All of us have probably been challenged at some point to recall one word that was spoken by the commencement speaker at our high school or college graduation. I fail at that test or even remembering who spoke.
Speeches are like that; they may inspire for a time, but the message is soon lost. We can remember only key lines from even some famous speeches, but little more.
The best speeches are short speeches for the above cited reason (something Bill Clinton never learned). I’m on a campaign to find truly great, gloriously short, speeches. Here are my first three:
The Gettysburg Address
The speech was given on the occasion of the dedication of a civil war cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on the fields of Gettysburg (now the Soldiers’ National Cemetery). It has been memorized by generations of Americans. Read more about it in the book The Gettsyburg Soldiers’ Cemetary and Lincoln’s Address, by Frank L. Klement.
Klement has collected a dozen of his published articles on the creation of the Gettysburg cemetery and Lincoln’s address. He is an authority on Civil War politics, which is the overriding topic of these articles. Among the myths resoundingly debunked here are that Lincoln’s address received a poor reception and that the address was composed on scrap paper on the train to Gettysburg (Klement identifies six copies of the address, none written on the train).
Here is the renowned speech, delivered on November 19, 1863:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon 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 here on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of it 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.
But in a larger sense we can not dedicate – we can not consecrate – we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled, here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but can never forget what they did here. It is for us, the living, rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they have, thus far, so nobly carried on. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation shall have a new birth of freedom; and that this government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Never give up, by Winston Churchill
On October 29, 1941, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill visited Harrow School to to hear the traditional songs he had sung there as a youth, as well as to speak to the students. This became one of his most quoted speeches, and perhaps the best known very short speech. Interestingly, its fame is due to distortions that evolved about what he said, as related in this explanation.
The myth is that Churchill stood before the students and said, “Never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, give up. Never give up. Never give up. Never give up.” Then he sat down. In reality, he made a complete speech that included words similar to what are often quoted.
This was one of the inspirations speeches by Churchill during World War II. It is amusing to see how the one section has been changed and quoted as the whole speech:
Almost a year has passed since I came down here at your Head Master’s kind invitation in order to cheer myself and cheer the hearts of a few of my friends by singing some of our own songs.
The ten months that have passed have seen very terrible catastrophic events in the world–ups and downs, misfortunes– but can anyone sitting here this afternoon, this October afternoon, not feel deeply thankful for what has happened in the time that has passed and for the very great improvement in the position of our country and of our home?
Why, when I was here last time we were quite alone, desperately alone, and we had been so for five or six months. We were poorly armed. We are not so poorly armed today; but then we were very poorly armed. We had the unmeasured menace of the enemy and their air attack still beating upon us, and you yourselves had had experience of this attack; and I expect you are beginning to feel impatient that there has been this long lull with nothing particular turning up!
But we must learn to be equally good at what is short and sharp and what is long and tough. It is generally said that the British are often better at the last. They do not expect to move from crisis to crisis; they do not always expect that each day will bring up some noble chance of war; but when they very slowly make up their minds that the thing has to be done and the job put through and finished, then, even if it takes months – if it takes years – they do it.
Another lesson I think we may take, just throwing our minds back to our meeting here ten months ago and now, is that appearances are often very deceptive, and as Kipling well says, we must “…meet with Triumph and Disaster. And treat those two impostors just the same.”
You cannot tell from appearances how things will go. Sometimes imagination makes things out far worse than they are; yet without imagination not much can be done. Those people who are imaginative see many more dangers than perhaps exist; certainly many more than will happen; but then they must also pray to be given that extra courage to carry this far-reaching imagination.
But for everyone, surely, what we have gone through in this period–I am addressing myself to the School–surely from this period of ten months, this is the lesson: Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never–in nothing, great or small, large or petty–never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.
We stood all alone a year ago, and to many countries it seemed that our account was closed, we were finished. All this tradition of ours, our songs, our School history, this part of the history of this country, were gone and finished and liquidated.
Very different is the mood today. Britain, other nations thought, had drawn a sponge across her slate. But instead our country stood in the gap. There was no flinching and no thought of giving in; and by what seemed almost a miracle to those outside these Islands, though we ourselves never doubted it, we now find ourselves in a position where I say that we can be sure that we have only to persevere to conquer.
You sang here a verse of a School Song: you sang that extra verse written in my honour, which I was very greatly complimented by and which you have repeated today. But there is one word in it I want to alter – I wanted to do so last year, but I did not venture to. It is the line: “Not less we praise in darker days.”
I have obtained the Head Master’s permission to alter darker to sterner. “Not less we praise in sterner days.”
Do not let us speak of darker days: let us speak rather of sterner days. These are not dark days; these are great days–the greatest days our country has ever lived; and we must all thank God that we have been allowed, each of us according to our stations, to play a part in making these days memorable in the history of our race.
William Booth, Founder of The Salvation Army
One of history’s most interesting characters is General William Booth. General Booth was the founder of The Salvation Army. In about 1910, Booth had become an invalid. His eyesight was failing him, and one year he was in such bad health that he was unable to attend the Salvation Army Convention in London, England. Somebody suggested that General Booth send a telegram or a message to be read at the opening of the convention. Booth agreed to do so. When the thousands of delegates met, the moderator announced that Booth would not be able to be present because of failing health and eyesight. Gloom and pessimism swept across the floor of the convention. Then, the moderator announced that Booth had sent a message to be read with the opening of the first session. He opened the message and began to read the following:
Dear Delegates of the Salvation Army Convention:
Signed, General Booth.
Lord, let me live from day to day
In such a self-forgetful way
That even when I kneel to pray,
My prayer shall be for others.
Others, Lord, yes, others;
Let this my motto be.
Help me to live for others
That I may live like Thee.
The power of what may be the world’s shortest message was great because it had behind it the credibility of a life of service committed to the Lord and to other people, of all conditions and stations of life.
Two of the Speechmakers Meet
There is this fascinating account of a meeting between William Booth and Winston Churchill, from Booth’s memiors related at a Salvation Army website.
I went to Whitehall for an interview with Mr. Winston Churchill, the Home Secretary, with respect to proposed plan of working for the Criminal in prisons in conjunction with the Government. I expected to find Mr. Churchill alone. . . . With Mr. Churchill I found, however, Mr. Masterman, the Under Secretary, and Sir E. Troupe, the Permanent Secretary of the Home Office. The interview lasted an hour and a quarter, and might, so far as I could judge, an hour and a quarter longer, judging from the interest manifested by Mr. Churchill and the other parties present. Nothing could very well be more frank and anxious than all appeared to be.I talked on the principles, methods, and success of our work among these classes, and in general terms, and each acknowledged their agreement, with trifling exceptions, with all I argued for. That was satisfactory, but it was more satisfactory still to get a definite promise, or what amounted to one, for the following methods of operation by the Army in the prisons: (details of proposed prison work). . .
We parted in the most genial manner — Mr. Churchill saying with a smile, “Am I converted?”
We had talked much about conversion from our standpoint. “No,” I said, “I am afraid you are not converted, but I think you are convicted.” He added something about my seeing what was in him.
To which I replied, “What I am most concerned about is not what is in you at the present, but [what] I can see of the possibilities of the future.” It was one of the most interesting interviews of my life, it may turn out to be one of the most important.