Here is an annotated list of famous historical examples of documents for leadership. These are declarations of belief or policy, each of which had an outsize impact on the organization or culture for which or by which it was set forth.
We have striven for a diverse array of statements, from both world history and contemporary society, and from both governmental institutions and independent entities. Some of these statements have determined the course of history, while others have affected only a few thousand people. In every instance, writing and publishing the document was instrumental; had its authors or sponsors remained silent, their leadership would never have come into being.
The Bill of Rights
Parliament of England
A century before the United States Constitution codified rights for the new American republic, England’s Parliament adopted constraints on the monarchy. The Bill of Rights of 1689 established regular elections and freedom of speech for Parliament, and it enshrined the right to petition the throne without fear of retribution, all concepts articulated by England’s foremost enlightenment thinker, John Locke.
Bill of Rights to the United States Constitution
Two years after Congress had laid the foundation of the new government, a major obstacle remained. The Constitution had articulated how the government would look and work, but in significant respects it fell short of protecting people from tyranny. One large political faction, the Anti-Federalists, refused to move forward without such protections. The answer lay in the articulation of core rights, most notably religion, speech and press, assembly, and petition. Together with other rights set forth in the first ten amendments, they constitute the Bill of Rights.
Cadet Honor Code
United States Military Academy (West Point)
West Point’s honor code is simple and straightforward: “A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.” Though accompanied by an enforcement process and a set of simple definitions, the Code itself could not be clearer.
The Cluetrain Manifesto
Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls, David Weinberger
What began as a Web site (cluetrain.com) evolved into a set of ninety-five prescient observations and convictions about the impact of the Internet on business. From what I can see, most companies have looked the other way. They shouldn’t. My favorite is No. 20: “Companies need to realize their markets are often laughing. At them.”
This little pamphlet—more than any other document, including the Declaration of Independence itself—aroused popular sentiment of colonial Americans against Great Britain. On its publication it was an immediate sensation. People read it everywhere. With simple, declarative sentences, it made the case for independence. General George Washington, whose army was surrounded by the British, ordered his officers to read the incendiary pamphlet to all soldiers. It is no exaggeration to say Common Sense changed the course of history. Words can do that.
The Communist Manifesto
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
The authors of this short polemic could not possibly know the havoc they were unleashing with their essay. Although a few of its principles, such as banning child labor, enjoy broad support today in the Western world, most, such as centralizing authority and dispersing people from cities to the countryside, are so extreme as to be dystopian.
Contract With America
Representatives Newt Gingrich and Richard Armey
Building on President Ronald Reagan’s State of the Union Address of 1985 and Sen. Barry M. Goldwater’s acceptance speech of the Republican presidential nomination in 1964—in which Goldwater declared that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice”—Newt Gingrich and Richard Armey published a list of eight reforms and ten bills that a Republican-controlled Congress would enact. Six weeks later Americans elected GOP majorities in both the House and Senate for the first time in a generation. Some of the reforms and measures were enacted, while others were defeated or were vetoed by President Bill Clinton.
Declaration of Independence of the United States of America
Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams
More than announcing the formation of a new nation, the Declaration of Independence explained why it was necessary and what it would mean. It listed the grievances against King George III of England, and it proclaimed that all men were created inherently equal. This notion, the work of the Enlightenment thinkers Rousseau and Montesquieu, is enshrined in the Declaration’s second sentence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” America could not begin to live up to that ideal for two more centuries, and even today it is unfinished business.
Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen
National Constituent Assembly of France
This document, the culmination of a century of thinking by the likes of Rousseau and Montesquieu, established human rights that most of the Western world takes for granted today (if forever quarreling over their application). Adopted at the same time the United States Congress was deliberating over the Bill of Rights, and later amended to add an emphasis on equality, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen is one of history’s greatest documents.
Declaration of Rights and Sentiments
Elizabeth Cady Stanton
Patterned after the U.S. Declaration of Independence, and indeed using much of the same language, the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments was the first articulation of women’s suffrage. Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote it for the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, which approved it after a lengthy debate. What it lacks in creativity it more than makes up in boldness. Of note, the call for suffrage met significant opposition at the Seneca Falls conclave even among women. It was Frederick Douglass, in attendance at the convention, who argued most eloquently for it.
Attributed to King Solomon
Familiar to all, this is the litany of “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven”:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, a time to reap that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.”
Pete Seeger used the verse for the lyrics to his popular song “Turn! Turn! Turn!” recorded by various singers from the 1960s on. Note the reliance in the verse on the rhetorical device of internal repetition: “A time to . . . a time to . . .”
President Abraham Lincoln
Officially issued on January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation invoked President Abraham Lincoln’s wartime powers to free more than three million slaves held in the ten rebellious states of the Confederacy. However, because it was a wartime edict not passed by the Congress, its effect would end upon the cessation of hostilities with the Confederacy, thereby necessitating the 13th Amendment to ensure the permanent freedom of all slaves. As a strategic measure, the Emancipation officially proclaimed ending slavery as a purpose of the Union’s cause. Later in 1863, at the dedication ceremony at Gettysburg, the president would refer indirectly to the newfound purpose as “a new birth of freedom.”
Publius (Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison)
Responding to Anti-Federalist criticism of the proposed Constitution, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, later to be joined by James Madison, began writing a series of essays in its behalf and publishing them under the pseudonym Publius in a pair of New York newspapers. The essays were pivotal in building support for the federal system.
Variously worded but conceptually consistent, this basic precept is foundational to virtually every religion around the world and throughout history. (If only people would honor it!)
Baha’i: “Lay not on any soul a load that you would not wish laid upon you, and desire not for anyone the things you would not desire for yourself.”
Buddhism: “Treat not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” (Buddha)
Christianity: “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you, for this is the law of the prophets.” (Jesus)
Confucianism: “One word which sums up the basis for all good conduct: loving-kindness. Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself.” (Confucius)
Hinduism: “This is the sum of duty: Do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you.”
Islam: “Not one of you truly believes until you wish for others what you wish for yourself.” (Mohammed)
Jainism: “One should treat all creatures in the world as one would like to be treated.”
Judaism: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole Torah; all the rest is commentary. Go learn it.” (Hillel the Elder)
Sikhism: “I am a stranger to no one, and no one is a stranger to me. Indeed, I am a friend to all.”
Taoism: “Regard your neighbor’s gain as your own gain and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss.”
Zoroastrianism: “Do not do unto others whatever is injurious to yourself.”
Letter From a Birmingham Jail
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Now studied in college literature classes worldwide, King’s eloquent letter appealed to white clergymen who had criticized the civil rights movement as unnecessary and premature— premature, they said, nearly a century after the Thirteenth Amendment! It brings to mind Hillel the Elder's well-known aphorism: “If not now, when?" In the Letter from a Birmingham Jail, King wrote: "I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say ‘wait.' But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society . . . ; when your first name becomes ‘nigger’ and your middle name becomes ‘boy’ (however old you are) and your last name becomes ‘John,’ and when your wife and mother are never given the respected title ‘Mrs.’; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodyness’—then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”
Letters to Shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway
1966 to Present
Ever since taking control of a small textile company in 1965, Warren Buffet has been showing the world how to invest, how to manage, how to lead, and how to communicate with key stakeholders. He has done a masterful job at all four. In particular, his annual letters to investors are a thing of beauty. They are enterprising, engaging, energizing, elevating, and ennobling, and they are even well-written. Best of all they are refreshingly humble and candid. For example, in his 2018 letter looking back on 2017, a year when Berkshire Hathaway's value grew by $65 billion, Buffet wrote: "A large portion of our gain did not come from anything we accomplished at Berkshire." Rather, it was the tax legislation he so adamantly opposed that contributed $29 million to Berkshire's valuation. You can readily the letters at http://www.berkshirehathaway.com/letters/letters.html or in digital or paperback format from Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/BerkshireHathaway-Letters-Shareholders-Buffett/dp/1595910778.
Letter to Share Owners of General Electric
If you can find an extant copy of General Electric’s 1992 annual report, get hold of it and keep it. Jack Welch, the company’s legendary CEO, used his annual letter that year to describe a matrix of four types of business leaders. Type I leaders “deliver on commitments, financial or otherwise, and share our values,” Welch wrote. They are the stars, the keepers. Type II leaders do neither and must be shown the exit. That much is easy. The real difficulty lies with Type III and Type IV. Type III leaders embrace the values but have missed their commitments. Welch advocated giving them a second and even a third chance in other assignments. Type IV leaders, who make their commitments but neglect or trample over the values, must be exited in spite of their good numbers. A summary of the matrix appears in Jack Welch Speaks: Wit and Wisdom from the World’s Greatest Business Leader by Janet Lowe (Wiley, 2008, pp. 108-111).
The Barons of King John of England
More symbol than statute, the Magna Carta never carried the force that people now suppose, and most of it was eventually repealed. However, it laid the groundwork for the concept of rule by law, and it inspired important subsequent edicts and declarations, including the Rights of Man in France and the Bill of Rights in the United States.
The Mayflower Compact was an early social contract establishing a simple system of governance. It was necessary because the Mayflower had landed hundreds of miles off course, and some of its passengers were contending that its mission was therefore moot. Signatories to the compact declared they “covenant and combine [themselves] together into a civil body politic; for [their] better ordering, and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony; unto which [they] promise all due submission and obedience.” As a historical note, the validity of the commitments to the Compact is disputable, as Bradford had ordered the ship to remain at anchor in Provincetown Harbor off Cape Cod until the document was signed, and therefore the signatures can perhaps be regarded as under duress.
Still controversial and extremely offensive, and outright illegal in parts of the world, Mein Kampf is studied today as a declaration of political polemic, propaganda, and intent, though it stopped well short of detailing the depths of depravity to which Adolph Hitler would take Germany. We include it here because of its historical significance and powerful impact on the German people.
First Ecumenical Council at Nicaea
This concise statement is the very definition of Christianity, and of the Trinity, in all but a few Christian denominations. Seventeen centuries after its adoption, hundreds of millions of people recite it at every worship service or rite.
The Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences
The initial impetus of the Protestant Reformation, this document was a protest against the practice of paying, rather than praying, for divine grace. Luther nailed the Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany. Within five years local people began turning away from Roman Catholic mass to attend new “Lutheran” services.
Nordstrom Employee Handbook
For many years Nordstrom distributed a handbook to employees consisting of only a single page, measuring five by seven inches. It contained all of seventy-two words. It said only: “We are glad to have you with our Company. Our number one goal is to provide outstanding customer service. Set both your personal and professional goals high. We have great confidence in your ability to achieve them. Nordstrom Rules: Rule #1: Use best judgment in all situations. There will be no additional rules. Please feel free to ask your department manager, store manager, or division general manager any question at anytime.” The company has explained that, owing to the complexity of employment law, it can no longer rely on such a brief, simple handbook, but wants all the same to preserve an atmosphere of decentralized good judgment.
Owner’s Manual for Shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway
Every publicly traded company should emulate this document. Its candor, nobility, and clarity are a breath of fresh air. I especially like its simple explanation of the critical difference between book value and intrinsic value, which has long guided the selection of investments by Warren Buffet and his partner, Charlie Munger. To illustrate the difference in everyday terms, Buffet cites the example of the economic value of a college education. Tuition represents the book value, the nominal cost and investment. The difference in lifetime earnings between a college graduate and a non-graduate is the intrinsic economic value. Plainly the full economic value of a college education is greater than the tuition, and that accounts for the wisdom of investing in it.
Port Huron Statement
The Port Huron Statement was a manifesto of the student left during the 1960s. Officially the doctrine of the Students for a Democratic Society, it captured the angst and anxiety felt by many Baby Boomers. Less than twenty years had passed since the Holocaust and the dawn of the Atomic Age, and across the South institutionalized racism was under challenge. Change was in the air, but so was a pall of pessimism. The statement took on greater importance as U.S. involvement in Vietnam grew and protests erupted on college campuses. Today, viewed from a distance of fifty years, the Port Huron Statement seems both hopelessly idealistic and sweetly iconoclastic.
Preamble to the United States Constitution
A single sentence of fifty-two words, the Preamble has a powerful brevity. Functionally it is merely an introduction to the Constitution. Substantively, it establishes the precept that the people of the United States were creating their own government, and it declared the purposes of that government as extending broadly to “the general welfare” of the populace: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” Note also its use of the first-person plural We. Two centuries later, the Preamble remains among the most important sentences ever written.
Prospectus (S-1), Google Initial Public Offering
Larry Page and Sergey Brin
Google’s S-1, the statement required by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission of all companies embarking on an initial public offering, is legendary both for its candor and for its boat-rocking unorthodoxy. “Google is not a conventional company,” the company declares. “We do not intend to become one. Throughout Google’s evolution as a privately held company, we have managed Google differently. We have also emphasized an atmosphere of creativity and challenge, which has helped us provide unbiased, accurate and free access to information for those who rely on us around the world.” Anyone who aspires to or exercises leadership in business should read and think carefully about the entire document.The full text of the prospectus is available at the U.S. government’s National Archives Web site: http://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/1288776/000119312504073639/ds1.htm#toc16167_
Starbucks Green Apron Book
Starbucks Coffee Company
I have a well-worn copy of this little booklet, a splendid example of translating large goals and values to specific, everyday priorities for which any customer facing employee can take personal responsibility. Just the right size to slip into a back pocket of blue jeans, it’s an outstanding example of the formal voice. These booklets are hard to come by, but a search on eBay may turn up one or two.
Why Women Should Vote
This pamphlet explained to men and women alike why women should assume a broader civic role. It stopped well short of challenging the traditional authority of men, but it urged women to become involved in schools and public health and welfare. Addams, the Chicago-based social worker, would win the Nobel Prize in 1931.
Famous Historic Examples of the Formal Voice:
Noteworthy Speeches, Lectures, Sermons, and Debates
Aims of Education
The University of Chicago
The first lecture every new University of Chicago undergraduate attends is the annual Aims of Education address, given by a senior member of the faculty to the incoming class in Rockefeller Chapel every September since 1963. The lecture is given on the Sunday afternoon preceding a week of orientation; parents attend as well, and afterward the students have their class picture taken while the parents adjourn for cocktails. The lecture gives high purpose to the grueling education these students will experience. (It isn’t unusual for U of C undergraduates to be assigned hundreds of pages of reading a night. The Aims of Education address explains why they are to be subjected to such a torturous but rewarding experience.) You can access recent lectures here: http://aims.uchicago.edu/page/past-speakers.
“Ain’t I a Woman?”
This is the legendary speech to the Women’s Convention of Akron, Ohio for which Sojourner Truth is remembered.
Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that ‘twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what’s all this here talking about? That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man—when I could get it—and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?
A few sentences later, she declared she was done, and she sat down. She had made her point and then some.
The American Promise
Lyndon B. Johnson
A week after the march on Selma, Alabama, President Lyndon B. Johnson went before a joint session of Congress to present his case for passage of the Voting Rights Act. He declared he was there to speak “for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy.” Then he implored Congress to do the right thing: “There is no moral issue. It is wrong—deadly wrong—to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote in this country. There is no issue of States rights or national rights. There is only the struggle for human rights. I have not the slightest doubt what will be your answer.”
There are times when the most eloquent of words are not sufficient, and this was one of them. Socrates, far from atoning for the offense of educating the young, declared to the Athens jury: “The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways: I to die, and you to live. Which is better God only knows.” Adjudged guilty, Socrates was sentenced to die by drinking a cup of hemlock.
Banaras Hindu University Dedication
Mohandas K. Gandhi
In the midst of World War I, Mohandas K. Gandhi was asked to speak at the dedication ceremony of a new Hindu university. Until then the Indian independence movement was all but inert, for Indians were culturally imitating British ways and manners. Gandhi, adorned in a mere cloth, outraged his well-dressed audience when he declared: “There is no salvation for India unless you strip yourselves of this jewelry and hold it in trust for your country men.” The speech fundamentally shifted the debate and set the stage for Indian independence, and Gandhi became the movement’s inspirational leader.
Cooper Union Address
27 February 1860
A declared candidate for his party’s presidential nomination, Abraham Lincoln accepted a speaking invitation at the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher’s church in Brooklyn. Word spread that the prairie lawyer, remembered for his widely publicized debates on slavery two years earlier with Sen. Stephen Douglas, was coming to town. Excitement grew, and larger quarters had to be found, so the speech was moved to the newly built Cooper Union Institute in Manhattan. Lincoln worked for months on this speech. Contemporary accounts indicate that sophisticated Easterners, startled by the ill-kempt appearance of the awkwardly tall man, initially felt sorry for him. But when he began speaking, they were quickly enraptured. The speech demonstrates just how powerfully an extraordinary address can establish a leader’s credibility and connection with people, and it exemplifies the particular appeal of noble purpose. The peroration is especially eloquent: "Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it." The full text of the speech is available on many Web sites, including Abraham Lincoln Online: http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/cooper.htm.
Debate on the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution
Schuyler Colfax, George Pendleton, Thaddeus Stevens, Charles Sumner, Lyman Trumbull, et al.
Congress of the United States
This debate, which President Abraham Lincoln insisted on in January 1865 despite the better chances for passage in a new Congress two months later, is the subject of the Steven Spielberg movie Lincoln and of the final two chapters of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s best-seller Team of Rivals. The debate reflected two critical fault lines that would long beset American politics: racialism and sectionalism. Lincoln’s sense of urgency is itself an object lesson for leaders: Bless the important with immediacy.
Debate on the Compromise of 1850
John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay, Jefferson Davis, Stephen A Douglas, Daniel Webster, et al.
Congress of the United States
For decades in the early nineteenth century three men dominated the U.S. Senate. Together they were known as the Great Triumvirate, the nomenclature borrowed from Roman antiquity: Henry Clay, a Whig from Kentucky; Daniel Webster, a Whig from Massachusetts; and John C. Calhoun, a Democratic apologist for slavery from South Carolina. All three would die within two years of the Compromise of 1850. Their debate, joined by Jefferson Davis of Mississippi and Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, is among the greatest in the Senate’s long history. America’s Great Compromise by Fergus Bordewich is a colorful, well-written history of the debate, and it is an enjoyable and engaging read, as well.
Debates, Campaign for the U.S. Senate from Illinois
Stephen A. Douglas and Abraham Lincoln
These seven well-publicized debates between Sen. Stephen Douglas, a Democrat, and his Republican challenger, Abraham Lincoln, were noteworthy both for their forensic elegance and for the gravity of their focus on slavery and equality. Each debate was three hours in length; crowds stood the entire time. (The first candidate had sixty minutes, his rival had ninety, and the first had thirty more as a rejoinder.) The initial debate took place in Ottawa, Illinois, about 90 miles west of Chicago; others were held in Freeport, Jonesboro, Charleston, Galesburg, Quincy, and Alton (oddly, not Chicago). Newspapers far and wide sent stenographers to record the debates and then published lengthy accounts; readers as far away as New York City followed the debates closely. The extant written record of the debates is heavy edited, both by partisan newspapers and by Lincoln, who published an edited transcript as reported by newspapers. At the time, prior to adoption of the Seventeenth Amendment providing for direct election of the U.S. Senate, state legislatures commonly appointed U.S. senators, and so Lincoln and Douglas were campaigning for their own parties to control the Illinois legislature. Democrats won after a former Whig, who was expected to endorse Lincoln, instead threw his support to Douglas in perhaps the first October Surprise, and Douglas was subsequently re-appointed. But the circuit-riding lawyer from Springfield won his own victory: fame and respect sufficient to garner the Republican Party’s presidential nomination two years later. Without doubt the verdict of history affirms that moral victory.
Dwight D. Eisenhower
17 January 1961
Just three days before he left office, President Eisenhower requested national television time to address the American people. What many anticipated to be a merely social farewell turned out to have lasting import. Written with his brother Milton, the speech went through twenty-one drafts, and it contained two powerful warnings. By far the better known was its coinage of the term "military-industrial complex." At the time U.S. defense spending accounted for two-thirds of all federal expenditures and about 10 percent of all U.S. economic activity, both figures far greater than today's. As a retiring president and, arguably more important, the general who saved Western democracy from fascism, Eisenhower had special standing to question such spending, and he did. Pointing to the "conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry," he implored Americans to take note of its "grave implications," and he warned that "we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist." The other warning, less known but equally prescient, had to do with the environment. He declared: "As we peer into society's future, we—you and I, and our government—must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for our own ease and convenience the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow."
Pericles was to the city-state of Athens what George Washington is to the United States of America, and more. His eulogy for the fallen Athenian soldiers is one of the earliest chronicled speeches in history. We do not know its precise words, but, as recounted by Thucydides in The History of the Peloponnesian War, we do know of its exemplary use of rhetorical devices to make its messages memorable and repeatable. We can also easily see its influence, more than two millennia later, on Abraham Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg. Pericles begins by praising ancestors, and so does Lincoln: “Four score and seven years ago.” Pericles humbles himself before the courageous soldiers, and so does Lincoln: “We cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground.” Pericles heralds Athenian democracy as unique in the world, and Lincoln does the same for American democracy: “a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition.” Pericles implores his listeners to emulate their fallen heroes, and so does Lincoln: “It is for us the living.” Lincoln’s own craftsmanship is exquisite, of course, but the parallels between the Pericles oration and his own appear too many and too clear to be accidental.
This oration has been the subject of more forensic analysis than perhaps any other speech in history. Just 272 words, taking only a few minutes to deliver, it masterfully captures the essence of the American experiment. One of my own special memories is visiting the Lincoln Memorial by myself, with no one else within eyesight, on an early-morning run as the sun was rising over Capitol Hill. In solitude I spent a half-hour in spiritual communion with Lincoln, and I read with deliberation and care his words carved on the wall. Years later I learned that Lincoln went out of his way in writing this speech to avoid the use of I, the most commonly used word in the English language. Lincoln intuitively knew something that few other leaders appreciate: The first-person plural (we, us, our, ours) is the pronoun of choice for leaders who wish to unite. (See the entry above for the Funeral Oration by Pericles and the entry below for the Second Reply to Hayne by Henry Clay. It appears that Lincoln borrowed from both.)
“Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death”
“Our brethren are already in the field!” Patrick Henry declared to the Virginia House of Burgesses. “Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”
The Hypocrisy of American Slavery
Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave who bought his own freedom, accepted an invitation to speak to a Fourth of July celebration in upstate New York. He opened his remarks by noting the hypocrisy of the moment: He, lacking equality, was being asked to celebrate it. “Fellow citizens, pardon me, and allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here today?” he said. “What have I or those I represent to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?”
Franklin D. Roosevelt
Elected president in a referendum on his predecessor, Franklin D. Roosevelt took the oath of office in March 1933 amid great uncertainty around his policies and around the country’s economic stability. The Great Depression was at its nadir. Determined to infuse optimism and confidence across the land, the new president declared: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves.”
John F. Kennedy
“Ask not what your country can do for you,” the young president intoned in a famously chiasmic invocation. “Ask what you can do for your country.” This speech, arguably the greatest oration by any American president since Abraham Lincoln, was filled with memorable, inspiring sentences and imagery. Two other sentences in particular also stand out: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty. “ And: “Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and a foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.” Lest the generations ever forget them, these and four other sentences from the Inaugural Address are chiseled into the pink granite at John F. Kennedy’s gravesite in Arlington National Cemetery.
Having been imprisoned for twenty-seven years, Nelson Mandela could reasonably have emerged a bitter, angry man. That he did not—that he instead gave the world a model of forgiveness—is itself a tribute to his greatness. In this, his 1994 inauguration address as president of South Africa, he put the divided nation on a path to uniting. “Today we celebrate not the victory of a party, but a victory for all the people of South Africa,” Mandela declared. “The time for the healing of the wounds has come. The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come. The time to build is upon us.”
March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom
Martin Luther King Jr.
From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, speaking to a crowd of perhaps 250,000 and to history, the legendary civil-rights leader declared: “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” His closing words still echo, as well: “When we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every city and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last, Free at last, Great God all-mighty, We are free at last.” The full text of the speech is available at the U.S. government’s National Archives web site: http://www.archives.gov/press/exhibits/dreamspeech.pdf.
Remarks to the United Nations General Assembly
Chaim Herzog, the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations who would become the country’s sixth president, objected to General Assembly Resolution 3379, which equated Zionism with racism. Herzog declared: “For us, the Jewish people, this resolution is based on hatred, falsehood, and arrogance of Israel, [and it] is devoid of any moral or legal value.” In the face of such an abject rejection, the resolution gradually lost whatever authority it originally had, and it has been all but forgotten.
Rivonia Trial Speech
In this trial, which took its name from the Johannesburg suburb where the African National Congress had its headquarters, Nelson Mandela and seven others were convicted of crimes against the state and sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. Mandela would serve 27 years, most of it at hard labor on an island in Cape Town Bay, before his release and subsequent election as president of South Africa. The sentence was actually less than what the defendants feared: capital punishment. The speech lasted four hours, but it is the dramatic peroration that is universally recalled today as one of the finest moments in forensic history: “I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” As it happened, he lived almost twenty-five years after his release, and he became a revered elder in the battle against racism and oppression everywhere.
Second Inaugural Address
Historians who disagree on everything else often agree that the Second Inaugural Address, not the Gettysburg Address, was Abraham Lincoln’s finest oration. It was here that Lincoln declared: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.” In the crowd, listening with very different points of view, were two men: Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave whose eloquence was inspiring, and the well-known Shakespearean actor John Wilkes Booth, who would alter history in his own way six weeks later and then declare from the stage of Ford’s Theatre, “Sic semper tyrannis.” The modern historian Ronald C. White devoted an entire book, Lincoln's Greatest Speech, to the Second Inaugural Address; it is eminently readable. The full text of Lincoln’s speech is available here: http://www.historytools.org/sources/lincoln-second.pdf.
Second Reply to Hayne
Long regarded as the greatest speech in U.S. Senate history, Senator Henry Clay’s second reply to Senator Robert Y. Hayne is the stuff of legend. Clay was a Federalist and future Whig from Kentucky; Hayne was a Democrat from South Carolina and the immediate predecessor of John C. Calhoun, who with Clay and Daniel Webster would form the Great Triumvirate. On one level, the Clay-Hayne debate focused on the merits of tariffs. On another level, the two senators were debating sectional interests and the legitimacy of nullification, the South’s insistence that a state could nullify, or cancel and ignore, any federal law it didn’t like. It was in the Second Reply that Clay first uttered the phrase “made for the people, made by the people, and answerable to the people,” which Abraham Lincoln would later borrow for the Gettysburg Address and recast as “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”
The Sermon on the Mount and The Beatitudes
Found in Matthew 5-7 of the New Testament, the Sermon on the Mount is a lyrical compendium of the great moral teachings of Jesus. It has become for many Christians the behavioral norm of their religion. Less commonly known as the First Discourse of Matthew, the Sermon brings together the essential lessons of Jesus for those who would follow him. They include the Beatitudes, a series of eight blessings for particular cohorts of people, and the Lord's Prayer. Rhetorically, the Beatitudes are noteworthy for their reliance on internal repetition (the conditional “Blessed are” and the consequential “for they” in all eight). Substantively, they focus the attention of Christians on humility, love, peacemaking, compassion, righteousness, and mercy—and away from judgment, condemnation, power, and arrogance.
Speech to a Joint Session of Congress
Franklin D. Roosevelt
In a seven-minute address to Congress the day after Japanese forces bombed Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt described December 7, 1941, as “a date which will live in infamy.” Congress responded within an hour with a declaration of war. Roosevelt spurned the advice of his secretary of state, Cordell Hull, to explain the casus belli against Japan in lengthy detail. Less is more, Roosevelt believed, and he was right.
“Tear Down This Wall”
Taking advantage of Berlin’s 750th anniversary to visit the isolated and divided city, President Reagan delivered an aggressive speech at the Berlin Wall in which he implored Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” The phrase was a flashpoint of intense disagreement within the White House. Senior aides, including Howard Baker and Colin Powell, warned it was unpresidential and potentially alienating to Gorbachev, with whom Reagan had painstakingly built a good relationship. Reagan insisted on keeping the words in the speech. The Berlin Wall would come down less than three years later. On a personal note, I remember as a newspaper reporter attending a presidential press conference in Chicago at which another reporter asked Reagan if tearing down the Berlin Wall was even remotely realistic. It struck me as so unrealistic that I privately ridiculed the reporter's question. Years later I saw the truth: History is made of the unrealistic becoming realistic—and real.
Three Speeches to the House of Commons
Prime Minister Winston Churchill delivered three historic addresses to the House of Commons during the Battle of France in May and June, 1940. In the first, on May 13, only three days after Churchill succeeded Neville Chamberlain, he declared: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” In the peroration of the second, on June 4, Churchill intoned: “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.” In the third, on June 18, he called on Britons to rise up against a likely assault by Nazi Germany: “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’” These three speeches are commonly regarded of a piece, although a fourth speech on August 20 included another quotation of Churchillian eloquence: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few,” referring to courageous Royal Air Force pilots.
Women’s Rights to the Suffrage
Susan B. Anthony
Having been fined $100 for voting in the 1872 presidential election, Susan B. Anthony embarked on a cross-country lecture tour to campaign for women’s suffrage. “It was we, the people; not we, the white male citizens; nor yet we, the male citizens; but we, the whole people, who formed the Union,” she declared. “And we formed it, not to give the blessings of liberty, but to secure them; not to the half of ourselves and the half of our posterity, but to the whole people—women as well as men. And it is a downright mockery to talk to women of their enjoyment of the blessings of liberty while they are denied the use of the only means of securing them provided by this democratic-republican government: the ballot.” She never paid the fine.