20th Century American Speeches as Literary Texts

10 Speeches Analyzed for Readability and Rhetoric

Speeches are given at a moment in history for different purposes: to persuade, to accept, to praise, or to resign.  Giving students speeches to analyze can help them better understand how the speaker effectively meets his or her purpose. Giving students speeches to read or listen to also helps teachers increase their students' background knowledge on a time in history. Teaching a speech also meets the Common Core Literacy Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy Standards for History,Social Studies, Science, and the Technical Subject Areas, that require students to determine word meanings, appreciate the nuances of words, and steadily expand their range of words and phrases.  

The following ten speeches have been rated as to their length (minutes/# of words), readability score (grade level/reading ease) and at least one of the rhetorical devices used (author's style). All of the following speeches have links to audio or video as well as the transcript for the speech.

of 10

"I Have a Dream" -Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King at the Lincoln Memorial. Getty Images

This speech is rated at the top of "Great American Speeches" on multiple media sources. To illustrate what makes this speech so effective, there is a visual analysis on video  by Nancy Duarte. On this video, she illustrates the balanced "call and response" format that MLK used in this speech. 

Delivered by: Martin Luther King
Date: August 28,1963
Location: Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C.
Word Count: 1682
Minutes: 16:22
Readability scoreFlesch-Kincaid Reading Ease 67.5
Grade Level: 9.1
Rhetorical device used:  So many elements in this speech are figurative: metaphors, allusions, alliterations. The speech is lyrical and King incorporates lyrics from "My Country 'tis of Thee" to create a new sets of verses. The Refrain is a verse, a line, a set, or a group of some lines repeated usually in a song or poem.

The most famous refrain from the speech:

"I have a dream today!"
of 10

"Pearl Harbor Address to the Nation"- Franklin Delano Roosevelt

While members of FDR's Cabinet were "in conversation with its government and its emperor looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific", the Japanese fleet bombed the US Naval Base at Pearl Harbor. If word choice is an important tool in persuasion, than FDR's word choices to declare war on the Empie of Japan are notable:severe damage, premeditated invasion, onslaught, unprovoked, and dastardly

Delivered by: Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Date: December 8, 1941
Location: White House, Washington, D.C.
Word Count: 518
Readability scoreFlesch-Kincaid Reading Ease48.4
Grade Level: 11.6
Minutes: 3:08
Rhetorical device used: Diction: refers to the writer's or the speaker's distinctive vocabulary (word choices) and style of expression in a poem or story. This famous opening line sets the tone of the speech:

 "Yesterday, December 7th, 1941 -- a date which will live in infamy -- the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan."
of 10

"The Space Shuttle 'Challenger 'Address" -Ronald Reagan

Ronald Regan on the "Challenger" Disaster. Getty Images

When the space shuttle "Challenger" exploded, President Ronald Reagan canceled the State of the Union Address to deliver eulogy to the astronauts who had lost their lives. There were multiple references to history and literature including a line from a World War II era sonnet: "High Flight", by John Gillespie Magee, Jr.

“We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.”

Delivered by: Ronald Reagan
Date: January 28, 1986
Location: White House, Washington, D.C.
Word Count: 680
Readability scoreFlesch-Kincaid Reading Ease77.7
Grade Level: 6.8
Minutes: 2:37
Rhetorical device used: Historical reference or Allusion A reference to a well-known person, place, event, literary work, or work of art to enrich the reading experience by adding meaning.  
Reagan referred to the explorer Sir Francis Drake who died aboard ship off the coast of Panama. Reagan compares the astronauts in this manner:

"In his lifetime the great frontiers were the oceans, and a historian later said, "He [Drake] lived by the sea, died on it, and was buried in it."
of 10

"The Great Society" -Lyndon Baines Johnson

After the assasination of President John F. Kennedy, President Johnson passed two important acts of legislation: The Civil Rights Act  and the omnibus Economic Opportunity Act of '64. The focus of his 1964 campaign was the War on Poverty which he refers to in this speech.

A Lesson plan on the NYTimes Learning Network contrasts this speech with a news report of the War on Poverty 50 years later.

Delivered by: Lyndon Baines Johnson
Date: May 22,1964
Location: Ann Arbor, Michigan
Word Count: 1883
Readability scoreFlesch-Kincaid Reading Ease64.8
Grade Level: 9.4
Minutes: 7:33
Rhetorical device used: Epithet describes a place, a thing or a person in such a way that it helps in making the characteristics of a person, thing or place more prominent than they actually are. Johnson is describing how America could become The Great Society.

"The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice, to which we are totally committed in our time. But that is just the beginning."
of 10

Richard M. Nixon-Resignation Speech

Richard M. Nixon, during the Watergate Scandal. Getty Images

This speech is notable as the 1st resignation speech by an American President. Richard M. Nixon has another famous speech -"Checkers" in which he confronted criticism for the gift of a small Cocker spaniel from a constituent.

Years later, confronted in his second term by the Watergate scandal, Nixon announced he would resign the Presidency rather than, "...continue to fight through the months ahead for my personal vindication would almost totally absorb the time and attention of both the President and the Congress..." 

Delivered by: Richard M. Nixon
Date: August 8, 1974
Location: White House, Washington, D.C
Word Count: 1811
Readability scoreFlesch-Kincaid Reading Ease 57.9
Grade Level: 11.8
Minutes: 5:09
Rhetorical device used: Appositive When a noun or word is followed by another noun or phrase that renames or identifies it, this is called appositive.

The appositive in this statement indicates Nixon acknowledges the error of decisions made in the Watergate Scandal.

"I would say only that if some of my judgments were wrong -- and some were wrong -- they were made in what I believed at the time to be the best interests of the nation."
of 10

Farewell Address-Dwight D Eisenhower

 When Dwight D. Eisenhower left office, his farewell speech was notable for the concerns he expressed about the influence of expanding military industrial interests. In this speech, he reminds the audience that he will have the same responsibilities of citizenship that each of them has in meeting this challenge, "As a private citizen, I shall never cease to do what little I can to help the world advance..."

Delivered by: Dwight D. Eisenhower
Date:January 17,  1961
Location: White House, Washington, D.C.
Word Count: 1943
Readability scoreFlesch-Kincaid Reading Ease 47
Grade Level: 12.7
Minutes: 15:45
Rhetorical device used: Comparison is a rhetorical device in which a writer compares or contrasts two people, places, things, or ideas. Eisenhower repeatedly compares his new role as private citzien to that of others separate from government:

"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."
of 10

Barbara Jordan 1976 Keynote Address DNC

Barbara Jordan, first African American elected to the Texas Senate. Getty Images

Barbara Jordan was the keynote speaker to the 1976 Democratic National Convention. In her address she defined the qualities of the Democratic party as a party that was "attempting to fulfill our national purpose, to create and sustain a society in which all of us are equal."

Delivered by: Barbara Charlene Jordan
Date: July 12, 1976
Location: New York, NY
Word Count: 1869
Readability scoreFlesch-Kincaid Reading Ease62.8
Grade Level: 8.9
Minutes: 5:41
Rhetorical device used: Anaphora: the deliberate repetition of the first part of the sentence in order to achieve an artistic effect 

"If we promise as public officials, we must deliver. If -- If we as public officials propose, we must produce. If we say to the American people, "It is time for you to be sacrificial" -- sacrifice. If the public official says that, we [public officials] must be the first to give."
of 10

Ich bin ein Berliner ["I am a Berliner"]-JF Kennedy

Delivered by: John Fitzgerald Kennedy
Date:  June 26, 1963
Location: West Berlin Germany
Word Count: 695
Readability scoreFlesch-Kincaid Reading Ease66.9
Grade Level: 9.9
Minutes: 5:12
Rhetorical device used: Epistrophe: a stylistic device that can be defined as the repetition of phrases or words at the end of the clauses or sentences; reversed form of an anaphora.

Note that he uses this same phrase in German to capture empathy of the German audience in attendance.

"There are some who say -- There are some who say that communism is the wave of the future.
Let them come to Berlin.
And there are some who say, in Europe and elsewhere, we can work with the Communists.
Let them come to Berlin.
And there are even a few who say that it is true that communism is an evil system, but it permits us to make economic progress.
Lass' sie nach Berlin kommen.
Let them come to Berlin."
of 10

Vice Presidential Nomination,  Geraldine Ferraro

Geraldine Ferraro, 1st Woman Candidate for Vice-President. Getty Images

This was the first acceptance speech from a woman nominated for the Vice-Presidency of the United States. Geraldine Ferraro ran with Walter Mondale during the 1984 Campaign.

Delivered by: Geraldine Ferraro
Date:19 July 1984 
Location:Democratic National Convention, San Francisco
Word Count: 1784
Readability scoreFlesch-Kincaid Reading Ease 69.4
Grade Level: 7.3
Minutes: 5:11
Rhetorical device used: Parallelism: is the use of components in a sentence that are grammatically the same; or similar in their construction, sound, meaning or meter.

Ferraro sets out to show the similarity of Americans in rural and urban areas:

"In Queens, there are 2,000 people on one block. You would think we'd be different, but we're not. Children walk to school in Elmore past grain elevators; in Queens, they pass by subway stops... In Elmore, there are family farms; in Queens, small businesses."
of 10

A Whisper of AIDS: Mary Fisher

When Mary Fisher, the HIV-positive daughter of a wealthy and powerful Republican fund raiser, took the stage at the 1992 Republican National Convention Address, she called for empathy for those who had contracted AIDS. She was HIV-positive from her second husband, and she was speaking to remove the stigma many in the party gave to the disease that "was the third leading killer of young adult Americans...."

Delivered by: Mary Fisher
Date: August 19, 1992
Location: Republican National Convention, Houston, TX
Word Count: 1492
Readability score:Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease76.8
Grade Level: 7.2
Minutes: 12:57
Rhetorical device used: Metaphor:  a resemblance of two contradictory or different objects is made based on a single or some common characteristics.

This speech contains multiple metaphors including:

"We have killed each other with our ignorance, our prejudice, and our silence.."
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Bennett, Colette. "20th Century American Speeches as Literary Texts." ThoughtCo, Apr. 21, 2021, thoughtco.com/american-speeches-as-literary-texts-7783. Bennett, Colette. (2021, April 21). 20th Century American Speeches as Literary Texts. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/american-speeches-as-literary-texts-7783 Bennett, Colette. "20th Century American Speeches as Literary Texts." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/american-speeches-as-literary-texts-7783 (accessed March 26, 2023).