Great leaders inspire confidence and steady our resolve — in good times and bad. Here are five inspirational speeches in presidential history that delivered the right words at the right time.
1 | George Washington: Farewell Address, 1796
Historians have discovered that Washington dated the draft of his address to coincide with the nine-year anniversary of the adoption of the first draft of the U.S. Constitution in 1787. Scholars agree that Alexander Hamilton, former aide to Washington during the Revolutionary War and the first U.S. secretary of the treasury, wrote much of the address. Washington was greatly influenced by his federalist cohort Hamilton throughout their professional relationship, much to the frustration of the Republican members of his government, particularly Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. It was Madison who had helped pen a farewell draft for Washington at the end of his first term, which Hamilton had initially used as a template for the final farewell address. That version was ultimately tossed aside, however, in favor of one drafted from scratch by Hamilton. He and Washington spent the summer of 1796 finalizing the speech, which was delivered for printing in September.1
2 | Abraham Lincoln: The Gettysburg Address • 1863
President Lincoln, dignitaries and thousands of onlookers listened intently while Edward Everett, the keynote speaker at Gettysburg, addressed the crowd for two hours. Adhering to the request of his host David Wills to give “a few appropriate remarks,” Lincoln arose from his seat on the platform and spoke for only two minutes, delivering some of the memorable words in U.S. history.2
3 | John F. Kennedy: Man on the Moon Speech • 1961
On April 12, 1961, the Soviets, who occupied much of eastern Europe and had nuclear missiles aimed at America, launched the first man into space, Yuri Gagarin. Then the Communist propagandists proclaimed that Gagarin had looked around the cosmos and seen no God. In actuality, Gagarin, a devout Russian Orthodox Christian, never made the claims the officially atheist Soviet government attributed to him. However, the Soviets used the successful space flight for the maximum propaganda purposes. Communist Party Chairman Nikita Khrushchev touted the Soviet triumph as prime evidence of Communism’s superiority. On May 25, 1961, President Kennedy spoke in Houston, declaring that America would go to the moon. And then we did. The Soviets never made it.3
4 | Ronald Reagan: Challenger Space Shuttle Disaster Speech • 1986
Images from Jan. 28, 1986, are seared into the memories of former schoolchildren, teachers and parents — the Challenger space shuttle, meant to carry schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe into orbit, reduced to a snaky tunnel of smoke in the sky near Cape Canaveral. In the years that followed, a lot would come out about a disaster watched in countless classrooms across the nation: about faulty O-rings, about dangerously cold temperatures, and about how five crewmen, an engineer and a New Hampshire teacher meant to represent NASA in its finest hour became the space agency’s first in-flight fatalities.
But even before the smoke cleared, one man just as shocked as everyone else by the tragedy — President Ronald Reagan — had the unenviable job of explaining it to the country. On a day, no less, that he was to be the center of a ritual marked on every commander in chief’s calendar since the Woodrow Wilson administration: the State of the Union address. There was no question: The State of the Union, for the first time in modern history, would be scuttled. But what was there to say in the face of such shock and horror?4
5 | Ronald Reagan: Brandenburg Gate Speech • 1987
On June 12, 1987, in a dramatic speech set against the backdrop of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, President Ronald Reagan delivered a challenge to Soviet leader Mikahil Gorbachev: “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.” The speech, delivered about 100 yards from the Berlin Wall, marked Reagan’s most prominent call for the reunification of East and West Berlin, and was considered a bold challenge to Gorbachev to prove he was serious about reforming Soviet governmental policies. Ultimately, it also signaled a hallmark moment in Reagan’s presidency.5