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10 Famous Speeches That Shaped History

These powerful speeches continue to linger in the public imagination.

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  • Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The best speeches have left a mark on society for generations. They reshaped our world, held us accountable, and inspired us to rise against all odds and achieve great things. These speeches transcend time and place, offering wisdom that stirs souls long after the original speakers have been silenced.

A speech can be charismatic and still lack true meaning, but truly great oratories appeal to the audience's hearts, minds, and values. These speeches rise above the rest both because of the passion with which they were delivered, and the very words themselves. Here, we’ve rounded up eight powerful speeches that captured important historical moments and have proven unforgettable.

“Ain’t I a Woman?”

Sojourner Truth, 1851

Born into slavery in 1797, Sojourner Truth became a well-known abolitionist and women’s rights activist. She delivered this powerful speech at the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention held in Akron, Ohio. In it, she laid bare the double standards facing Black women, who were often pushed to the side when it came to conversations about racism and sexism. Her speech received greater publicity during the Civil War, when several different versions were circulated by feminists and abolitionists.

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“That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain't I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man - when I could get it - and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman?”

“When They Go Low, We Go High”

Michelle Obama, 2016

Michelle Obama uttered her now-famous catchphrase at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, when speaking in support of Hillary Clinton’s bid for the presidency. She was referring to the importance of setting a good example for your children and the next generation by staying true to your values and not stooping to the level of those who would demean you. It's a message that's more important than ever in the age of Internet mud-slinging.

“Our motto is: when they go low, we go high. With every word we utter, with every action we take, we know our kids are watching us. We as parents are their most important role models. Let me tell you, Barack and I take that same approach to our jobs as President and First Lady because we know that our words and actions matter, not just to our girls but the children across this country.”

"I Have a Dream"

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., 1963

One of the greatest speeches in American history is Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, which was delivered on August 28, 1963 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. In it, he advocated for an end to racism in prose that continues to strike people’s hearts to this day.

Related: 16 Books About MLK That Reveal the Man Behind the Civil Rights Icon

King—a staunch social activist and Baptist minister—was arguably the most prominent leader of the American Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and 60s. King's speech brought into focus the injustice of racial inequality and police brutality in America. He delivered this speech to over 250,000 civil rights supporters. By the mid-1960s, both the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act were enacted in part due to King's words and actions.

"I have a dream that my four 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."

The Farewell Address

George Washington, 1796

During George Washington’s time as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, and later as the first president of the United States, he wielded a lot of power. He could have managed to overtake control of the nation, much like the king from whom the fledgling nation was determined to break free, and the world was watching to see what would happen.

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Instead, his modest resignation from his post as the commander-in-chief of the American military in 1783 strengthened the foundation of the republic, and his refusal to accept a third term as president of the nation established a precedent that was later enshrined into law. In the now-famous farewell address that he penned when he stepped down from the presidency, Washington discussed the importance of unity and checks and balances, and warned against the dangers of political factions and despotism.

"However [political factions] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government..."

"Tear down this wall!"

Ronald Reagan, 1987

The Berlin Wall divided East and West Germany into two different nations; one ruled by democracy and one by communism. Echoing many leaders in the international community, President Ronald Reagan demanded that General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev aid in reunifying Germany.

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Reagan delivered his speech when the Cold War was at its peak, and his advisors feared his address would anger the Soviet leader. But the President gave his speech nonetheless. Reagan’s words received little attention at the time, but when the Cold War ended a few years later it became one of the most well-known speeches by an American president.

“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!”

"I Am Prepared to Die"

Nelson Mandela, 1964

Nelson Mandela is one of the most controversial and loved figures in history. His speech "I Am Prepared to Die" defined South African democracy. Mandela delivered his three-hour-long address from the defendant dock to testify while addressing the charges that faced him as a result of his fight against South Africa's apartheid. Although his words did not save him from being convicted, his powerful speech struck the minds of the people listening, and it stimulated unrest in the South African people. 

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Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years, but his speech and courage were vital in demolishing the apartheid system in his country. He was later released in 1990, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, and became the country's first black head of state and the first leader to be elected in a fully representative democratic election.

"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.”

Address to The United Nations On the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Eleanor Roosevelt, 1948

As the wife of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt was America's First Lady for 12 years. She was described as a dedicated humanitarian and activist throughout her life. After the death of her husband, she was appointed the first U.S delegate to the United Nations by President Harry S. Truman. Eleanor Roosevelt achieved her life's most remarkable work when she drafted and presented the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

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The cruelties of World War II inspired the declaration, whose purpose was to ensure that such tragic human rights abuses would not happen again. The most translated document globally, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights lays out the rights and freedoms of all human beings. Roosevelt was instrumental in the adoption of the document, and she explained its significance in a passionate 1948 address to the United Nations.

“At a time when there are so many issues on which we find it difficult to reach a common basis of agreement, it is a significant fact that 58 states have found such a large measure of agreement in the complex field of human rights. This must be taken as testimony of our common aspiration...to lift men everywhere to a higher standard of life and to a greater enjoyment of freedom. Man’s desire for peace lies behind this Declaration.”

Inaugural Address

John F. Kennedy, 1961

On January 20, 1961, John F. Kennedy was sworn in as the 35th president of the United States. His pithy inaugural address on that day was well-written and meaningful, and it has become one of the most famous speeches by an American leader. JFK's speech was a call to service for the "new generation Americans - born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage." He issued a direct appeal to American citizens to stand up for their nation at the height of the Cold War and a time of great social change.

"And so, my fellow Americans: Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: Ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man."

"We Shall Fight On The Beaches"

Winston Churchill, 1940

"We shall fight on the beaches" is the popular title given to the speech delivered by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to the House of Commons of the UK’s Parliament on June 4, 1940. He gave this speech around the time when Nazi Germany was invading many countries in Europe. In it, Churchill declared that British troops “shall go on to the end” in the face of Nazi aggression.

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With the threat of a Nazi invasion forthcoming, Churchill promised his nation would fight, alone if need be, and remain resilient. His words were designed to prompt a sense of security in the British people and inspire British troops, without which history would have been different. This strong speech was not just crucial for Churchill but also for the international stage, with America yet to enter the war.

“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...”

Democratic National Convention Keynote Address

Barack Obama, 2004

Rising political star Barack Obama was just a candidate for the United States Senate when he gave the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention on July 27, 2004. However, his speech left a mark in the history of America. At the time, Obama was an upcoming politician gaining popularity in the state of Illinois.  His speech that day paved the way for him to become the first Black President of the United States. But why did his address have so much significance?

First of all, it was the quality of the writing, which Obama himself handled. Secondly, it was the message of the keynote address; he reminded Americans of what they had in common rather than their differences.

"Now even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us...Well, I say to them tonight, there's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America. There's not a Black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America."