What are your top 5 speeches made by presidents? As a speech/debate nerd, it's interesting to see which ones really leave a lasting impression and end up important in the long run.
Good question – and a tough question because there are so many important speeches that come to mind. It’s difficult to narrow the list down to five, but here we go:
1. Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865 The Gettysburg Address is Lincoln’s most famous speech, and probably the most famous speech in American history outside of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. But I believe that Lincoln’s Second Inaugural tops both of them. It’s succinct but incredibly powerful. And it gives us a hint of how Lincoln envisioned handling Reconstruction if assassination hadn’t robbed him of the opportunity, and robbed us of him. Above all, I believe that Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address is the greatest piece of writing by any American – and I don’t just mean political writing. I think it’s the greatest piece of writing by any American in any field of writing.
2. George Washington, Farewell Address, September 19, 1796 Washington’s Farewell Address isn’t great because of the language. It’s not soaring, beautiful rhetoric like other great American speeches. But it is extraordinarily important. George Washington was setting precedents every step of the way while he was in office. We see him as the quintessential leader, but we tend to overlook how much of a visionary Washington was. He was literally creating the position of President as we were building the nation itself, and we forget how earth-shattering that was. And then, despite the fact that he could have ruled as long as he wanted (and, in fact, some people were encouraging to do just that), Washington retired and handed over his power peacefully and quietly. Washington’s Farewell Address – and his actions following the speech – set the stage for the seamless transitions between Presidents that have followed ever since he left office in 1797. The speech isn’t all that exciting, but what the speech means is something absolutely groundbreaking. Not only is our Founding Father and this victorious military leader stepping aside voluntarily, but he’s basically making it very clear to the citizens of this young nation that, “Hey, I’m really going home. I’m not coming back if I get bored. I’m not saving you if you screw up. Here’s a little bit of advice, but it’s up to you now. Do the right thing and we might have a chance.” It’s absolutely remarkable.
3. John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961 Like Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, this is an obvious one. JFK’s Inaugural Address was eloquent and exciting and idealistic in ways that Presidential speeches had rarely been, but what truly set this speech apart was that it stands out as a moment where a page of history was turned. Kennedy was the first President born in the 20th Century, and he took over from the last President born in the 19th Century. It was more than a changing of the guard; it was like jumping from a black-and-white still photo into a fast-paced, forward-charging world of color. Kennedy’s imaginative language and youthful energy instantly changed how we perceived our President, and it gave the nation a new hope that would be severely tested in the tumultuous decade which followed. But on that day, what the nation saw and heard was totally different from what the country was used, and that “different” feeling couldn’t help but seem promising.
4. Lyndon B. Johnson, Address to a Joint Session of Congress on the Voting Rights Act, March 15, 1965 When holding court with small groups, giving extemporaneous speeches on the campaign trail, or when speaking to people one-on-one, Lyndon Johnson could be absolutely electrifying. However, when reading from prepared remarks – particularly on television – LBJ was notoriously stiff and colorless. But following “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Alabama, President Johnson went to the Capitol to urge Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act, and stunned the nation by speaking emotionally and candidly about how there wasn’t a “Negro problem”, a “Southern problem”, or a “Northern problem”, but that “There is only an American problem.” Johnson pushed Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act and continue working on equal rights legislation. He surprised many Civil Rights leaders by making it clear that he recognized that simply passing those laws wouldn’t solve the problems the country faced, and that bigotry and racism was deeper and more far-reaching than that, and there were many other issues to overcome. Then the boorish, overbearing, middle-aged, white President from deep in the Hill Country of an old Confederate state shocked the nation by using the lyrics of perhaps the most sacred song of the Civil Rights Movement to strongly declare, “And we shall overcome.” With those four words, LBJ demonstrated to people on both sides of the Civil Rights issue that it was personal for him, too. Anybody who hears Johnson’s delivery of that speech quickly understands how deeply he believed in achieving equal rights for all Americans. What makes LBJ’s “We Shall Overcome” speech (as it is better-known) so important is that it’s not merely a policy speech or an ideological speech; it’s the diagnosis of an old American problem and the commitment to a plan of action for solving that problem. LBJ would eventually do more for the cause of Civil Rights than any President in American history, and the “We Shall Overcome” speech was the moment when most Americans recognized that he was committed to doing just that.
5. Ronald Reagan, Address to the Nation Following the Space Shuttle Challenger Explosion, January 28, 1986 President Reagan was known as “the Great Communicator”, and there was no point during his Presidency where he proved worthy of that nickname than following the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger. Reagan had been scheduled to deliver the State of the Union Address that evening, but it was postponed after Challenger exploded shortly after takeoff, killing seven astronauts. Presidents have many different roles to play during their time in office. During crises or moments of national tragedy, the country tends to look towards the President for reassurance and comfort, almost in a familial manner. Reagan had a unique ability to seemingly radiate warmth, especially on camera, and brought an instinctive geniality to his approach. When we were sad or depressed or worried, Reagan’s soothing voice and endless optimism about America and Americans were exactly what the country often needed. That isn’t a skill that most people think about when they are voting for President and it’s not something that can be taught or faked, but it is a priceless tool for a President to have. No one was better at that aspect of the Presidency than Ronald Reagan, and Reagan was never better at exercising that ability than in the hours after the nation had watched the Space Shuttle explode above Florida. Reagan’s remarks that night were brief, but elegantly and eloquently crafted by speechwriter Peggy Noonan, who finished the speech with words from a poem written by a British pilot who was killed in World War II. Reagan’s delivery was absolutely perfect as he paid tribute to the astronauts who were killed and closed by saying, “We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God.’” From beginning-to-end, it was the exact speech the country needed to hear, and a fitting tribute to the Challenger crew – definitely one of the greatest Presidential speeches in American history.