Happy birthday, America! I thought it might be fun to look back at a few of the most famous speeches in American history — the ones that influenced mass numbers of people — and analyze them. Why did these words move ordinary farmers to revolution? How did these words heal a war-torn divided country? What magic did these words have that caused the American people to recite them decades and even centuries later?
In this series, I want to dissect some of these great speeches. When I first come up with the idea, I thought it might be fun to just list the speeches and comment on them. However, each of these important speeches was critical in helping the United States of America become the great country that the world looks to for freedom. So, I decided to create a series that I will release one at a time over a year on the national holiday the speech is related to. Here is the complete list of the Greatest Speeches in American History.
- “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death.” — Patrick Henry
- “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” — Frederick Douglass
- “The Gettysburg Address” — Abraham Lincoln
- “The Cross of Gold Speech.” — William Jennings Bryan (to the Democratic National Convention.)
- “The Only Thing We Have to Fear Is Fear Itself.” — Franklin D. Roosevelt
- “I Have a Dream Speech.” — Martin Luther King Jr.
- “Ask Not What Your Country Can Do for You.” John F. Kennedy
- “Mr. Gorbachev, Tear Down These Walls.” — Ronald Reagan
Keynote Speeches that Made America. The Greatest Speeches in American History.
You can learn a lot about history from the public speeches that shaped this great nation. Whether it is Dr. King encouraging the civil rights movement or President Kennedy inspiring the nation to reach to the moon, public speaking is an important part of the American experience. We will go in-depth from the fiery speech that started the revolution to President Reagan standing at the Berlin Wall taunting the Soviet Union. These speeches span from the birth of a new nation, through a civil war, a great depression, and into an era of a “new birth of freedom.”
“Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” — Patrick Henry (March 23, 1775)
In March of 1775, the citizens of the 13 Colonies were divided. They were British citizens and many were patriotic to the Crown. However, in the five years prior to this famous speech by Patrick Henry, the colonies were in turmoil.
The British military spent vast amounts of gold defending the Colonies from other nations, pirates, and Indians. Since the French and Indian war ended in 1763, the British army had set up forts to protect the colonies from incursions from the frontier. King George decided that the Colonists should be responsible for funding these military campaigns. So, he instituted a series of ever-increasing taxes on the Colonists.
Angry townspeople debated in pubs throughout the 13 Colonies. However, the biggest thorn in the side of King George was Massachusetts. The Boston Massacre (1770) and the BostonTea Party (1773.) were a couple of the more famous incidents. A few months before Henry’s famous speech, the First Continental Congress sent a letter of grievances to the King. They were still awaiting a reply.
Then, a few weeks before the speech, the British military marched on Concord to confiscate a cache of weapons from suspected rebels. For the first time, the British military had marched on British citizens in the Colonies. The Second Continental Congress was meeting in Philadelphia. The delegates were debating whether or not to join the revolution.
Meanwhile, in Richmond, Virginia, local delegates also debated about which side Virginia would back. Would they support the war effort in Massachusetts or would they support the Crown?
Patrick Henry Delivers “Give Me Liberty or Give Death” Speech to Virginia Convention.
Delegates at the Virginia Convention debated both the pros and the cons of the revolution. Some favored British rule. Others favored independence. That is until local attorney Patrick Henry stood to deliver one of the great American speeches of all time. In the assembly were future presidents George Washington and John Adams.
The first written documentation of the full speech took place 41 years later by William Wirt. Wirt created the text based on memories of men who were in the assembly. So it is had to say how accurate the text that we have today actually is. What is a fact though is that after this famous speech, the Virginia delegation because staunch supporters of the American Revolution.
Along with the “shot heard ’round the world” just a few weeks prior, the famous line from this speech became known as the start of the revolution.
Breaking Down the Full Text of Patrick Henry’s Speech to the Virginia Convention (1775)
Henry Begins by Being Agreeable to the Statesmen Who Disagreed with His Stance.
No man thinks more highly than I do of the patriotism, as well as abilities, of the very worthy gentlemen who have just addressed the House. But different men often see the same subject in different lights; and, therefore, I hope it will not be thought disrespectful to those gentlemen if, entertaining as I do opinions of a character very opposite to theirs, I shall speak forth my sentiments freely and without reserve. This is no time for ceremony. The question before the House is one at an awful moment to this country.
For my own part, I consider it as nothing less than a question of freedom or slavery; and in proportion to the magnitude of the subject ought to be the freedom of the debate. It is only in this way that we can hope to arrive at truth, and fulfill the great responsibility which we hold to God and our country. Should I keep back my opinions at such a time, through fear of giving offense, I should consider myself as guilty of treason towards my country, and of an act of disloyalty toward the Majesty of Heaven, which I revere above all earthly kings.
Prior to Henry’s speech, a number of highly respected businessmen in Virginia voiced opposition to revolution. Instead of arguing with their stance, Henry used kind words to try to persuade them. The beginning of the speech was quite tame.
Henry Next Uses Literary Devices (Impact Ideas) to Add Showmanship and Impact to His Words.
Mr. President, it is natural to man to indulge in the illusions of hope. We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth and listen to the song of that siren till she transforms us into beasts. Is this the part of wise men, engaged in a great and arduous struggle for liberty?
I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging the future but by the past. And judging by the past, I wish to know what there has been in the conduct of the British ministry for the last ten years to justify those hopes with which gentlemen have been pleased to solace themselves and the House.
Is it that insidious smile with which our petition has been lately received? Trust it not, sir; it will prove a snare to your feet. Suffer not yourselves to be betrayed with a kiss.
Henry uses emotion to add persuasion. For instance, criticizing the pro-crown delegates, he uses a metaphor. “We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth and listen to the song of the siren…” The siren is not the other delegates — it is the king — the true opponent.
Later, he says “I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided… the lamp of experience.” Here, Henry shows that they have already tried to persuade the king using words. And experience proved that the siren would tell the colonists one thing but also increase troops and taxes.
He reinforces the comparison again. “It will prove a snare to your feet. Suffer not yourself to be betrayed with a kiss.” The king’s words are a trap. He will betray you as Judas betrayed Jesus.
Henry Next Uses the Socratic Method to Get the Assembly to Come to the Same Conclusion on their Own.
Ask yourselves how this gracious reception of our petition comports with those warlike preparations which cover our waters and darken our land. Are fleets and armies necessary to a work of love and reconciliation? Have we shown ourselves so unwilling to be reconciled that force must be called in to win back our love?
Let us not deceive ourselves, sir. These are the implements of war and subjugation; the last arguments to which kings resort. I ask gentlemen, sir, what means this martial array if its purpose be not to force us to submission? Can gentlemen assign any other possible motive for it?
Has Great Britain any enemy, in this quarter of the world, to call for all this accumulation of navies and armies? No, sir, she has none.
They are meant for us: they can be meant for no other. They are sent over to bind and rivet upon us those chains which the British ministry have been so long forging. And what have we to oppose to them? Shall we try argument?
Sir, we have been trying that for the last ten years. Have we anything new to offer upon the subject?
Henry keeps asking questions that everyone in the assembly already knows the answer to. However, by getting them to each answer the questions on their own, he gets them to come to the same conclusion he has.
If You Keep Doing the Same Things, You Will Continue to Get the Same Results.
We have held the subject up in every light of which it is capable, but it has been all in vain. Shall we resort to entreaty and humble supplication? What terms shall we find which have not been already exhausted? Let us not, I beseech you, sir, deceive ourselves. Sir, we have done everything that could be done to avert the storm which is now coming on.
We have petitioned; remonstrated; supplicated; prostrated ourselves before the throne, and implored its interposition to arrest the tyrannical hands of the ministry and Parliament. Our petitions have been slighted. Our remonstrances have produced additional violence and insult. In addition, our supplications have been disregarded. And we have been spurned, with contempt, from the foot of the throne!
In vain, after these things, may we indulge the fond hope of peace and reconciliation. There is no longer any room for hope. If we wish to be free– if we mean to preserve inviolate those inestimable privileges for which we have been so long contending–if we mean not basely to abandon the noble struggle in which we have been so long engaged, and which we have pledged ourselves never to abandon until the glorious object of our contest shall be obtained–we must fight!
I repeat it, sir, we must fight! An appeal to arms and to the God of hosts is all that is left us!
After the emotional plea using metaphors, Henry now uses logic. First, he asks questions. Then next, he shows that what the other side proposed is just the same things the group has tried and failed with in the past.
Subtly, Patrick Henry Tells the Group that If the Pro-Crown Delegates Are Wrong… The Colonies Will Lose Their Best Chance at Freedom.
They tell us, sir, that we are weak; unable to cope with so formidable an adversary. But when shall we be stronger? Will it be the next week or the next year? Will it be when we are totally disarmed, and when a British guard shall be stationed in every house? Shall we gather strength by irresolution and inaction? Shall we acquire the means of effectual resistance by lying supinely on our backs and hugging the delusive phantom of hope, until our enemies shall have bound us hand and foot?
Sir, we are not weak if we make proper use of those means which the God of nature hath placed in our power. The millions of people, armed in the holy cause of liberty, and in such a country as that which we possess, are invincible by any force which our enemy can send against us. Besides, sir, we shall not fight our battles alone. There is a just God who presides over the destinies of nations, and who will raise up friends to fight our battles for us.
This is a very subtle criticism of the pro-crown delegates. Basically what he is saying here is, “What if you are wrong?” If you are, then next year, the resistance will be weaker and you will have missed the opportunity.
Finally, Henry Concludes with Another Emotional Appeal.
The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave. Besides, sir, we have no election. If we were base enough to desire it, it is now too late to retire from the contest. There is no retreat but in submission and slavery! Our chains are forged! Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston! The war is inevitable–and let it come! I repeat it, sir, let it come.
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!
Henry realizes that a decision to go to war will be based more on emotion than logic. So after he makes the logical appeal to the delegates, he concludes with another emotional argument. He uses an analogy saying, “There is no retreat but in submission and slavery! Our chains are forged! Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston!” He is basically saying that no matter what you decide, every gentleman in the room is already a slave to the crown. What they decide next though has the potential to break those chains.