Title: Give Me Liberty Speech By: Patrick Henry Date: March 23, 1775 Location: St. John’s Church - Richmond, Virginia Occasion: Resolution to arm the militia
One of the problems with this, like Socrates’ Apology, is that they were actually recorded long after the speaker’s demise. Plato is the actual author of Apology. There was no court reporter to take it all down verbatim. One can easily imagine Plato and a group of fellow philosophers musing after all was over, goblets of wine in hand, “Boy, that Socrates sure gave one hell of a last speech. We ought to write that down. Do you remember what he said exactly?”
This, Henry’s most famous speech, was reconstructed from listeners’ memories 15 years after his death - and 40 years after he gave it!
That could well explain such seemingly prescient phrases as: “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!” With the battle of Lexington and Concord still a month away, it’s either a remarkably accurate prediction, or, perhaps, a case of convenient memory.
Still, there is no doubt Henry was one of the most powerful speakers of his time. There is also little doubt this speech was memorable enough to make a lasting impression on those who heard it.
It is a speech rich in classical allusions - “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 of the future but by the past.” Can you see Henry as the successor to Diogenes? This time, not seeking an honest man, but the lessons of experience, and meeting with far greater success.
It is equally rich in Biblical allusions - “Suffer not yourselves to be betrayed with a kiss.” In so doing, he was addressing his audience in terms with which they were intimately familiar. In other words, he was establishing that vital element by which to capture the attention of his listeners, audience identification.
He also resorts to one of the other elements that make an effective speech - repetition of one word to help his audience follow the points he wants to make. In this case “We” is the operative word. “Sir, we have done everything that could be done to avert the storm which is now coming on. We have petitioned -- we have remonstrated -- we have supplicated -- we have prostrated ourselves before the throne, and have implored its interposition to arrest the tyrannical hands of the ministry and parliament.”
Later, he resorts to the same device using a different word - “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 a proper use of those means which the God of nature has placed in our power.”
Finally, he concludes with a stirring call to action - “Forbid it, Almighty God! -- I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”
It is a rallying cry virtually every American schoolchild can recite. That stirring conclusion alone makes this speech worthy of inclusion in the Top Ten speeches of all time.
Can a speech be successful - even if it fails at its goal? That is the conundrum posed by Apology.
On trial for “corrupting youth,” Socrates addressed the men of the Athens jury in his own defense.
It is a long speech, over 11,400 words. He probably would have spoken for at least three hours. Then again, when you are on trial for your life, I suspect you want to make as effective an argument as possible. You probably also want to take as much time as possible.
It is also in three parts - a defense against the charges lodged against him; the argument for an appropriate penalty once the jury had rendered a guilty verdict; and, finally, his parting words once the death penalty had been pronounced.
He begins with a classic orator’s device - to downplay his own eloquence: “But many as their falsehoods were, there was one of them which quite amazed me; -- I mean when they told you to be upon your guard, and not to let yourselves be deceived by the force of my eloquence. They ought to have been ashamed of saying this, because they were sure to be detected as soon as I opened my lips and displayed my deficiency;”
We see the same technique today, in modern political campaigns. Before two candidates meet to debate, for instance, the handlers for both sides down-play their own candidate’s abilities - in hopes of not only making that candidate look better by being able to surpass lowered expectations, but also, if something goes horribly wrong, by being able to say “we said this wasn’t our forte.” Sort of like damage control, before there even is any damage.
There is a strong note of condescension which runs through the speech. “He, O men, is the wisest, who, like Socrates, knows that his wisdom is in truth worth nothing.” This is not the wisest approach for addressing any audience, but to listeners who hold the power of life or death, it is truly unwise.
So, did he not care? Was he too set in his ways to change? Or, maybe, he had simply grown tone deaf to the way his examination of people made them feel? Perhaps his devotion to his philosophical pursuits left him no recourse.
It is from this speech that we derive one of the fundamental tenets of his philosophy - “that the life which is unexamined is not worth living.” That’s a rather broad statement. While it may be true of Socrates, or Plato, who recorded it for posterity, or even you and I, is it really true of every human being? Is no one’s life worth living unless subjected to the scrutiny which appeals to Socrates?
It’s an uncomfortable pronouncement - at least for me.
Quite likely, it was a lifetime of such pronouncements which decided his fate, when the sentence of death was pronounced on him by the jury.
So, was this a successful speech that failed to accomplish its goal? People still study it, more than 2,400 years later. Maybe therein lies the answer.
Speech By: Justice Ruth Bader-Ginsburg Title: Lighter Side of Life at the United States Supreme Court Date: March 13, 2009
Location: New England Law, Boston Length (words): 1756
In the wake of President Obama’s public excoriation of the Supreme Court during his State of the Union speech, Chief Justice Roberts waited until this week to issue his own very public reply. In a speech before the University at Alabama law school, Roberts answered a question about that moment from one of the students.
What he apparently found troubling was not the President taking issue with the opinion, “I have no problems with that.” Said the Chief Justice. “On the other hand, there is the issue of the setting, the circumstances and the decorum.”
Intrigued, I went to the Supreme Court Web site, to see if I could find the speech itself posted. It wasn’t. Hopefully it will be in the near future. However, I did find posted there a delightful little talk by Justice Ruth Bader-Ginsburg, at New England Law.
Entitled The Lighter Side of Life at the United States Supreme Court, it is a generous and revealing glimpse into how the court operates, both in legal and social terms. By generous, I mean Justice Ginsburg generously shares her insight into the collegial workings of the court, with her audience.
By generous, I also mean she is generous towards her colleagues on the court, even those who do not share her own legal philosophy. In talking about the fact there are sometimes “sharp differences” over certain issues on the court, she offers this observation: “But through it all, we remain good friends, people who respect each other, and genuinely enjoy each other’s company. In recent terms, we have even managed to agree, unanimously, some 30 to 40 percent of the time. That contrasts with the Court’s 5-4 splits, which last term accounted for about 16 percent of the Court’s decisions. Our mutual respect is only momentarily touched, in most instances, by our sometimes strong disagreements on what the law is.” That unanimous agreement, 40 percent of the time, is something you seldom read about in the press. And it's actually quite remarkable, given the nine strong personalities, each with their own opinion, who occupy the Supreme Court's bench.
She goes on to add this important note about how she and her colleagues view their function: “All of us appreciate that the institution we serve is far more important than the particular individuals who compose the Court’s bench at any given time.”
While any Supreme Court Justice is likely to enjoy the rapt attention of any law school audience, her speech pays due attention to the essentials of a good speech. She engages her audience. “My aim is to describe not the Court’s heavy work, but the lighter side of life in our Marble Palace.”
She also avoids the “Ninth letter syndrome,” using "I" only 17 times, less than one percent of the time, while using the collective “we” and “our” almost twice that often. She is obviously working hard to establish a shared identification with her audience. This is an especially critical consideration in this case. When listening to a Supreme Court Justice speak, even a room full of lawyers must know that few, if any of them, will ever even be considered for elevation to such high station.
That Justice Ginsburg successfully navigates this chasm between her audience and herself, with grace, and a touch of gentle humor, is much to her credit. And, perhaps, her speech writer’s.
It is a speech heavy on the human side of the court, far less on the legal. I hope you will read, and, enjoy it, as I did.
And, if you want to know even more about how the court works, from the perspective of an insider, I highly recommend Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s book - The Supreme Court.
Time magazine recently posted its list of the Top 10 Speeches of all time. All are great speeches, or at least on great topics.
But I have a couple of observations - it is very Euro-American centric, with a heavy emphasis on the "American" part of that equation. Now, to be completely honest, I doubt I could name, under pain of torture, a great speech given by a leader in Asia, Africa, South America or Australia, and hold precious little hope for Antarctica. Even in “Eight Below” the speeches were given elsewhere. But I’m certain some great speeches must have been given elsewhere.
Were I to look for an Asian speech, for example, I’d start with Sun Tzu. But having read The Art of War, no examples come immediately to mind. (Note to self - go back and read The Art of War again.)
However, that is not to fault the list which Time has complied. All but one, in my estimation, are great speeches, that anyone even remotely interested in history should be familiar with.
We start with Socrates’ Apology in 399 B.C., then wait almost 22 centuries before the next on the list - Patrick Henry in 1775. I’m quite sure that other great speeches were delivered in the intervening years, but one of the great problems that must be considered is recording and distribution. Fully half the speeches on our list are recorded electronically. Thus they belong to the 20th century. Come to think of it - we are now nearly a tenth of the way through the 21st - and no suggestion I could offer would supplant any on this list. Time to get cracking, speech writers!
All right - as for the one speech I would take issue with. When great speeches come to mind, Lyndon Johnson is not in the first rank. Even given how just, and great, and difficult a cause it was, to propel the Voting Rights Act through a reluctant Congress, if I were to cite the one Johnson speech that truly had an impact on me, it was the March 1968 speech which concluded with the announcement that he would not be a candidate for re-election that Fall. I can remember to this day, turning to my Father and saying in disbelief: “Did he just say what I thought he said?” And Dad’s stunned reply, “I’m not sure, but I think so.”
The full list follows, and I think we should examine each individually. Say, one a week for the next ten weeks?
We’ve all seen it - A winner at the Academy Award ceremonies, gold statuette clutched firmly in hand, suddenly possessed of the urge to thank, by name, every individual in their Blackberry.
Academy Award speeches can turn an evening of unparalleled success into a dismal failure. Just consider James Cameron as he picked up his third Oscar for Titanic, Sally Field’s second Best Actress award, or Sacheen Littlefeather’s only Academy Award speech.
Sometimes it’s not so much a case of saying something wrong, as saying too much - going on interminably until being drowned out by the exit music. According to Movie Tribune, Bill Mechanic, Co-producer for the Oscars, informs the nominees that the long thank you speeches they deliver are “the single-most hated thing about the show.”
This year, Entertainment Daily reports, the “speeches will end on a high note,” thanks to an innovation dubbed the “thank you cam.” After a short speech on stage, the winners will be able to go back stage and make a second speech which can be sent to family, friends, and posted on the internet.
The winners will then be able to talk as long as they want. But nobody will be forced to unwillingly endure a soliloquy, that droned on a scene or two long.
It just may be the best innovation in the entertainment industry since footlights.
We’ll know for sure a week from now.
Title: I’d like to thank .... Speech By: Numerous award winners Date: March 7, 2010 Location: Kodak Theatre Occasion: 82nd Academy Awards Presentation Video Posted: Live - ABC Length: 45 seconds (We hope)
A veteran writer, researcher and lecturer, with more than 25 years experience in politics, political communications, and public relations. I’ve studied speech writing at NYU, and authored a number of published articles on the practice of lobbying as well as topics in American history.
My lecture on the War of 1812: 1812 – Uncle Sam’s First War, is now a lecture in the New York Speakers in the Humanities bicentennial commemoration series.