Great speeches in American Political History
Last night in my class on Presidential Elections, my professor called William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech in 1896 the most important political speech in American history. His argument was that it forcefully argued for the U.S. to adopt bimetallism, led to the rise of Bryan as a political figure and Populism as a central plank of the Democratic Party’s platform, and started the ideological shift of the Democratic Party towards a more activist approach (which culminated in FDR’s Presidency). That said, Bryan probably was already in place to secure the nomination, he lost the election to McKinley anyway (plus 1900 an 1908), the U.S. eventually adopted the Gold Standard, and the Populist movement wouldn’t be a major political player until 28 years later.
The comment was said kind of off-hand, so I don’t think the professor necessarily believes it to be THE MOST IMPORTANT SPEECH ever given by an American political figure in the history of the country (for this reason I won’t specifically name who said it.) Rather, the argument probably was that it’s one of the most significant speeches in U.S. political history, though arguably the most important one in late 19th century America (the topic for today’s lecture).
That said, I thought it would be a fun little exercise to list the speeches that I personally think are more important. To limit myself to comparable speeches, there are two rules: it must be given by a President or Presidential candidate like Bryan (for example nothing by delegates to the Constitutional Convention, John C. Calhoun or Martin Luther King) and it must be an actual speech, not a written address (for example George Washington’s farewell or Jackson’s Bank Rechartering Veto Message.) I’ll provide some links, but I didn’t consult any major lists or articles. Instead, off the top of my head, here are five speeches I consider more important than Bryan’s:
- Washington’s first inaugural address, 1789: like many aspects of Washington’s presidency, this was precedent setting, establishing the practice of an incoming president setting forth his agenda with an inaugural speech. Its themes were echoed in Washington’s farewell, which I’ve disallowed from this list.
4. JFK inaugural address, 1961: The first Presidential inauguration broadcast in color on television, this short 14-minute speech famously implored Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Though Kennedy’s presidency would last less than three years, starting with this speech it set the tone for the rest of the tumultuous decade of the 1960s.
- Ronald Reagan “Tear down this wall,” 1987: I don’t support all of Reagan’s policies, but it’s hard to argue he did not play a role in the end of the Cold War. Although Reagan was not President when the Berlin Wall did come down in November of 1989, this speech set the stage for the Communist leadership to tear down this lasting symbol of the iron curtain.
Franklin Roosevelt “Day that will live in infamy,” 1941: I easily could have put FDR’s first inaugural here, with its statement that “the only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.” But that would be too many inaugural speeches. Plus, I think the Infamy Speech asking Congress to declare war on Japan, sending the U.S. into World War II, had more impact on American History. It inspired Americans and eventually led to a complete mobilization of the home front, which finally led us completely out of the Great Depression. Lastly, the the ensuing declaration of war (along with the separate declarations against the other axis powers) was the most recent, and perhaps last ever, time the U.S. officially has declared war.
Tie: Abraham Lincoln Second Inaugural and Gettysburg Address: OK I’m cheating here by listing two Lincoln speeches. But as a historian interested in Lincoln, it’s hard to limit myself to just one speech of his! Heck I probably could do a top five just of Lincoln speeches in addition to these two (first inaugural, house divided, Cooper Union, The Sheep and the Wolf parable, last public address). But these two speeches, both of which are enshrined in the Lincoln Memorial, really resonate with me. The former, with its biblical references and deep anguish over the pain of slavery really show the toll the war took on Lincoln, as well as provide insight into his spiritual beliefs. And the latter, established a new purpose for the United States (aka a new birth of freedom) and managed to summarize the most pivotal event in Amercain history in just ten simple but effective sentences. Truly an inspiration to us all.
Am I missing your favorite speech? Or do you think I overrate any of these? And what are your thoughts on the Cross of Gold?