12 Greatest Political Speeches in American HistoryJanuary 12, 2021
Pegging 12 of the most important speeches and moments in American politics is no easy feat. From Washington to Lincoln, from Kennedy to Reagan, these are the names, faces and moments that have changed the course of our nation. For good measure, we’ve included a few lesser-known — but equally significant — ones too.
1. Washington’s Farewell Address
The parting words of our first president have stood the test of time in just about every way. Washington forswore another term in office, setting the two-term precedent, and mused on policy fronts from factions and partisanship to foreign entanglements.
His words encompassed the early Federalist Party’s credo and were cited in political discourse for years to come. By 1899, it was annually read on Washington’s Birthday in both the House and Senate. Though the House had ceased doing so by 1984, the Senate continues the tradition to this day.
2. Andrew Jackson on Nullification
Despite not originating in a speech, one of Andrew Jackson’s comments on nullification stands out as one of the defining moments of the seventh president’s legacy. At the annual Democratic Jefferson Day dinner on April 13, 1830, Jackson, countering Vice-President John C. Calhou’s pronullification rationale that states could nullify whatever feder laws they saw fit, rosefrom his seat and in a thundering voice pronounced: “Our federal union — it must be preserved!”
Two years later, Jackson offered his Proclamation Regarding Nullfication. For many years to follow, the question remained a defining one leading up to the Civil War.
3. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address
There’s little left to be said, but Abraham Lincoln’s ten sentence missive at Gettysburg is remembered by many as the greatest speech in American political history. Though it was met with a decidedly mixed, even downright mocking, reception at the time, it’s far and away outlived Edward Everett’s two-hour oratory from the same day. It also recently spawned a very cool project in honor of its 150 year anniverary.
4. William Jennings Bryan’s ‘Cross of Gold’ speech
Three times he was the Democratic nominee for president, and three times he came up short. William Jennings Bryan’s electoral legacy makes him the Buffalo Bills of American politics, but his influence stands the test of time. He was one of the first national candidates to actually be a national candidate, hitting the speaking circuit at a time when front porch campaigns were considered the more dignified move.
His 1896 address to the Democratic National Convention is what threw him into the national spotlight. Bryan thundered in support of the populist cause of the day, free silver, closing with a cry that “you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold” and holding his arms henceforth. It’s remembered to this day as the speech that made him the de facto leader of the Democrats and coalesced populists within their ranks.
5. Calvin Coolidge’s 1925 Inaugural Address
It’s easy to generalize Coolidge as the quiet man’s president, after all, his nickname was “Silent Cal.” But Coolidge remains one of the most consequential presidents in history when it comes to the conservative mindset, and his reputation at the time didn’t quite fit the convention wisdom. He held 520 press conferences while in office, a number unmatched both before and since.
His 1925 inaugural address remains remarkably significant in American history because it was the first to be broadcast on radio, enabling more citizens than ever before to actually hear the words of their president.
6. Franklin Roosevelt’s 1933 Inaugural Address
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” he quipped, offering reassurances to a nation facing the bleakness of the Great Depression.
7. John F. Kennedy’s 1961 Inaugural Address
Much like FDR, JFK’s inaugural address stands the test of time as one of the most iconic moments in American political history.
“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” remains a line cited on both sides of the political aisle, ushering in the era of Camelot and the remarkably consequential 1960s.
8. Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ Speech
The only speech on this list not delivered by a president, King’s address during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom is remembered by many as the defining moment of the Civil Rights Movement, coming just shy of 100 years after Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. He was subsequently named Time Magazine’s Man of the Year, and the spot in which he stood has been enshrined at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.
9. Ronald Reagan at the Berlin Wall
The Cold War wouldn’t end for several more years, but Ronald Reagan’s standing in front of the Berlin Wall and challenging Mikhail Gorbachev to tear it down is assuredly in the annals of the most powerful moments in American history.
Much like King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, the words speak for themselves more powerfully than I ever could. Reagan’s policies encompassed the ’80s and the years that were to come, and this was the iconic moment to define the resolve his presidency.
10. Bill Clinton’s 1996 State of the Union
Although Bill Clinton may have become the first Democrat to reside in the White House since Jimmy Carter in 1992 by learning to talk like a Republican, the party’s liberal agenda cost them heavily in the ’94 midterms elections.
Perhaps recognizing that conservatism had won the Reagan Era, Clinton turned a corner with his ’96 State of the Union by famously proclaiming: “The era of big government is over.” The apparent policy shift may have only been politically motivated, as later that year major welfare reform was passed with his backing.
11. George W. Bush’s Post-9/11 Bullhorn Speech
Much has been written, and will continue to be written, about George W. Bush’s eight years in office, but it’s undeniable that his remarks atop the rubble of Ground Zero are powerful to this day. Speaking from a bullhorn to workers and firefighters, with many of them unable to hear him at first, Bush 43 rallied the nation with the promise that “the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.”
12. Barack Obama’s 2009 Inaugural Address
Even though some might disagree with the policies pushed by President Obama, one can still appreciate the significance of his swearing-in. Coming 46 years after Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech and just over 150 after Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, the first inaugural address of the first African-American president in American history ranks as an iconic moment of the right kind of progress.
Correction: March 4, 2015