Were historic speeches always historic?
March 9, 2010 9:30 AM   Subscribe

When speeches are made, do people instantly know that they're going to be famous or quotable? Or does that only happen when we look back at them historically?

I'm thinking of speeches like the Gettysburg Address; Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech; or FDR's innaugural address, famous for the line, "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." They're all part of our general cultural knowledge, and I bet most people can quote a line from each, even if they don't know specifically where it's from. At the time these speeches were given, were they that famous? Or is it something that happens over time? In 40 years, will we be quoting Obama like this?
posted by LolaGeek to Society & Culture (11 answers total)
I assume people have a feeling. I mean, I can sense when a comment is gonna get favorites. But I don't know how many favorites any more than they know how much further into the future people will be quoting.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 9:39 AM on March 9, 2010

Teddy Roosevelt, perhaps the first media savvy president, definitely knew that his words were for posterity. He even wrote letters to friends and family members that were purposely designed to be part of an historical record.
Modern speech writers certainly try their hardest to make phrases that are instantly memorable.
posted by OHenryPacey at 9:41 AM on March 9, 2010

Best answer: You have your answer(s) in the first two.

The Gettysburg Address was controversial at the time. It was succinct when the style of the time was long and windy. It took years for it to take on the aura it has today.

Whereas the I Have a Dream speech was immediately recognized as a winner.

Short answer: Sometimes yes, sometimes no.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 9:45 AM on March 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

When speeches are made, do people instantly know that they're going to be famous or quotable? [...] I'm thinking of speeches like the Gettysburg Address

Well, the Wikipedia entry on the speech is interesting, if contradictory:

Eyewitness reports vary as to their view of Lincoln's performance. In 1931, the printed recollections of 87-year-old Mrs. Sarah A. Cooke Myers, who at the age of 19 was present, suggest a dignified silence followed Lincoln's speech: "I was close to the President and heard all of the Address, but it seemed short. Then there was an impressive silence like our Menallen Friends Meeting. There was no applause when he stopped speaking."[63] According to historian Shelby Foote, after Lincoln's presentation, the applause was delayed, scattered, and "barely polite."[64]
The New York Times article from November 20, 1863, indicates Lincoln's speech was interrupted five times by applause and was followed by "long continued applause."[17]
Other public reaction to the speech was divided along partisan lines. The next day the Democratic-leaning Chicago Times observed, "The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat and dishwatery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States." In contrast, the Republican-oriented New York Times was complimentary.[17] The Springfield, Ma. Republican newspaper printed the entire speech, calling it "a perfect gem" that was "deep in feeling, compact in thought and expression, and tasteful and elegant in every word and comma." The Republican predicted that Lincoln's brief remarks would "repay further study as the model speech"[66]

posted by Mike1024 at 9:49 AM on March 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

I remember learning in AP U.S. History that Lincoln's Gettysburg Address got a famously mixed reaction. He wasn't even the highlight speaker; he was second to Edward Everett, who gave a two-hour oration more in keeping with the customs of the time. But no one talks about that speech any more!
posted by sigmagalator at 9:49 AM on March 9, 2010

On the eve of [Obama's] speech to the Democratic convention in 2004, the speech that effectively launched him as the party's hope of the future, he took a walk down a street in Boston with his friend Marty Nesbitt. A growing crowd followed them. "Man, you're like a rock star," Nesbitt said to Obama. "He looked at me," Nesbitt recalled in a story he liked to tell reporters, "and said, 'Marty, you think it's bad today, wait until tomorrow.' And I said, 'What do you mean?' And he said, 'My speech is pretty good'."
posted by pseudostrabismus at 10:15 AM on March 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

There is a quote from Edward Everett that I am completely failing to find. He supposedly said it to Lincoln as the President was returning to his seat after the speech. The quote is something along the lines of "Mr. President, you came closer to the heart of it in two minutes then I could in two hours."

It gives the impression that those whose job it is to try to be inspiring, poignant, etc. who are immersed in using language to evoke a response probably get a sense when something extraordinary has been said.

I would say, more then anything, though, it's circumstances that make the words historic.
posted by ghostiger at 10:33 AM on March 9, 2010

There's a lot of reasons why a speech becomes historic. Timing is important. FDR's speech after Pearl Harbor is widely quoted ("A day that will live in infamy"), but it's possible he could have said just about anything at that moment and it would still be remembered. Also important is who is making the speech. Can you remember anything George W. Bush said in the immediate 9/11 aftermath?

I expect most speech makers aspire to that one defining moment, but it's not always something under their control.
posted by tommasz at 10:34 AM on March 9, 2010

Can you remember anything George W. Bush said in the immediate 9/11 aftermath?

"I can hear you! I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you! And the people -- and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!" (Full transcript/recording)
posted by Jahaza at 10:42 AM on March 9, 2010

Several people requested copies of the Gettysburg Address after it was delivered. This would indicate that some people saw it as important.

From LOC website:

"Of the five known manuscript copies of the Gettysburg Address, the Library of Congress has two. President Lincoln gave one of these to each of his two private secretaries, John Nicolay and John Hay. The other three copies of the Address were written by Lincoln for charitable purposes well after November 19. The copy for Edward Everett, the orator who spoke at Gettysburg for two hours prior to Lincoln, is at the Illinois State Historical Library in Springfield; the Bancroft copy, requested by historian George Bancroft, is at Cornell University in New York; the Bliss copy was made for Colonel Alexander Bliss, Bancroft's stepson, and is now in the Lincoln Room of the White House."


Also, the quote that ghostiger was looking for is on that page.

On the other hand this might have been like asking for a signature.
posted by bdc34 at 11:25 AM on March 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Obama's A More Perfect Union speech on race saved his campaign and was key in making him the first African-American president of the United States.
posted by kirkaracha at 12:40 PM on March 9, 2010

« Older Filterfilter: are there other hives?   |   Is there a Mac app to prevent you from typing in... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.