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Speeches That Made a Nation
American Scriptures

Ask what our speeches can do for you

The last couple of years have felt like the mid-1970s: Lousy music, clunky economy, politics from hell. Punk, disco and Andrew Lloyd Webber have degraded to rap, techno and any one of those plastic and silicone figurines that interchangeably pop in and out of famedom. Abroad in 1975 choppers were flying off the roof of the American embassy in Saigon in hysterics, a preview of curtain-time in Baghdad (history doesn’t repeat itself, Mark Twain said, but it does rhyme). At home Gerald Ford was managing to look good only because his predecessor’s paranoid delinquence would have made any president look good in comparison — until George W. Bush. Tomorrow, that one will go on television to tell us how he plans to make a bad situation worse in Iraq as he runs out the clock on his reign of ruin.

If America is one’s religion — as it is mine — this would be a good time for a crisis of faith. Instead, a package that arrived by mail over the holidays had the opposite effect. It was the two-volume edition of the Library of America’s “American Speeches,” a collection of the greatest speeches in the nation’s history from James Otis to Bill Clinton. Like a trip around the country’s great natural monuments, the 1,500-page journey takes you by way of some of the old standards: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, John Kennedy, Malcolm X.

It also takes you back through the byways of great, somewhat forgotten origins of unforgettable words: Henry Lee’s eulogy to George Washington (“First in war — first in peace — and first in the hearts of his countrymen…”); Theodore Parker’s 1848 summation of the character of America (“We are more spontaneous than logical; we have ideas, rather than facts or precedents. We dream more than we remember, and so have many orators and poets….” Parker’s phrase, “of all the people, by all the people, for all the people,” would eventually become the most famous line of the most famous American speech of all); Nez Perce Chief Joseph’s reply to General Howard from Bear Paw Mountains in 1877 (“I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever,” words that were soon followed by a deadly yet brilliant escape to Canada ahead of Howard’s forces); J. Robert Oppenheimer’s speech to Los Alamos scientists in November 1945 on the nuclear age he ushered with them (“this is not only a great peril, but a great hope…”); Betty Friedan’s “Crisis in Women’s Identity” speech in San Francisco in 1964 (“You know that you have brains as well as breasts, and you use them”), and so many more.

Just as the sermon has played a central role in America’s conception of itself as a spiritual, rather than merely religious, nation (the Library of America collected those, too, in “American Sermons” back in 1999), sermons’ secular equivalents in politics, culture, science and business keep shaping the American character as much as reality does — sometimes more so. If our conception of racial equality as we will it were to be based on something, it wouldn’t be the reality we see around us — that would be depressing, still — but on words spoken by Martin Luther King (among others) in any one of his great speeches, when even he knew that he was projecting a hope more than he was reflecting a fact.

But isn’t that what so much of American history has been — a projection of hope in spite of limitations, a willingness to speak the impossible in hope that, like secular scriptures for the modern age, the words’ truths would one day be fulfilled? That’s what so many of these speeches have in common: A faith in the impossible that restores one’s faith in what is, after all, the all-too common reality of a nation like any other.

We’re a nation of deep flaws and catastrophic failures, of genocidal crimes against entire races and nations (blacks, Indians, the Philippines , Vietnam , now Iraq ). We are, in other words, sadly ordinary but for the immense power that magnifies everything we touch, good and bad. The curative exceptionalism to the national character is in these speeches. It doesn’t matter who spoke them. Liberals, conservatives, socialists, black, white, gay or straight, Barry Goldwater, Jesse Jackson or Ronald Reagan (they’re all there, and there’s a special pleasure in reading words once heard, and sometimes reviled, live): Considered in this perspective, they’re all part of an ongoing conversation that’s bigger and more important than any of the individuals who delivered those speeches. The enduring hope is that the conversation goes on to this day, even if the clutter of the immediate makes it difficult to detect purpose from partisanship. Scriptures, in any case, aren’t always understood in their own day.

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