To win a presidential election, a candidate must be a good speaker. There is no room at the top for someone who can’t express his thoughts in an eloquent and inspirational manner. EducationWorld decided to take a look at presidential speeches and come up with a definitive list of the 10 most important. Here you’ll find not necessarily the 10 best orators, but certainly the most impactful, memorable and inspiring addresses given by a U.S. president.
#10 Ronald Reagan’s ‘Evil Empire’ Speech (1983) – While U.S. and Soviet tensions were already high, Reagan's March 8, 1983 speech to the National Association of Evangelicals in Orlando, FL took them to another level. His referring to the Soviet Union as an evil empire is considered the verbal personification of the escalation of the Cold War. In the short term, it prompted Soviet leaders to claim the U.S. was nothing more than an imperialist state seeking to dominate the world, and led to NATO nuclear missiles being deployed in Western Europe. In the long term, those missiles were used as bargaining chips in arms talks which led to the first-ever nuclear reduction treaty.
#9 Teddy Roosevelt’s Address to the Minnesota State Fair (1901) – Most noted for his use of the phrase “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” this understated advice from an unimportant speech goes to the very heart of one of the most dominating personalities ever to hold the office of president. It’s almost ironic that he uttered those words only 12 days before the assassination of President McKinley, an event that thrust Roosevelt into the office. There are few, even today, who aren’t familiar with that line.
#8 Woodrow Wilson’s War Message to Congress (1917) – In a time when Isolationism was an accepted foreign policy, Wilson took a stand to right what he viewed to be a terrible wrong. While other countries involved in “The Great War” were battling for territorial boundaries, U.S. involvement was purely ideological. This was the case that Wilson put forth to Congress, and this is why the U.S. joined the Allies against Germany.
#7 LBJ’s Civil Rights Address to Congress (1965) – In the wake of the deadly police violence that took place in Selema, AL only a week prior, Lyndon B. Johnson addressed all of Congress in an effort to quell the simmering racial tensions in America. Johnson called for true equality and for the end of violence. Most notably, the President used the words “We shall overcome,” a phrase that, until that moment, was associated mainly with African-American leaders struggling to gain equality. The expression has since become a rallying cry for all Americans seeking equal rights.
#6 George W. Bush’s Bullhorn Speech (2001) - This speech is unique to this list, as it is the only one that was not a prepared address. Standing among the still-smoldering ashes of the World Trade Center, George W. Bush grabbed a bullhorn, humbly issued thanks, and boldly issued a warning. When one person in the crowd shouted that he couldn’t hear the President’s words, Bush replied, “I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you! And the people -- and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!” In the two-plus minutes he spoke, Bush summed up the entire range of emotions felt by everyone in America following the Sept. 11, 2001 attack, and reassured them that we were going to fight back.
#5 JFK’s Inaugural Address (1961) – As with all truly great speeches, this address is best known for one line: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” What often gets overlooked, however, is that this speech embodies a cultural shift taking place in America. Here we have a young, dynamic leader calling on a generation to become leaders as well.
#4 FDR’s War Message to Congress (1941) – In the vein of the “Bullhorn Speech,” but more in more polished form, Roosevelt calls out an enemy that attacked without provocation. Literally the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the President asks a still-stunned Congress to declare war and join the Allied force. In the decades since World War II popular phrases like “Remember the Arizona” have mostly been forgotten. December 7, 1941 is still a date that lives in infamy, however.
#3 Barack Obama’s Victory Speech (2008) – This is the one speech on our list that is less about the words being spoken. This speech ranks highly because of who was speaking. For the first time in America’s history, an African-American was addressing the nation after winning the office of president. It was only 150 years prior that someone with Obama’s background may have suffered at the hands of a slave owner. Now he held our nation’s highest office. This was the moment when the idea that anyone could be president became a reality.
#2 Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (1863) – Arguably the most famous speech on this list, The Gettysburg Address serves as a seminal moment in U.S. history. Standing on the same ground where Union and Confederate soldiers died, Lincoln evoked the ideas of equality that the Founding Fathers envisioned and for which civil rights leaders would fight. He referred to the end of the Civil War as a new birth of freedom, while bringing all Americans together. Half thumbing his nose at the defeated South, half reassuring the North that the country will heal, his final remark that a “government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth” resonates to this day.
#1 George Washington’s Farewell Address (1796) – It seems fitting that the top spot on our list goes to our first and greatest president. Although he never presented the address orally, Washington’s farewell address eloquently lays out his vision for the future of the country he helped create. The fact that he was stepping aside set the precedent for the two-term limit we have today.
It is ironic that Washington warns against many of the political traps America has fallen into over 200 years later.
In his address, Washington makes the argument that the two-party system is dangerous, claiming, “It serves to distract the Public Councils and enfeeble the Public Administration....agitates the Community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindles the animosity of one....against another.”
With respect to federal debt, Washington advises frugality, saying, “Cherish public credit. One method of preserving it is to use it as sparingly as possible...avoiding likewise the accumulation of debt....bear in mind, that towards the payments of debts there must be Revenue, that to have Revenue there must be taxes; that no taxes can be devised, which are not...inconvenient and unpleasant."
The brilliant military leader also warns against the amassing of an overly powerful military, advising “Avoid the necessity of those overgrown military establishments, which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty, and which are to be regarded as particularly hostile to Republican Liberty.”
This address literally set the stage for all presidential speeches that followed.