Over the centuries, millions upon millions of words have been used by U.S. presidents to motivate, caution, reassure, and guide the American people. Whether written in the news, spoken at a podium, or shared on Twitter, all of these words have carried weight, each with the potential to impact the trajectory of our nation. Only a handful of times, however, has the particular arrangement and context of these words been considered truly inspiring.
This Presidents’ Day, join HeinOnline in rediscovering some of the greatest presidential speeches in American history using our U.S. Presidential Library and other sources.
1. Washington’s Farewell Address
Date: September 17th, 1796
Context: Toward the end of his second term as the first U.S. president, George Washington announced his retirement from office in a letter addressed to the American people. Though many feared for a United States without Washington, the address reassured the young nation that it no longer required his leadership. Washington also used the opportunity to offer advice for the prosperity of the country. After witnessing the growing division between the Federalist and Democratic-Republican parties, much of his advice was to warn against political parties, factions, and other animosities (domestic and foreign) that would eventually undermine the integrity and efficacy of the American government.
Notable Quote: “This spirit [of party], unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind … [but] the disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.
“Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight), the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it. It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions … A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume.”
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2. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address
Date: November 19, 1863
Context: Four months after Union armies defeated Confederates at Gettysburg during the American Civil War, President Lincoln visited the site to dedicate the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. In what were intended to be brief, appropriate remarks for the situation, Lincoln used the moment to offer his take on the war and its meaning. The ten sentences he spoke would ultimately become one of the most famous speeches in American history, an inspiration for notable remarks centuries later, and even a foundation for the wording of other countries’ constitutions.
Notable Quote: “… from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they heregave the last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve that the dead shall not have died in vain; that the Nation shall under God have a new birth of freedom, and that Governments of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
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3. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Inaugural Address
Date: March 4, 1933
Context: The inauguration of Franklin D. Roosevelt was held as the country was in the throes of the Great Depression, and as such, America anxiously awaited what he had to say. Roosevelt did not disappoint, offering 20 minutes of reassurance, hope, and promises for urgent action.
Notable Quote: “So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is … fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and of vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. And I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.”
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4. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s First Fireside Chat
Date: March 12, 1933
Context: Just a few days after his inauguration, Roosevelt instituted what he called “fireside chats,” using the relatively new technology of radio to enter the living rooms of Americans and discuss current issues. In these moments, he could speak at length, unfiltered and uninterrupted by the press, while also offering a reassuring, optimistic tone that might otherwise have been lost in the written word. In this first fireside chat, he crafted a message to explain the American banking process (and its current difficulties) in a way that the average listener could understand.
Notable Quote: “Confidence and courage are the essentials of success in carrying out our plan. You people must have faith. You must not be stampeded by rumors or guesses. Let us unite in banishing fear. We have provided the machinery to restore our financial system, and it is up to you to support and make it work. It is your problem, my friends. Your problem no less than it is mine. Together, we cannot fail.”
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5. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” Speech
Date: January 6, 1941
Context: By 1941, many affected by the Great Depression had experienced economic recovery, but another world-changing phenomenon had reared its head—Hitler and his Nazi regime. World War II was raging in Europe and the Pacific, but the United States had thus far remained largely neutral. In light of the atrocities occurring overseas, Roosevelt sought to change that. He crafted his State of the Union address that January to highlight four freedoms which are deserved by all humans everywhere. The “Four Freedoms” speech, as it was ultimately known, later became the basis for America’s intervention in World War II and significantly influenced American values, life, and politics moving forward.
Notable Quote: “In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want—which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peace of time life for its inhabitants—everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear—which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction, armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor—anywhere in the world.”
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6. Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” Speech
Date: December 8, 1953
Context: During World War II, Roosevelt formally authorized the Manhattan Project, a top-secret U.S. effort to weaponize nuclear energy. By 1945, America had successfully created the atomic bomb, and President Truman had authorized its detonation in Japan’s Hiroshima and Nagasaki, leveling the two cities and killing hundreds of thousands of people. Following the end of World War II, political and economic differences between the United States and Soviet Union drove the two countries to another war soon after, but this time, the Soviet Union had their own atomic bomb as well. The world was teetering on a frightening ledge built by access to nuclear power, causing President Eisenhower to launch an “emotion management” campaign with this speech to the United Nations about the very real risks but also peaceful uses of nuclear energy.
Notable Quote: “… the whole book of history reveals mankind’s never-ending quest for peace and mankind’s God-given capacity to build. It is with the book of history, and not with isolated pages, that the United States will ever wish to be identified. My country wants to be constructive, not destructive. It wants agreements, not wars, among nations. It wants itself to live in freedom and in the confidence that the peoples of every other nation enjoy equally the right of choosing their own way of life. … The United States knows that if the fearful trend of atomic military build-up can be reversed, this greatest of destructive forces can be developed into a great boon, for the benefit of all mankind.”
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7. Eisenhower’s Farewell Address
Date: January 17, 1961
Context: As he came to the end of his term, President Eisenhower found himself in a nation much stronger, much richer, and much more advanced than when he began. Prepared as early as two years in advance, his farewell address acknowledged the pride all should have in these achievements, but also served to ground the American people in sobering reality—that how the United States uses this power and standing will ultimately determine its fate. Like Washington, his address was one of caution against dangers such as massive spending, an overpowered military industry, and Federal domination of scientific progress (or vice versa, the scientific-technological domination of public policy). In all things, he stressed the need to maintain balance as the country moves forward, for the preservation of liberty.
Notable Quote: “Down the long lane of the history yet to be written America knows that this world of ours, ever growing smaller, must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be, instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect. Such a confederation must be one of equals. The weakest must come to the conference table with the same confidence as do we, protected as we are by our moral, economic, and military strength. That table, though scarred by many past frustrations, cannot be abandoned for the certain agony of the battlefield.”
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8. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address
Date: January 20, 1961
Context: A few days after Eisenhower’s farewell speech, he turned over his office to the youngest-ever elected president, John F. Kennedy. Kennedy now found himself faced with the monumental task of strengthening the United States while also quelling American anxieties about the Cold War and avoiding nuclear warfare. His speech thus focused on unity, togetherness, and collaboration both domestically and abroad.
Notable Quote: “In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility—I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it—and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.
And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”
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9. Kennedy’s “We Choose to Go to the Moon” Speech
Date: September 12, 1962
Context: In the name of national security, the United States and USSR set their sights on spaceflight as a top priority during the Cold War. To the surprise (and fear) of people around the globe, the Soviet Union launched the first-ever artificial satellite in 1957, then sent the first human being into space in 1961, signaling to onlookers that its nation was a technological force to be reckoned with. Kennedy was determined to come up with a challenge in space technology that the United States actually stood a chance to win. In the early ’60s, he proposed that America focus on putting a man on the moon. In an uplifting speech at Rice University, Kennedy reminded his listeners of the country’s technological progress so far and of his administration’s determination to continue the pioneering spirit of early America into the new frontier of space.
Notable Quote: “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 which we intend to win, and the others, too.”
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10. Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society” Speech
Date: May 22, 1964
Context: Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in as President in 1963, immediately following Kennedy’s assassination. Johnson vowed to continue the former president’s work on poverty, civil rights, and other issues. Inspired in part by FDR’s New Deal, he devised a set of programs intended to completely eliminate poverty and racial injustice. In 1964, he formally proposed some specific goals in a speech to the University of Michigan, where he coined the lofty ideal of a “Great Society.”
Notable Quote: “Your imagination, your initiative, and your indignation will determine whether we build a society where progress is the servant of our needs, or a society where old values and new visions are buried under unbridled growth. For in your time we have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the Great Society.”
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11. Lyndon B. Johnson’s “We Shall Overcome” Speech
Date: March 15, 1965
Context: By the 1960s, blacks in areas of the Deep South found themselves disenfranchised by state voting laws, such as those requiring a poll tax, literacy tests, or knowledge of the U.S. constitution. Furthermore, these laws were sometimes applied subjectively, leading to the prevention of even educated blacks from voting or registering to vote. Inspired (and sometimes joined) by Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., protests were planned throughout the region. Eight days after racial violence erupted around one of these protests in Selma, Alabama, President Johnson addressed Congress to declare that “every American citizen must have an equal right to vote” and that discriminatory policies were denying African-Americans that right.
Notable Quote: “What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and State of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause too. Because it’s not just Negroes, but really it’s all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome …
“This great, rich, restless country can offer opportunity and education and hope to all, all black and white, all North and South, sharecropper and city dweller. These are the enemies: poverty, ignorance, disease. They’re our enemies, not our fellow man, not our neighbor. And these enemies too—poverty, disease, and ignorance: we shall overcome.”
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12. Reagan’s D-Day Anniversary Address
Date: June 6, 1984
Context: During World War II, the Allied forces attacked German troops on the coast of Normandy, France on June 6, 1944. A turning point for the war, the day came to be known as D-Day, and its anniversary is forever acknowledged. On its 40th anniversary, President Ronald Reagan honored the heroes of that day in a speech that also invoked a comparison of World War II’s Axis dictators to the Soviet Union during the ongoing Cold War. This reminder to the Allies that they once fought together against totalitarianism and must continue the fight now helped contribute to the ultimate dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Notable Quote: “We look for some sign from the Soviet Union that they are willing to move forward, that they share our desire and love for peace, and that they will give up the ways of conquest. There must be a changing there that will allow us to turn our hope into action. We will pray forever that some day that changing will come. But for now, particularly today, it is good and fitting to renew our commitment to each other, to our freedom, and to the alliance that protects it. We are bound today by what bound us 40 years ago, the same loyalties, traditions, and beliefs. We’re bound by reality. The strength of America’s allies is vital to the United States, and the American security guarantee is essential to the continued freedom of Europe’s democracies. We were with you then; we are with you now. Your hopes are our hopes, and your destiny is our destiny.”
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13. Reagan’s Berlin Wall Speech
Date: June 12, 1987
Context: With the fall of Nazi Germany at the end of World War II, Western powers and the Soviet Union sought to establish systems of government in their respective occupied regions. West Germany developed into a Western capitalist country, with a democratic parliamentary government, while East Germany became a socialist workers’ state (though it was often referred to as communist in the English-speaking world). Many experiencing hunger, poverty, and repression in the Soviet-influenced East Germany attempted to move west, with the City of Berlin their main point of crossing. Ultimately, the Soviet Union advised East Germany to build a wall on the inner German border, restricting movement and emigration by threat of execution for attempted emigrants. Seen as a symbol of Communist tyranny by Western nations, the Berlin Wall persisted for nearly three decades. In 1987, President Ronald Reagan visited West Berlin and called upon Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to take down the wall as a symbol of moving forward.
Notable Quote: “We welcome change and openness; for we believe that freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace. There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
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14. George W. Bush’s Post-9/11 Speech
Date: September 11, 2001
Context: On September 11, 2001, the United States experienced the single worst terrorist attack in human history, where four American planes were hijacked and flown into American buildings, killing nearly 3,000 people. Viewers around the world watched the news as five stories of the Pentagon fell and the World Trade Center buildings collapsed entirely. Later that evening, President George W. Bush addressed the nation with a brief but powerful message that chose to focus not on fear, but on America’s strength in unity.
“These acts of mass murder were intended to frighten our nation into chaos and retreat. But they have failed. Our country is strong. A great people has been moved to defend a great nation. Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America. These acts shatter steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve. America was targeted for attack because we’re the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world. And no one will keep that light from shining.”
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15. Obama’s “More Perfect Union” Speech
Date: March 18, 2008
Context: While campaigning for the presidency in 2008, Barack Obama came under fire for his relationship with pastor Jeremiah Wright, who had been heard to denounce the United States and accuse the government of racial crimes. To officially address the relationship and condemn Wright’s inflammatory remarks, Obama crafted a speech that discussed the history of racial inequality in America as well as the dissonance between that history and America’s ideals of human liberty. Importantly, however, he also highlighted the necessity for a unified American people to effectively combat those issues, rather than more racial division.
Notable Quote: “[T]he remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren’t simply controversial. They weren’t simply a religious leader’s effort to speak out against perceived injustice. Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country—a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America ….
“[These] comments were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems—two wars, a terrorist threat, a falling economy, a chronic health care crisis and potentially devastating climate change; problems that are neither black or white or Latino or Asian, but rather problems that confront us all ….
“The fact is that the comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through—a part of our union that we have yet to perfect. And if we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together and solve challenges like health care, or education, or the need to find good jobs for every American.”
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