Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: Examining the 5 Best Speeches from the Last 250 Years
Written by Tracy on 20 Jan 2015
“I have a dream…”
No matter who you are, no matter where you’re from, and no matter what you believe, you can’t escape these enigmatic words.
That’s because, just over 50 years since the initial delivery of this speech, Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic phrase has become one of the most recognizable speech quotations in all of history.
That’s pretty insane when you consider it took Socrates about 2,000 odd years to get the same sort of notoriety for his famous line after being accused of “corrupting” the youth of Athens.
“The unexamined life is not worth living.”
Seems to me that progressive ideas are hardly ever appreciated in their day.
With that in mind, I thought I’d try to give a few other rhetorical giants a little bit of current-day appreciation. None of these speeches were given during my lifetime, so I can’t speak to their impact in the moment (yes, I’m dating myself). I can, however, speak to their applicability to our lives today.
As Isaac Newtown once said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
Truer words were never spoken, ‘Zac. Truer words…
And, so I give you, modern interpretations of five of the most iconic speeches from the last 250 years. Trust me—if I had searched back further than that, we’d all be in trouble.
Modern Interpretations of the 5 Best Speeches in the Last 250 Years
Patrick Henry, 1775
Patty H has the honor of having passionately uttered one of the most notable phrases of the American Revolution:
“Give me liberty or give me death.”
But did you know that Henry wasn’t even a professional speaker?
Yes, he became known for his outspokenness on several issues regarding the Revolution and the ensuing formation of the United States. However, he was just a man with a passion for his country who stood up one day and said something that we will never forget. His words left such an impact that a church full of the greatest movers and shakers in 1775 was rendered silent for several minutes after he finished speaking.
“Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?”
This is a tricky one, but just think about it for a second.
Henry was trying to express that a lack of freedom and a life of bondage was really no life at all.
Think about your life today.
Where are you not letting yourself be free to explore the life you were meant to live?
You don’t have to be as dramatic as Henry, but take a few moments to see where you might be able to embrace a little bit of that freedom of will you’ve been granted.
What’s one thing you can do this week to take up your liberty?
Abraham Lincoln, 1863
Abe. Oh, Abe. What a classic. Honest Abe built off of the momentum started by Patrick Henry just over eighty years prior by uttering these words:
“Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
What revolutionaries had worked so hard to bring to fruition, we had been running into the ground with a culture of slavery, coercion, and cruelty. Lincoln brought this fact to light in the most effective and efficient way possible, by delivering the Gettysburg Address in a near-record-breaking three minutes. That’s right friends—apparently it doesn’t take more than 265 words to get yourself into oratorical history.
Or to change the world, for that matter. He said his motivation was:
“That government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Have we come so far and yet allowed ourselves to become blind to the fact that we have as much of a hand in this legacy as Abraham Lincoln or Patrick Henry? Lincoln stood up there on that podium—the last act in a series of speeches, under-appreciated, and widely criticized—and spoke those words so that everyone who heard them would stand up and take up the fight in their own way.
Are you fighting? Do you see and believe that you can make a profound impact on the people around you? Do you spend a little time every day paving the way for a better tomorrow? Do you recognize your share in maintaining the positivity that already exists in this world, and creating even more for others to come?
These are huge questions, but they are just as much worth asking now as they were during the American Revolution or the Civil War. It’s 2015, and your time to make your mark is now.
What’s one thing you can do this week to keep this dream alive?
Susan B. Anthony, 1873
Susie B, the face of Tooth Fairy money everywhere, had this to say about equality:
“It was we, the people; not we, the white male citizens; nor yet we, the male citizens; but we, the whole people, who formed the Union.”
You go, girl!
Rock on with your bad self.
To put it succinctly, Anthony was a badass. She saw a social injustice and fought back. After being fined $100 for casting a ballot (which was illegal for women at the time), she made it her personal mission to, ahem, enlighten those around her.
She disregarded social convention and stood up for the truth, namely, that equal should mean equal, and women should be able to vote legally.
Not sorta, kinda equal. But actually equal.
“And we formed it, not to give the blessings of liberty, but to secure them; not to the half of ourselves and the half of our posterity, but to the whole people.”
How’s that workin’ out for us?
Are we as “socially conscious” as our constantly connected world claims to be? Do we stand on the shoulders of giants or step on the toes of the unknowns? Do we marginalize others to maximize our own gains?
This maxim is a bit more subtle, but again, worth digging into.
Take a cue from Anthony. and examine your sphere of influence to see how you can create some change. She never paid that $100 fine and women got the vote in 1920.
Booya. It’s possible.
What’s one thing you can do this week to promote equality?
Theodore Roosevelt, 1905
Teddy’s infamous words are by far my most favorite from this entire list:
“Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much.”
This reminds me a bit of Henry’s words above. Life without daring, just like life without liberty, (or even Socrates’ life without examination) isn’t really life at all. It’s a half-life that we settle for because of our complacency with the present and our fear of change for the future.
These words reassure me every day that the daring life, no matter how difficult or misunderstood is the life for me.
“Because [the non-daring] live in a gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”
Are you settling for gray when you could have the whole color wheel at your fingertips?
Are you living your life by “daring greatly” or cowering innately? Have you thought recently about how you might be being called to exercise a little courage in your life? Have you been putting something on hold—a dream, a commitment, a relationship—because the greatness of what it could be or the disaster of its potential failure are too much to handle?
I’m right there with you, friend. The struggle is real.
But the challenge is real too.
What one thing can you do this week to “rank” among the daring?
John F. Kennedy, 1961
My main man Johnny. I tell you what—had I been around while he was alive, these words would be etched into my brain if for no other reason than I just couldn’t look away from that face:
“My fellow Americans; ask not what your country can do for you.”
It took Kennedy two months to craft this short speech, which was pretty fitting considering the fact that he was probably spending most of his time coming to grips with the fact that, at 43 years old, he had become the youngest president elected to date. That’s a big pill to swallow for someone from such an iconic American family. Just check out Killing Kennedy when you get a chance, and you’ll see what I mean.
Regardless, his social service imperative still rings true today.
“—ask what you can do for your country.”
Are you doing that?
Do you spend at least some time every day asking what you can do for someone other than yourself? Do you seek out opportunities to be of service to others? Do you view what you do every day—your job, your errands, your relationships—as potential acts of selflessness?
Or is it all about you?
I know some of you smart cookies out there are going to leap up in the defense of popular psychology which claims that there is no truly selfless act. That everything we do in the name of altruism makes us feel good which means it’s inherently not selfless.
To that, I say, who cares?!
If good tummy vibes are a byproduct of acting in service for others, then awesome. Do more of them. Make your tummy happy.
What’s one thing you can do this week to serve your country?
The Big Picture…
One of my favorite random observations about one of the greatest orators of all time, Martin Luther King Jr., came from Simon Sinek. In Simon's famous speech about the real meaning of leadership (which you can find on TED), he had this to say about King's speech:
“By the way, [Martin Luther King] gave the ‘I have a dream’ speech, not the ‘I have a plan’ speech.”
Subtle, but different.
Great speakers lead, because make us feel something
They talk about vision and possibility.
They talk about what they believe.
They talk about what inspires us.
Go get inspired. Go do some good. Go channel your inner orator and say something great.
Do it today, before that chance slips away.
Now, I want to hear from you!
- What is your favorite speech mentioned here, and why?
- What speech should have been included, and why?
Share your story or your reaction in the comments below.