Important Speeches in U.S. History

Updated August 5, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

Here are some important speeches that influenced the course of history.

by Jennie Wood
Martin Luther King Jr.

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From Patrick Henry's "Give me liberty or give me death" to Martin Luther King's "I have a dream," there have been memorable speeches throughout the history of the United States. In some cases these moving moments have defined the times. Other speeches have influenced and changed the course of history.

Patrick Henry, Liberty or Death! — March 23, 1775

On March 23, 1775, delegates from Virginia, the largest colony in American, met in Richmond to vote on whether or not they should join the American Revolution. After Patrick Henry gave this speech below, the delegates voted in favor of fighting the British.

It is in vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry, "Peace! Peace!" -- but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? 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!

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Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address — November 19, 1863

The Battle of Gettysburg, one of the most noted battles of the Civil War, was fought on July 1–3, 1863. On Nov. 19, 1863, the field was dedicated as a national cemetery by President Lincoln in a two-minute speech that was to become immortal.

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. Now we are engaged in a great civil war testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. 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. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground.

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Franklin D. Roosevelt's First Inaugural Address — March 4, 1933

In early 1933, the U.S. economy was experiencing its lowest point in history, the Great Depression. It was the worst crisis the country had faced since the Civil War. Franklin D. Roosevelt had the daunting task of helping the nation rebound. In his first inaugural address, Roosevelt announced his plan to regroup and rebuild.

I AM certain that my fellow Americans expect that on my induction into the Presidency I will address them with a candor and a decision which the present situation of our Nation impels. This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself - nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.

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Franklin D. Roosevelt's War Message — December 8, 1941

In this famous plea to Congress, President Roosevelt asked for a declaration of war the day after Japanese fighter planes attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The attack shocked the nation and united people behind the president.

Yesterday, December 7, 1941–a date which will live in infamy–the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.

The United States was at peace with that nation and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with its Government and its Emperor looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific.

Indeed, one hour after Japanese air squadrons had commenced bombing Oahu, the Japanese Ambassador to the United States and his colleague delivered to the Secretary of State a formal reply to a recent American message. While this reply stated that it seemed useless to continue the existing diplomatic negotiations, it contained no threat or hint of war or armed attack.

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John F. Kennedy's Inaugural Address — January 20, 1961

At age 43, John F. Kennedy was the youngest man ever elected President. He had also won by only 115,000 popular votes, one of the smallest margins of victory in U.S. history.

In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility–I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it–and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.

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.

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I Have a Dream Address by Martin Luther King, Jr., March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom — August 28, 1963

The March on Washington took place in Washington, D.C., and was attended by 250,000 people. Martin Luther King's speech at the March remains one of the most famous speeches in American history. King started with prepared remarks but then departed from his script, shifting into the "I have a dream" theme he'd used on prior occasions.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.“ I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. 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. I have a dream today.

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Malcolm X, The Ballot or the Bullet — April 3, 1964

Human rights activist Malcolm X delivered this speech at Cory Methodist Church in Cleveland, Ohio. In the speech, he encouraged African Americans to vote, but also said that if they weren't offered full equality, they might need to take up arms.

I say again, I'm not anti-Democrat, I'm not anti-Republican, I'm not anti-anything. I'm just questioning their sincerity, and some of the strategy that they've been using on our people by promising them promises that they don't intend to keep. When you keep the Democrats in power, you're keeping the Dixiecrats in power. I doubt that my good Brother Lomax will deny that. A vote for a Democrat is a vote for a Dixiecrat. That's why, in 1964, it's time now for you and me to become more politically mature and realize what the ballot is for; what we're supposed to get when we cast a ballot; and that if we don't cast a ballot, it's going to end up in a situation where we're going to have to cast a bullet. It's either a ballot or a bullet.

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Lyndon B. Johnson's Address to Congress on the Voting Rights Act — March 15, 1965

President Lyndon B. Johnson made this speech to Congress a week after African Americans were attacked by police in Selma, Alabama. The attack came just before a protest march against voting rights discrimination. President Johnson borrowed the famous phrase "we shall overcome" from the Civil Rights Movement for this memorable speech.

And so I say to all of you here and to all in the nation tonight that those who appeal to you to hold on to the past do so at the cost of denying you your future. This great rich, restless country can offer opportunity and education and hope to all--all, black and white, North and South, sharecropper and city dweller. These are the enemies: poverty, ignorance, disease. They are our enemies, not our fellow man, not our neighbor.

And these enemies too--poverty, disease and ignorance--we shall overcome.

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Hillary Rodham Clinton, Women's Rights are Human Rights — September 5, 1995

Hillary Clinton gave this speech at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, Plenary Session. The conference was held in Beijing, China.

If we take bold steps to better the lives of women, we will be taking bold steps to better the lives of children and families too. Families rely on mothers and wives for emotional support and care; families rely on women for labor in the home; and increasingly, families rely on women for income needed to raise healthy children and care for other relatives.

As long as discrimination and inequities remain so commonplace around the world – as long as girls and women are valued less, fed last, overworked, underpaid, not schooled and subjected to violence in and out of their homes – the potential of the human family to create a peaceful, prosperous world will not be realized.

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Barack Obama, A More Perfect Union — March 18, 2008

This speech was delivered by Senator Barack Obama on March 18, 2008 at Philadelphia's National Constitution Center. He used the platform to address the controversy involving the statements made by his former minister, Jeremiah Wright, as well as discussing the state of race relations in the United States today.

This was one of the tasks we set forth at the beginning of this campaign - to continue the long march of those who came before us, a march for a more just, more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous America. I chose to run for the presidency at this moment in history because I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together - unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction - towards a better future for our children and our grandchildren.

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