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What was the greatest speech?

Half a century after Martin Luther King had a dream, six writers choose the greatest speech in history

Sam Leith | July/August 2013

Fifty years ago Martin Luther King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and declared: "I have a dream." His words were heard, it is for once no exaggeration to say, around the world. Whole passages now live in folk memory; and, with its formal links to the black folk pulpit and the language of the Book of Amos, the speech itself drew on folk memory.

Great speeches don’t come out of nowhere. Threads of debt and inheritance tie the earliest recorded oratory to the speeches of the present day. Every speech relies for its power on the common language of the tribe, and that language is itself shaped by the great speeches of the past.

So, though some two and a half millennia separate the earliest two speeches championed herePericles’s funeral oration and the Gettysburg AddressLincoln’s words exactly rehearse the themes and structure of Pericles’s. Barack Obama, one of the most technically gifted orators of the modern day, consciously appropriates the language both of Lincoln and of Dr King (who himself referred to Lincoln). Nelson Mandela’s 1964 trial speech invokes Magna Carta and the US Bill of Rights. And so on.

So what makes a good speech? It must be forceful in argument, memorable in style, resonant in its references. It must also, before anything else, connect its speaker to its audience. This is what Aristotle, the first Western authority on rhetoric, called ethosthe basic movement in any effective speech that transforms the "me" of the speaker and the "you" of the audience into "we": "Friends, Romans, countrymen..."

Ethos is established by, quite literally, speaking the audience’s language: shared jokes, common reference points, recognisable situations. As the rhetorical theorist Kenneth Burke has said: "You persuade a man only in so far as you can talk his language by speech, gesture, tonality, order, image, attitude, idea, identifying your ways with his."

You can then take the shared languageand with it your audiencewherever you want it to go. The turns of language that technicians call figures (as in "figures of speech") capture myriad ways of making language dance: the tricolonsgroups of three termsthat make sentences ring; the rhetorical questions (or erotema) with which you challenge the audience and shape an imaginary dialogue; or the anaphora with which, by repeating a word or phrase over and over again, you build an irresistible gathering rhythm.

Is great oratory dead, as some claim? It is not. But it is true that it doesn’t look like it did. It adapts itself ceaselessly to the means of its transmission. Language changes, convention changes, media change. The Greek notion of kairosor timeliness—is apt here.

Cicero, addressing the Senate around 50BC, would speak unamplified and at some length. His audience was present, and such written records as survive were usually created afterwards (and probably polished) by Cicero himself. In the age of newspapers, when speeches would be disseminated by third parties, a different tack was required, though it might not always work: "I have a dream" didn’t make the next day’s Washington Post. Churchill, remembered as a great orator, was a radio star; his wartime speeches went over less well in Parliament, but the audience that counted was the one listening at home. The intimacy of the television camera offers yet another set of opportunities. In his famous 1952 Checkers speech, Richard Nixon was able to address the American people, as it were, eye to eye.

In the internet agethis ecosystem of interruptionsyou’d soon lose your audience if you served up two hours of formal oratory in the high style. Soundbites, though much bemoaned, are not a recent innovation: Cicero was fond of them. But they have come front and centre as first rolling news and now social media have swept in to favour the juicy quote over the rounded argument.

The technological arms race is not over. A wonderfully embarrassing YouTube clip shows Ed Miliband answering a series of questions with near-identical versions of the same prepared sentence. He sounds like a robot; but then, he never expected us to see more than a single ten-second clip on the news. His mistake was to gear his strategy to the age of rolling news, not to an age in which the rushes can be posted to YouTube and spread virally on Twitter.

It’s a mistake he won’t repeat. Oratory now lives in the age of electric dreamsbut the dream goes on.

James Harding

The Gettysburg address, 1863

The Gettysburg Address is, in both senses of the word, memorable. It is one to remember, and easy to. In just 270 words, Abraham Lincoln delivered a prose poem unrivalled in political oratory. His "brief remarks" in dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery at the site of the Battle of Gettysburg never strayed from consecrating the sacrifice of America’s war dead. And yet, in just under three minutes, his speech soared to capture the meaning of the civil war, the nature of freedom and the promise of a nation. And Lincoln was not even the main speaker: he followed Edward Everett, a politician and famous orator of the day, who spoke for just over two hours. At the time, Everett got the more favourable reviews.

"Four score and seven years ago," Lincoln began, "our Fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." This whiff of biblical grandeur disguised what was, in the throes of war, a radical assertion. For Lincoln was standing on a battlefield where, just a few months earlier, the army of the Union had scored a bloody victory over the Confederates of the South. Both sides had lost many thousands of men. It was hard to see that Thursday afternoon in November 1863 what the Battle of Gettysburg had been for. Lincoln’s answer was clear: it was for more than just the principles of the Constitution, it was for the idealsequality, as well as life, liberty and the pursuit of happinessenshrined in the Declaration of Independence of 1776. The Confederates clung to the Constitution, claiming to have legal right on their side. In a single sentence, Lincoln made the moral case for the Union.

What is so affecting, however, is that the Gettysburg Address is much more than a political argument. It is an expression of humility. The speech recognises the inadequacy of speeches. "We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live," Lincoln said. "But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicatewe cannot consecratewe cannot hallowthis ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract."

Yet Lincoln does manage to add to those lost lives. He calls on the living to dedicate themselves to the higher purpose of the fallen, "that from these honoured dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion." And, oh, how he gives voice to that cause: "that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedomand that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." Lincoln had tried out a similar line a couple of years earlier, but he never nailed it quite so pithily as he did that day.

Not everyone got it. Lincoln’s delivery, some said, was shrill, even a little squeaky. The Times correspondent deemed it "ludicrous", commenting that "anything more dull and commonplace it would not be easy to produce". Lincoln himself prefaced his dedication by saying "the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here." He was wrong about that.

Mark Tully

Swami Vivekananda in Chicago, 1893

The first World’s Parliament of Religion, in 1893, was a big moment: the first time representatives of Eastern and Western spiritual traditions had gathered together. Several thousand delegates flocked to Chicago to listen to them, and perhaps the most astonishing words they heard came from a 30-year-old Hindu monk. "I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance," he said. "We believe not only in universal toleration but we accept all religions as true." The vast majority of the delegates were Christians whose religion was not known for tolerance or acceptance, and who dismissed Hinduism as idolatry. Yet Swami Vivekananda, who had never been outside India before, nor spoken in public, was such a hit at the Parliament that he was asked to speak six times. The New York Herald said, "Vivekananda is undoubtedly the greatest figure in the Parliament of Religions."

He was relevant then and is relevant today for his constant affirmation that all religions are paths to God, and his call for tolerance. He ended his first speech by saying, "I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honour of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal."

Christian leaders were unamused by the suggestion that their religion was not the only way to God. The Archbishop of Canterbury refused to have anything to do with the Parliament fearing it might create the impression there was "equality and parity between Christianity and other religions". Pope Leo XIII censured Roman Catholic speakers at the Parliament and forbade anyone to participate in "future promiscuous conventions".

Vivekananda’s speeches at the Parliament resonate today for the many who claim to be spiritual but not religious, who reject religion based on faith and seek experience of God. He said, "The Hindu religion does not consist in struggles and attempts to believe a certain doctrine or dogma, but in realisingnot in believing but in being and becoming." And, looking to the future, he said, "It will be a religion which will have no place for persecution or intolerance in its polity…Its whole scope, its whole force will be centred in aiding humanity to realise its own, true, divine nature." That is the religion so many seek today.

Gillian Slovo

Mandela in the dock, 1964

It’s always tempting to fast forward to this speech’s dramatic finale: "I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people..." The words, spoken in a hushed Pretoria court room, are painstakingly pronounced, each phrase separated from the next. "I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities." The rustling of a turning page, then the sentence that still sends shivers down my spine: "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."

Nelson Mandela’s final phrase is no meaningless throwaway. He and his nine co-accused were standing trial for multiple counts of sabotage. If found guilty, they faced possible execution. And there was no doubt that they’d be found guilty. In his speech, delivered on behalf of himself and his fellow defendants, Mandela did not mince his words. "I do not, however, deny", he said, "that I planned sabotage." One of the accused later told me, "As he offered himself up to die, I thought, hold on a minute: he means us as well!"

With the eyes of the world watching the trial, they were sentenced not to death but to life without the possibility of parole.

Aside from its final lines, this is not an obviously passionate speech. It’s a careful setting out of the lived reality of apartheid, and an explanation of why, after decades of peaceful protest, the ANC took up arms. Time is spent rebutting the charge that he was misled by communists or foreigners. "I have always regarded myself, in the first place, as an African patriot," he says, before admitting an attraction to a classless society alongside a respect for British democracy.

That April day, Mandela did not know that the tide of history would eventually turn, that he would be released, that he would become president of the new South Africa. That’s what makes his 1964 speech so powerful: the Mandela who was prepared to use violence and then to die for freedom was the same Mandela who emerged to lead his country into peace. His convictions were unshakable. The white man, he says, in the run-up to his rousing conclusion, fears democracy. "But this fear cannot be allowed to stand in the way of the only solution which will guarantee racial harmony and freedom for all." This is what he said in 1964, and this is what he proved 30 years later.

Natalie Haynes

Pericles's funeral oration, 431BC

Pericles is known for his glorious oratory, yet his most famous surviving speech was actually written by Thucydides, who cheerily admits that he can’t always remember the phrases someone used, and that he’s gone instead for the general sense. But whoever is responsible for the exact words of the funeral oration, delivered to honour the dead who had fallen in the first year of the war with the Spartans, it is the most beautiful celebration of democracy that exists anywhere, in writings ancient or modern. And what makes this more extraordinary is the fact that Thucydides himself wasn’t a fan of the direct democracy which Athens had chosen as her political system.

"Our constitution", Pericles declares, "is called democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the many. In private disputes, according to our laws, all are equal. And as to public office, what matters isn’t how rich someone is, but what ability he possesses. No one who could do good for the city is prevented from doing so because of poverty."

These words, written by a conservative historian and put in the mouth of a wealthy statesman, still sound radical 2,500 years later: the great pride of Athens was that anyone could have political clout if he was good enough. They weren’t quite radical enough to include women or foreigners, but it was certainly a start.

Pericles understood how deeply proud Athens was of her democracy. This speech was delivered at the beginning of a debilitating and seemingly endless war. A few months later, a plague killed huge numbers of Athenians, including Pericles. Yet Athens went on fighting for decades, determined to protect her values.

Pericles praises her politics, her people, even her education system. He commemorates the men who fought and died, because they believed losing such a city to be unthinkable. He reminds the survivors that they too would do anything for their city, and concludes with a melancholy flourish: telling them to mourn, and then go home.

Tina Brown

Hillary Clinton in Beijing, 1995

It was the speech that launched a movement. In September 1995, Hillary Clinton went to Beijing to host the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women. Preparations were fraught because of suddenly escalated tensions with the Chinese, and she was under some pressure to pull out. But she chose to defy her critics both in the media and in Congress. Speaking out for women was imperative.

The tensions, of course, increased the spotlight. The world’s eyes were on Hillary, in her pale-pink First Lady’s suit, as she entered the plenary hall. It was packed with delegates. She remembers feeling unusually nervous, afraid of letting down her country, her husband and herself. She was conscious that the tone and pitch of her voice had to be measured. "Like it or not," she was to say, "women are always subject to criticism if they show too much feeling in public."

She knew she had to send a message to China  about its human-rights violations while also addressing the abuses of women worldwide. And so, after a clear call to hear the voices of all women, she launched a peroration that, nearly 20 years on, remains the defining battle cry for women. "It is a violation of human rights when babies are denied food, or drowned or suffocated or their spines broken, simply because they are born girls. It is a violation of human rights when women and girls are sold into the slavery of prostitution. It is a violation of human rights when women are doused with gasoline, set on fire and burned to death because their marriage dowries are deemed too small…It is a violation of human rights when young girls are brutalised by the painful and degrading practice of genital mutilation…" On she went with her killer list, before reaching her climactic conclusion: "If there is one message that echoes from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights, once and for all."

The Chinese may have blacked out her speech on television, but the women of the world have never forgotten it. Earlier this year I introduced Hillary, now a former secretary of state, at the Women in the World summit at the Lincoln Centre in New York. She concluded her tour d’horizon of the challenges facing women with a reprise of her greatest line from Beijing. When she got to "once and for all", 2,500 women of every age and nationality rose to their feet with a mighty, affirming roar.

Johnny Grimond

Macaulay on Jewish rights, 1833

A great speaker will use rhetorical skills to reinforce the power of reason with a surge of emotion drawn from the hearts of his audience. This is what the historian Thomas Babington Macaulay did in the House of Commons on April 17th 1833 when, reformulating his maiden speech of three years earlier, he argued for the lifting of the last legal restrictions on Britain’s Jews, which forbade them to be Members of Parliament. Similar restrictions on Nonconformists and Roman Catholics had been abolished a few years earlier.

Macaulay’s approach was to take the arguments for maintaining the restrictions one by one and destroy each in turn. In doing so, he appealed to the common sense and the presumed decency of his audience, first making a generalisation, then giving examples.

"If there be any proposition universally true in politics it is this, that foreign attachments are the fruit of domestic misrule. It has always been the trick of bigots to make their subjects miserable at home, and then to complain that they look for relief abroad; to divide society, and to wonder that it is not united…If the Jews have not felt towards England like children, it is because she has treated them like a stepmother."

He pressed on with rolling paragraphs of vivid sentences. "England has been to the Jews less than half a country; and we revile them because they do not feel for England more than a half patriotism. We treat them as slaves and wonder that they do not regard us as brethren. We drive them to mean occupations and then reproach them for not embracing honourable professions. We long forbade them to possess land; and we complain that they chiefly occupy themselves in trade. We shut them out from all the paths of ambition; and then we despise them for taking refuge in avarice."

Then an analogy to drive the point home. "If all the red-haired people in Europe had, during centuries, been outraged and oppressed, banished from this place, imprisoned in that, deprived of their money, deprived of their teeth, convicted of the most improbable crimes on the feeblest evidence, dragged at horses’ tails, hanged, tortured, burned alive, if, when manners became milder, they had still been subject to debasing restrictions and exposed to vulgar insults, locked up in particular streets in some countries, pelted and ducked by the rabble in others, excluded every where from magistracies and honours, what would be the patriotism of gentlemen with red hair?"

The speech persuaded the House of Commons but not the House of Lords. The civil disabilities of the Jews were not removed until 1858. But in the intervening years all the ultimately ineffectual opposition was directed at Macaulay’s points, which are as apt and potent today as when they were first made.

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