Apology, 4th century B.C.
Facing charges of "corrupting youth," Socrates delivered this speech — as rendered by Plato — to an Athens jury. It proved unsuccessful; he was convicted by his peers, and subsequently killed himself by swallowing hemlock. But this skillful piece of rhetoric underlines the realization that has propelled philosophy ever since: that human knowledge is woefully limited.
Best Line: "The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways — I to die, and you to live. Which is better God only knows."
Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death, 1775
In 1775, as the colonists assembled at the Virginia Convention debated whether to mobilize forces against the British, Henry gave an impassioned speech in support of the resolution from his pew in a Richmond church.
Best Line: "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!"
The Hypocrisy of American Slavery, 1852
Born a slave in Maryland, Douglas escaped in 1838 and earned widespread acclaim for his 1845 autobiography. Invited to speak as part of July 4 festivities in his adopted hometown of Rochester, N.Y., the abolitionist took the opportunity to rage at the injustice of slavery.
Best Line: "Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future."
Gettysburg Address, 1863
At the site of one of the Civil War's pivotal battles, Lincoln delivered an address that was as succinct — just about three minutes and 265 words long —as it was memorable. As he helped dedicate a cemetery to Gettysburg's fallen soldiers, he issued a stirring plea for the country to pay them tribute by honoring principles — liberty, equality — worth dying for.
Best Line: "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."
Women's Rights to the Suffrage, 1873
Susan B. Anthony was fined $100 for casting an illegal ballot in the 1872 presidential election. Seething at the injustice, she embarked on a speaking tour in support of female voting rights, during which she gave this speech. The 19th Amendment enfranchised women in 1920. Anthony never paid the fine.
Best Line: "It was we, the people; not we, the white male citizens; nor yet we, the male citizens; but we, the whole people, who formed the Union. And we formed it, not to give the blessings of liberty, but to secure them; not to the half of ourselves and the half of our posterity, but to the whole people — women as well as men."
Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat, 1940
In his first speech as Britain's Prime Minister, Churchill tied the outcome of the fight against the Nazis to the survival of Britain itself. One of history's best battle cries.
Best Line: "You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy."
Inaugural Address, 1961
In a relatively brief address that he spent two months crafting, Kennedy —at 43, the youngest president elected to the office and the first Roman Catholic — stressed the importance of national service.
Best Line: "My fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country."
Martin Luther King.Jr
I Have a Dream, 1963
From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington, King outlined his vision of American racial harmony in a historic piece of oratory. The following year, at the age of 35, he became the youngest man to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
Best Line: "We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy."
The American Promise, 1965
In the wake of the ugly violence perpetuated against civil rights marchers in Selma, Alabama in 1965, Johnson adapted the "We Shall Overcome" mantra in this call for the country to end racial discrimination. By throwing the full weight of the Presidency behind the movement for the first time, Johnson helped usher in the Voting Rights Act.
Best Line: "There is no moral issue. It is wrong — deadly wrong — to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote in this country. There is no issue of States rights or national rights. There is only the struggle for human rights. I have not the slightest doubt what will be your answer."
Remarks at the Brandenburg Gate, 1987
When Reagan issued his famous challenge to Mikhail Gorbachev in Berlin, the speech earned mixed reviews. Even members of the President's own team were lukewarm on it. But in 1989, the Berlin Wall was demolished, and today the address is remembered, in the words of the German newspaper Bild, as a speech that "changed the world."
Best Line: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"
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