet control in Eastern Europe was imminent, largely due to the realisation that communism fails in practice. Reagan masterfully spread the virtues of liberty and the vice of oppression, helping make the world a better place.
3. William Wilberforce (1759-1833): “An End to All Slavery” (1789)
In the 17th century it was thought slavery played a necessary and inevitable role in European empires. The only dissenting voices came from religious groups such as the Quakers, who condemned the violation of human dignity that came with the coercive imperial policy. They did not, however, have either the authority or influence to mobilise the abolition movement until William Wilberforce stepped into the picture.
Wilberforce was initially uninterested in the issue. However, following an intense religious conversion, he began to use his wealth and well-connected family to advance humanitarian policies rather than his own political career. Wilberforce turned his attention to many issues of his day, however none were more important to him than restoring the lost dignity of Britain’s slaves and ensuring the violent practise would end once and for all.
His most widely disseminated speech was printed in a wide variety of newspapers across the country. It was delivered in Parliament in 1789, where he began the tireless effort of submitting bills to abolish all forms of slavery. Not only were his proposals voted down by a large majority of members of Parliament, they faced vociferous and sometimes violent opposition from the wealthy practitioners of trade who benefitted from allowing slavery to continue.
Wilberforce believed the cause of abolition was greater than his contemporary British context. He made this evident in the beginning of his speech saying: “When I consider the magnitude of the subject … in which the interests not only of this country nor of Europe alone but of the whole world and of posterity are involved … it is impossible for me not to feel both terrified and concerned at my own inadequacy to such a task.”
Well aware of the fervent opposition against him, Wilberforce continued: “When I reflect … [on] the course of a long and laborious examination and how conviction has increased in my own mind … however averse any gentleman may now be, yet we shall be of one opinion in the end … I determine to forget my fears … and justify upon the clearest principles the avowed end which is the total abolition of the slave trade.”
He understood that banning slavery would wreak havoc on the economic and political benefits the parliamentarians in the room had thus enjoyed, so he appealed to both their intellect and humanity. “I wish to guard myself from entering the subject with any sort of passion, I ask only for their cool and impartial reason … to deliberate point by point … every part of the question. I mean not to accuse anyone … but to take the shame upon myself along with Great Britain for having suffered this horrid trade to be carried on under their authority.”
The Morning Star wrote that Wilberforce’s speech was “not a proposition grounded upon particular motives of policy, but founded in principles of philanthropy. It was no idle expedient or speculation of the moment, but derived from the most mature deliberation. He came not to accuse the Merchants, but to appeal to their feelings and humanity.”
Although his early attempts to legislate against slavery were unsuccessful his efforts exposed the realities of slavery. This helped transform British public opinion, forcing parliament to deliberate its existing policies. Wilberforce’s last attempt to abolish slavery, the Abolition of Slavery Bill, was finally passed into law just three days before his death. Britain become the first nation to abolish slavery on a national scale, largely due to Wilberforce’s life-long efforts.
4. Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603): “I have the heart and stomach of a King” (1588)
The rise of Great Britain is undoubtedly linked to one of its greatest monarchs, Queen Elizabeth I. A legendary figure in the British imagination, she is one of the most well-known monarchs. She reigned over an era of British history which has become known as the Golden Age.
Following her crowning in 1559, she implemented reforms to strengthen British industry, finance and culture. Nevertheless, Britain was still vulnerable to the military prowess of the Spanish Empire. The many threats of invasion culminated in 1588 when the Spanish Armada launched a full scale attack.
Elizabeth faced numerically superior Spanish forces, excommunication from papal authority, and a questionable inheritance to the throne. She was, however, able to rely on the strength of her influence to deliver a masterful speech to the British legions sent to repel the Spanish invasion.
“I do not desire to live to distrust my faithful and loving people,” she said to her troops, “I am come amongst you not for my recreation and disport but being resolved in the midst and heat of battle to live or die amongst you all, to lay down my life for my God … my kingdom and people, my honour and my blood even in the dust.”
Elizabeth contrasted the humbleness of heart with an unflinching resolve to defend Britain. “Let tyrants fear… I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman but I have the heart and stomach of a king… and think foul scorn [that] any prince of Europe should dare to invade the borders of my realm.”
“I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general, judge and rewarder of your virtues in the field… by your obedience to my general, by your concord in the camp and your valour in the field, we shall shortly have a famous victory over those enemies of my God, my kingdom and my people,” she concluded.
Her promises of victory were ultimately fulfilled. This was largely due to the unexpected failure of the Spanish invasion to amass any long term threat to British sovereignty. The speech has become a timeless reminder of her indisputable place in history, and a crucial element in ensuring widespread support for the rest of her 44-year reign.
By virtue of the Spanish failure and British resolve, there were no further serious Spanish attacks during Queen Elizabeth’s lifetime. She henceforth pursued stability within the realm by adopting relatively greater religious tolerance. She said, in an unprecedented statement, that “there is only one Christ, Jesus, one faith … all else is a dispute over trifles.”
The favourable conditions for British subjects during the Elizabethan Era supported the flourishing of innovation, ideas and finance. This created the foundations that would catapult Britain into the Industrial Revolution three centuries later.
5. Martin Luther King (1929-1968): “I have a dream” (1963)
The American civil rights movement of the 1960s was facilitated by visionary leaders. Martin Luther King was one of the most outstanding. King faced brutal opposition from the police, however he avowed to never use violence himself, preferring instead to exercise the power of ideas. In his lifetime he organised many campaigns and marches, while encouraging peaceful forms of civil disobedience. His call for a colour blind society, where all men are treated equally, was heeded, and the seeds of cultural and political change became apparent during and after his lifetime.
King’s iconic I have a dream speech was delivered at the march for civil rights to thousands of people at the Lincoln memorial in Washington DC. He began by addressing the Emancipation Proclamation as “a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves” and the current reality under which “the Negro is still crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.” King extends this to the principled ideal of the American constitution where he makes clear there was a promise to “all men, yes, black men as well as white men, to be guaranteed the ‘unalienable rights’ of Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
He clarified most prominently that time was of the essence “we cannot take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism” nor can we “overlook the urgency of the moment.” He envisioned this because “1963 is not and end but a beginning … until the bright day of justice emerges.” His striking sentiments were combined with prudence in declaring “we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds … nor seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.” Significantly, this tied up with a sense of hope for all Americans as “the marvellous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of white people … for their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.”
The pinnacle of his speech began when he said “I still have a dream … a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.” He went on to profess the many areas where his dream presided from “the red hills of Georgia where former slaves and former sons of slave owners will sit at the table of brotherhood” to “my four little children who will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Transforming the “mountain of despair” into the “stone of hope” was deeply rooted along Christian symbolism as he ended his timeless speech with “let freedom ring from every state and city … when all God’s children, black and white, Jew and Gentile, Protestant and Catholic will join hands and sing the old Negro spiritual ‘Free at Last, Thank God we are free at last.’”
In a time and place where professors were still known to fail the grades of students who marched alongside King, the relevance of his speech was all the more imminent. His words not only red-defined an era, but built a whole new meaning to the civil rights movement in America.
6. Patrick Henry (1736-1799): “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!” (1775)
The American Revolution was as much a philosophical contest as it was a political transition. Amidst the turmoil, dissent and uncertainty, the strongest liberty voices won out. One of the most important leaders, who galvanized the possibility of Independence, was Patrick Henry, the “rhetorical backbone of the American Revolution.”
Henry delivered many speeches in his lifetime, having a striking ability to craft impassioned cries and clever arguments on the spot without any notes. As America was on the cusp of revolution he made clear and compelling arguments for individual liberty and independence.
His most famous speech was delivered in 1775, as the debate over fighting the British was becoming all the more urgent. At the 2nd Virginia Convention in St Johns Church, Henry pleaded to form militias that could defend themselves against the British. He began by emphasising what he saw at stake: “The question before the House is one of awful moment to this country … I consider it nothing less than a question of freedom or slavery.” This set the scene for what he deemed an inevitable duty “Should I keep back my opinions at such a time through fear of giving offense, I should consider myself guilty of treason towards my country and an act of disloyalty towards the majesty of Heaven.”
Hope was a major theme throughout his speech; whilst imploring his fellow countrymen to foster it in the “great and arduous struggle for liberty,” nothing was more erroneous in his eyes than investing hope in the British alliance after holding “the lamp of experience.” He asks “What has there been in the conduct of the British ministry for the last 10 years to justify these hopes?” Pointing out “we have petitioned, we have remonstrated, we have supplicated, we have prostrated ourselves before the throne… imploring its interposition to arrest the tyrannical hands of the ministry and Parliament” only to be “spurned with contempt at its foot.” Henry lays down the ultimate exclamation: “There is no longer any room for hope.”
Henry’s optimism is funnelled towards the struggle for Independence as he exclaims “We are not weak … [with] three million people armed in the holy cause of liberty, we are invincible by any force which our enemy can send against us.” He also made many religious references: “just God who presides over the destinies of nations, who will raise up friends to fight our battles for us.” With this valiant cry he finished off with the most famous line of all “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”
These words became implanted in the hearts and minds of American revolutionaries, embodied in a culture that continues to elevate liberty as the highest ideal. Henry’s contribution was instrumental in bringing support the liberty cause.
7. Robert Menzies (1894-1978): “The Forgotten People” (1942)
Click here to watch “The Forgotten People” (1942)
Following World War II, Australia, still facing the impact of the wartime financial and emotional costs, urgently needed stability and a sense of security, and a leader who could solve the unparalleled challenges and transition into peacetime. This responsibility was met by Robert Menzies, Australia’s longest serving Prime Minister. Menzies’ policies and leadership inspired a time in Australian history that has become known as the Menzies Era.
Menzies led the country for more than 18 years, as Prime Minister between 1939-1941, and 1949 and 1966. He founded the Liberal Party in 1944, believing a new party was necessary to represent the middle class, the backbone of the nation. Whilst the wealthy are well protected and the workers well represented, Menzies became the advocate for the majority of Australians.
Menzies’ Forgotten People speech was delivered on the campaign trail in 1942. He began by pointing out that “our greatest political disease” is “dividing the people into lower and upper classes” where the “middle classes are constantly caught in a false war.” Menzies not only emphasized that the middle classes made up a majority of the population, but that they were largely “unorganised and unself-conscious.” As they were “not rich enough to have individual power,” Menzies exclaims they are “taken for granted by each political party” and “are envied by those whose benefits are largely obtained by taxing them.”
After characterising who the middle classes are, and their importance to the strength of the nation, Menzies explains why the middle classes were under attack. “The communist,” he said “has always hated the ‘bourgeoisie’ because he sees their existence has kept British countries from revolution, while their absence in … France and Tsarist Russia … made revolution easy and inevitable.” Menzies was wary in ignoring the lessons of history and instead sought to apply them in his wartime context saying “Under the pressure of war we may, if not careful or thoughtful as the times permit, inflict a fatal injury upon our backbone.”
The forgotten people according to Menzies are “the nameless and unadvertised [who] see in their children the greatest contribution to the immortality of their race.” He positioned the middle classes as the force responsible for “the motive power of human progress” and yet to their great detriment comes a generation that can “get on the list of beneficiaries and remove oneself from the list of contributors.” Menzies abhorred a society that could “thrive on somebody else’s wealth and effort” and that strengthening the middle classes could avoid this from happening.
Robert Menzies was instrumental in enabling economic growth and individual responsibility to flourish. He was the first Prime Minister to envision a strong, capable Australia that could play an important role in world affairs. To this end he instituted financial stability, business friendly reforms and unprecedented skilled immigration that would set the stage for the modern Australia we cherish today.