5 Reagan’s Challenger Speech
When tragedy strikes, Americans turn to their president for reassurance and comfort. Ronald Reagan answered this call on January 28, 1986. The space shuttle Challenger exploded less than two minutes after liftoff before millions of television viewers that day, leading the president to cancel his State of the Union address to unite a grieving nation and offer hope. The seven astronauts on board, including the first civilian astronaut, teacher Christa McAuliffe, became the first in-flight fatalities of the U.S. space program. The “Great Communicator” directed a portion of his speech to children, many of whom had witnessed the disaster on classroom monitors.
4 JFK’s Inaugural Speech
As presidential inaugural speeches go, John F. Kennedy’s ranks among the most memorable. Its 1,364 words included a phrase that became synonymous with his presidency and ushered in renewed optimism for America’s potential: “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” The 43-year old Kennedy was the youngest to be elected president and the third to be assassinated.
3 MLK’s “I Have a Dream”
Civil rights leader Martin Luther King’s most quoted speech might have lost its power had he followed his advisers’ suggestions to drop its defining phrase and avoid repetition. King chose the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom as the venue to promote his vision for an integrated society that shuns discrimination. His words resonated with nearly 250,000 gathered August 28, 1963, to hear him speak from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. His “I have a dream” speech continues to inspire generations of Americans.
2 FDR’s Declaration of War
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt faced a joint session of Congress the day after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor to request a declaration of war and to rally the country behind it. More than 80 percent of U.S. households tuned in to hear the live broadcast written by the president himself—the largest radio audience in history at the time. Advisers pushed for a lengthy recap of the relationship between the two countries. Roosevelt opted for a six-minute, to-the-point address. His first draft called December 7, 1941, “a date which will live in world history.” He replaced “world history” with “infamy,” a change that came to define the attack and the speech.
1 Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address
Abraham Lincoln’s November 19, 1863, speech at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, holds the distinction of being one of most, if not the most, quoted speeches in U.S. history. In 10 sentences that took three minutes to say, Lincoln eloquently tied the nation’s core belief in freedom and equality to the sacrifices needed to uphold them. In doing so, he defined the Civil War as a test of government as guardian of the promises set forth in the Constitution.