6 Speeches Reflecting on American Politics Through the Years

Great orators have long used the powers of language to sway the hearts and minds of listeners, giving voice to broader political, social, and cultural movements. Indeed, many great pivotal moments in American history have been greatly influenced by well-known speeches. For instance, Patrick Henry’s Speech to the Virginia Convention—perhaps best known for the quote, “Give me liberty or give me death!”—is often credited with swaying the convention delegates to support the American Revolutionary War. 

Oration has also been an important part of the campaigning and election process in the United States since its inception, with candidates using their platforms to present policy proposals and win public support—in addition to occasionally pointing out the demerits of their competitors. Once in office, elected officials are also expected to communicate with their constituents, with mediums ranging from local town halls to presidential inaugural and State of the Union addresses. However, the art of speechmaking has not been reserved solely for those who hold—or aspire to hold—public office. Activists, entertainers, students, and citizens from all walks of life have raised their voices in support of causes ranging across a broad spectrum: racial justice, gender equality, environmentalism, criminal-justice reform, and beyond. 

So, as we reflect on the state of modern politics, let’s revisit a few of the famous speeches that helped define pivotal moments and movements throughout American history. 

Patrick Henry’s Speech to the Second Virginia Convention – 1775

As mentioned earlier, this speech is often credited with helping to win support from the Virginia House of Burgesses for the American Revolutionary War. Said to have been delivered extemporaneously, Henry deftly combines different rhetorical strategies—including a compelling comparison of living under continued British tyranny to slavery—in order to sway his audience to vote in favor of providing Virginian troops for the war effort. 

OwlEyes has an annotated version of the Speech to the Second Virginia Convention

Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” Speech – 1851

Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech was delivered to the 1851 Ohio Women’s Convention as a powerful statement on the strength and humanity of women. Truth—a Black woman and former slave—boldly took the stage during an era where white feminists were often reluctant to include Black women in their gatherings for fear of being associated with the abolitionist movement. The text of the speech is generally considered non-definitive, as Truth never wrote it down herself, and the various versions published by others contain contradictions. However, at the heart of each version of the address lies the same core lesson: in any discussion about women’s rights, women of color must have a voice. 

Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address – 1865

Abraham Lincoln is considered one of the great political orators in American history—and for good reason. His eloquence helped guide the nation through the Civil War and emancipation, providing a firm moral compass as people contended with the moral quandaries of the day. Although he was assassinated before the full work of post-war Reconstruction could begin, Lincoln’s second inaugural address sought to reassure the North of their righteousness in opposing slavery while also setting the tone for a compassionate and merciful reconciliation with the South.

OwlEyes has an annotated version of the Second Inaugural Address

Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” Speech – 1963

Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech was delivered to the gathered crowd during the 1963 March on Washington, a major civil rights protest advocating for increased economic opportunities for marginalized communities and an end to racial segregation. King depicts the United States Constitution as an “unfulfilled promise,” expressing disappointment that segregation and oppression prevail despite the nation having been founded on the idea that “all men are created equal.” He goes on to paint a vivid image of an imagined future where racial equality has been achieved and the United States exists as an “oasis of freedom and justice.” 

Hillary Clinton’s Human Rights Day Speech – 2011

While perhaps not as explicitly grounded in United States history, Hillary Clinton’s 2011 Human Rights Day speech to the United Nations remains a landmark declaration regarding the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals. Throughout the speech, she discusses the continued oppression and violence faced by queer people on a global scale, noting that the United States has its own failures to contend with in that regard. She also alludes to a famous quote from her own 1995 address to the UN in which she declared that “women’s rights are human rights,” asserting that “gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.”

Emma González’s Speech at March for Our Lives – 2018

In March 2018, student survivors of gun violence organized the “March for Our Lives” as a protest and plea for government action on the issue of gun control. During their speech, Emma González, a survivor of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school shootings, briefly reflects on the friends and classmates they lost during the shooting before lapsing into over four minutes of silence. Six minutes and twenty-two seconds after beginning the speech, González broke their silence and reminded the audience that this was approximately how long it took for the shooter to claim the lives of 17 people and injure 15 others. This combination of performance and rhetoric invites the audience to connect with the González while also emphasizing just how quickly gun violence can irrevocably alter so many lives.