A great speech can inspire and empower. It can turn an idea into a revolution. It can remind you of your humanity or shine a light on the superpowers hidden within. Whether given a thousand years ago or only a few weeks ago, some famous speeches in history are destined to live on forever. Close your eyes for a minute and think: Can you picture a moment when a speech made you stop in your tracks? Of course you can. That’s the power of words — even if you don’t remember the exact date a speech was given, the truly great ones have a way of sticking in your memory.
And let’s be honest: We could all use as much inspiration, motivation, and hope as we can get these days. So, with that said, keep reading for some of the most awe-inspiring famous speeches given throughout time.
Must-Read Famous Speeches in History
1. August 9, 1588: “Spanish Armada” Speech to the Troops at Tilbury, Queen Elizabeth I
In May of 1588, a massive 130-ship naval fleet left Spain headed for England with hopes of removing the protestant queen from her throne. With the threat of invasion, English troops gathered near the coast at Tilbury in Essex. Queen Elizabeth gave a stirring speech to her troops dressed in full military regalia and a white velvet gown. The defeat of the Spanish Armada has long been held as one of England’s greatest military achievements.
“And therefore I am come amongst you at this time, not as for my recreation or sport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live or die amongst you all; to lay down, for my God, and for my kingdom, and for my people, my honor and my blood, even the dust.
I know I have but the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart of a king, and of a king of England, too; and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realms: to which, rather than any dishonor should grow by me, I myself will take up arms; I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field.”
2. December 23, 1783: Resignation Speech, George Washington
If you have seen Hamilton, you know a pivotal moment in the story occurs when George Washington steps down as president, opening the door for someone else to lead a young and eager country. (Spoiler alert: It’s not Hamilton.) In Washington’s final address as commander-in-chief, he made it all about America.
“Happy in the confirmation of our independence and sovereignty, and pleased with the opportunity afforded the United States of becoming a respectable nation, I resign with satisfaction the appointment I accepted with diffidence. A diffidence in my abilities to accomplish so arduous a task, which however was superseded by a confidence in the rectitude of our cause, the support of the supreme power of the union, and the patronage of heaven.”
3. May 29, 1851: “Ain’t I A Woman?” Sojourner Truth
Born into slavery, Sojourner Truth became an anti-slavery speaker after gaining her freedom. She gave one of the most famous speeches in history at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio.
“That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man — when I could get it — and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?”
4. Nov 19, 1863: Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln
“Four score and seven years ago…” may be one of the most recognizable openings in history. It’s elegant, poetic, and short — only three minutes. This speech justifies the Union’s cause in the American Civil War while honoring the dead from both sides.
“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.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.”
5. June 18, 1940: “Their Finest Hour,” Winston Churchill
By June 17, 1940, Hitler’s armies had conquered Holland, Luxembourg, Belgium, and France. The next day, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill spoke to the House of Commons. This speech moved an island nation to rise up and defend their home against the axis that hoped to crush them.
“Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.
Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’”
6. September 12, 1962: “Moon Speech,” John F. Kennedy
The launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union in 1957 surprised the world and captured everyone’s imagination. The US space program in 1962 was still in its infancy. This famous speech helped ignite (pun intended) a nation to win the space race.
“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too.”
7. August 28, 1963: “I Have a Dream,” Martin Luther King, Jr.
This list would be incomplete without the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., iconic American civil rights leader. He delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech to 250,000 people in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
“I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’
8. April 20, 1964: “I Am Prepared to Die,” Nelson Mandela
In 1962, South African police arrested Nelson Mandela for openly opposing the white government and apartheid segregation policies against the nonwhite citizens. In 1964, the government brought additional charges against Mandela. Mandela made his three-hour opening statement from the dock. He was sentenced to life imprisonment at the Rivonia Trial.
“During my lifetime, I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
9. 1999: “Inches,” Tony D’Amato from Any Given Sunday
Some of the best speeches in history don’t come from reality but from the silver screen. Based on the novel On Any Given Sunday by NFL defensive end Pat Toomey, coach Tony D’Amato (played by Al Pacino) gave us one of the greatest motivational sports speeches of all time.
“The inches we need are everywhere around us.
They’re in every break of the game, every minute, every second.
On this team, we fight for that inch. On this team, we tear ourselves and everyone else around us to pieces for that inch. We claw with our fingernails for that inch, because we know when we add up all those inches that’s gonna make the f***in’ difference between winning and losing! Between livin’ and dyin’!
I’ll tell you this: In any fight, it’s the guy who’s willing to die who’s gonna win that inch. And I know if I’m gonna have any life anymore, it’s because I’m still willin’ to fight and die for that inch. Because that’s what livin’ is! The six inches in front of your face!”
10. June 12, 2005: Stanford University Commencement Speech, Steve Jobs
The CEO and co-founder of Apple and Pixar gave us a speech that still connects with millions today. In essence, this timeless commencement speech focused on his guiding principles: passion and determination, curiosity, and resilience.
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”
11. May 20, 2018: Howard University Commencement Speech, Chadwick Boseman
Before he became T’Challa in Black Panther, Chadwick Boseman was a Howard University student. For the historically Black college’s 150th commencement ceremony, he returned to his alma mater to deliver the main address.
“It is a great privilege, graduates to address you on your day, a day marking one of the most important accomplishments of your life to date. This is a magical place, a place where the dynamics of positive and negative seem to exist in extremes. I remember walking across this yard on what seemed to be a random day, my head down, lost in my own world of issues like many of you do daily. I’m almost at the center of the yard. I raised my head and Muhammad Ali was walking towards me. Time seemed to slow down as his eyes locked on mine and opened wide. He raised his fist to a quintessential guard.”
12. September 23, 2019: Climate Action Summit, Greta Thunberg
It was the “How dare you!” heard round the world when 16-year-old Greta Thunberg addressed the United Nations about the climate crisis.
“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet, I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”
13. November 7, 2020: VP Acceptance Speech, Kamala Harris
This feminist AF speech symbolized hope for millions of women. She paid tribute to her mother and to all women who paved the way to her election. Harris wore a white suit to honor the suffragettes who fought for the right for women to vote.
“All the women who have worked to secure and protect the right to vote for over a century, 100 years ago with the 19th Amendment, 55 years ago with the Voting Rights Act, and now in 2020 with a new generation of women in our country who cast their ballots and continue to fight for their fundamental right to vote and be heard.
Tonight I reflect on their struggle, their determination, and the strength of their vision to see what can be unburdened by what has been. I stand on their shoulders.”
14. January 20, 2021: “The Hill We Climb,” Amanda Gorman
Many of us are still relishing in all the feels from Amanda Gorman’s presidential inauguration poem. Gorman brought the language to life with her spoken word poetry, as she touched on hope and unity and of America’s collective purpose. Prediction: This speech will stand the test of time and be considered one of the most famous speeches in history.
“We’ve braved the belly of the beast
We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace
And the norms and notions
of what just is
Isn’t always just-ice.”
15. July 5, 1852: “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Frederick Douglass
Former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass set on a mission to end chattel slavery in the United States. Douglass helped engineer the underground railroad and strived to teach others about his experience. In his speech, he explains Blackness in American and the hypocrisy of holidays like the Fourth of July, in a country that still has enslaved people.
“Mr. President, Friends and Fellow Citizens: He who could address this audience without a quailing sensation, has stronger nerves than I have. I do not remember ever to have appeared as a speaker before any assembly more shrinkingly, nor with greater distrust of my ability, than I do this day. A feeling has crept over me, quite unfavorable to the exercise of my limited powers of speech. The task before me is one which requires much previous thought and study for its proper performance. I know that apologies of this sort are generally considered flat and unmeaning. I trust, however, that mine will not be so considered. Should I seem at ease, my appearance would much misrepresent me. The little experience I have had in addressing public meetings, in country schoolhouses, avails me nothing on the present occasion.”
16. August 8, 1942: The “Quit India” Speeches, Mahatma Gandhi
Mahatma Gandhi is well known for his peaceful philosophy, but in these speeches, he urges India to take action. His words ultimately galvanized India to rise and unify against their British colonizers.
“Here is a mantra, a short one, that I give you. You may imprint it on your hearts and let every breath of yours give expression to it. The mantra is: ‘Do or Die’. We shall either free India or die in the attempt; we shall not live to see the perpetuation of our slavery. Every true Congressman or woman will join the struggle with an inflexible determination not to remain alive to see the country in bondage and slavery. Let that be your pledge. Keep jails out of your consideration. If the Government keep me free, I will not put on the Government the strain of maintaining a large number of prisoners at a time, when it is in trouble. Let every man and woman live every moment of his or her life hereafter in the consciousness that he or she eats or lives for achieving freedom and will die, if need be, to attain that goal. Take a pledge, with God and your own conscience as witness, that you will no longer rest till freedom is achieved and will be prepared to lay down your lives in the attempt to achieve it. He who loses his life will gain it; he who will seek to save it shall lose it. Freedom is not for the coward or the faint-hearted.”
17. 399 B.C.: “Apology” Plato
Before Socrates was seen as one of the greatest minds and philosophers in history, Athenians found his opinions and thoughts a threat to society. He was arrested and put on trial for questioning god and leading the youth astray. The speech below is Plato’s translation of Socrates’ defense to the jury on those charges.
“Some one will say: Yes, Socrates, but cannot you hold your tongue, and then you may go into a foreign city, and no one will interfere with you? Now I have great difficulty in making you understand my answer to this. For if I tell you that to do as you say would be a disobedience to the God, and therefore that I cannot hold my tongue, you will not believe that I am serious; and if I say again that daily to discourse about virtue, and of those other things about which you hear me examining myself and others, is the greatest good of man, and that the unexamined life is not worth living, you are still less likely to believe me.”