10 Great American Speeches for the 7-12 Classroom

Readability and Rhetoric Ratings of Literary Informational Texts

Speeches inspire.Teachers in every subject area can use the texts of many different inspirational speeches to increase their students' background knowledge about a topic. Speeches also address the Common Core Literacy Standards for Science, History, Social Studies and the Technical Subject Areas as well as the Standards for English Language Arts. These standards guide teachers to help students determine word meanings, appreciate the nuances of words, and steadily expand their range of words and phrases.

Here are 10 great American speeches that helped define America during its first two centuries. Provided with a link to each of the following speeches is a word count, readability level, and an example of a prominent rhetorical device that is contained within the text. 

Lincoln is barely visible at the Gettysburg National Cemetary where he dedicated the graves with the Gettysburg Address. Library of Congress Archive Photos

A speech given at  the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery  four and a half months after the Battle of Gettysburg.

Delivered by: Abraham Lincoln
Date:November 19, 1863
Location: Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
Word Count: 269 words
Readability scoreFlesch-Kincaid Reading Ease 64.4
Grade Level: 10.9
Rhetorical device used: Anaphora: Repetition of words at the start of clauses or verses.

"But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground." 

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The dome of the United States Capitol was unfinished when Lincoln delivered this Inaugural Address beginning his second term. It is notable for its theological argument. The following month, Lincoln  would be assassinated.

Delivered by: Abraham Lincoln
Date: March 4, 1865
Location: Washington, D.C.
Word Count:706 words
Readability scoreFlesch-Kincaid Reading Ease 58.1
Grade Level: 12.1
Rhetorical device used: Allusion to the New Testament Matthew 7:1-12 "Judge not, that you be not judged."

Allusion: is a brief and indirect reference to a person, place, thing or idea of historical, cultural, literary or political significance. 

"It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged." 

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Elizabeth Cady Stanton. PhotoQuest/Getty Images

The Seneca Falls Convention was the first women's rights convention organized to  "discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of woman".

Delivered by: Elizabeth Cady Stanton
Date: July 19, 1848
Location:Seneca Falls, New York
Word Count: 1427 words
Readability scoreFlesch-Kincaid Reading Ease 64.4
Grade Level: 12.3
Rhetorical device used:  Asyndeton ("unconnected" in Greek). It is a stylistic device used in literature to intentionally eliminate conjunctions between the phrases and in the sentence, yet maintain the grammatical accuracy. 

The right is ours. Have it we must. Use it we will.

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 When the officers of the Continental Army threatened to march on the Capitol to demand back pay, George Washington stopped them with this short speech. At the conclusion, he took out his glasses and said, “Gentlemen, you must pardon me. I have grown old in the service of my country and now find that I am growing blind.”  Within minutes, the officers -eyes filled with tears-voted unanimously to express confidence in Congress and their country.

Delivered by: General George Washington
Date: March 15, 1783
Location: Newburgh, New York
Word Count: 
1,134words
Readability scoreFlesch-Kincaid Reading Ease 32.6
Grade Level: 13.5
Rhetorical device used:  Rhetorical Questions are asked just for effect or to lay emphasis on some point discussed when no real answer is expected. 

 

My God! what can this writer have in view, by recommending such measures? Can he be a friend to the Army? Can he be a friend to this Country? Rather, is he not an insidious Foe?

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Patrick Henry's speech was an attempt to persuade the Virginia House of Burgesses, meeting at St. John's Church in Richmond, to pass resolutions favoring Virginia joining the American Revolutionary War.

Delivered by: Patrick Henry
Date: March 23, 1775
Location:Richmond, Virginia
Word Count: 1215 words
Readability scoreFlesch-Kincaid Reading Ease 74
Grade Level: 8.1
Rhetorical device used: Hyperphora: Asking a question and immediately answering it.

"Has Great Britain any enemy, in this quarter of the world, to call for all this accumulation of navies and armies? No, sir, she has none. They are meant for us: they can be meant for no other."

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Sojourner Truth. National Archives/Getty Images

This speech was delivered extemporaneously, by Sojourner Truth, who was born into slavery in New York State. She spoke at the Women's Convention in Akron, Ohio, 1851. Frances Gage, the president of the convention, recorded the speech 12 years later; 

Delivered by: Sojourner Truth
Date: May 1851 
Location: Akron, Ohio
Word Count: 383 words
Readability scoreFlesch-Kincaid Reading Ease 89.4
Grade Level: 4.7
Rhetorical device used: Metaphor of pints and quarts to discuss the rights held by black women in comparison to others. A metaphor: makes an implicit, implied or hidden comparison between two things or objects that are poles apart from each other but have some characteristics common between them. 

"If my cup won't hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn't you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?" 

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Douglass was born into slavery on a Maryland plantation, but in 1838, at age 20, he escaped to freedom in New York. This lecture was one of his first major anti-slavery oratories

Delivered by: Fredrick Douglass
Date: November 4, 1841 
Location:Plymouth County Anti-Slavery Society in Massachusetts. 
Word Count: 1086
Readability scoreFlesch-Kincaid Reading Ease 74.1 
Grade Level: 8.7
Rhetorical device used: Anecdote: a short and interesting story or an amusing event often proposed to support or demonstrate some point and make readers and listeners laugh. Douglass tells the story of a young lady recovered from a trance: 

"...she declared she had been to heaven. Her friends were all anxious to know what and whom she had seen there; so she told the whole story. But there was one good old lady whose curiosity went beyond that of all the others—and she inquired of the girl that had the vision, if she saw any black folks in heaven? After some hesitation, the reply was, 'Oh! I didn't go into the kitchen!'"

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Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce Chiefs. Buyenlarge/Getty Images

Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, pursued 1500 miles through Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana, by the U.S. Army, spoke these words when he finally surrendered. This speech followed the final engagement of the Nez Perce War.The transcript of the speech was taken by Lieutenant C.E.S. Wood. 

Delivered by: Chief Joseph
Date:October 5th, 1877.
Location:  Bears Paw (Battle of the Bears Paw Mountains), Montana
Word Count: 156 words
Readability scoreFlesch-Kincaid Reading Ease 104.1
Grade Level: 2.9
Rhetorical device used:  Direct Address: the use of a term or name for the person spoken to, as in securing the attention of that person; use of a vocative form

Hear me, my Chiefs!

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Susan B. Anthony. Underwood Archives/Getty Images

Susan B. Anthony gave this speech on multiple occasions after her arrest for casting an illegal vote in the presidential election of 1872. She was tried and then fined $100 but refused to pay.

An audio link also available.

Delivered by: Susan B. Anthony
Date:1872 - 1873
Location: Stump Speech delivered in all 29 postal districts of Monroe County, New York:
Word Count:451 words
Readability scoreFlesch-Kincaid Reading Ease 45.1
Grade Level: 12.9
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.

"It is an odious aristocracy; a hateful oligarchy of sex; the most hateful aristocracy ever established on the face of the globe; an oligarchy of wealth, where the right govern the poor. An oligarchy of learning, where the educated govern the ignorant, or even an oligarchy of race, where the Saxon rules the African, might be endured; but this oligarchy of sex, which makes father, brothers, husband, sons, the oligarchs over the mother and sisters, the wife and daughters of every household..."

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William Jennings Bryan: Candidate for President. Buyenlarge/Getty Images

This "Cross of Gold" speech thrust William Jennings Bryan into the national spotlight where his dramatic speaking style and rhetoric roused the crowd to a frenzy. Reports from those in the audience noted that at the conclusion of the speech, he  thrust his arms wide, a visual representation of the speech's last line. The next day the convention nominated Bryan for President on the fifth ballot.

Delivered by:William Jennings Bryan
Date: July 9, 1896
Location: Democratic National Convention in Chicago
Word Count: 3242 words
Readability scoreFlesch-Kincaid Reading Ease 63
Grade Level: 10.4
Rhetorical device used: Analogy: An analogy is a comparison in which an idea or a thing is compared to another thing that is quite different from it.  gold standard to a "crown of thorns"  to "crucify mankind." 

"....we shall answer their demands for a gold standard by saying to them, you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold."

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National Archives for Education

This website offers thousands of primary source documents- including speeches- to bring the past to life as classroom teaching tools.
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Bennett, Colette. "10 Great American Speeches for the 7-12 Classroom." ThoughtCo, Feb. 21, 2017, thoughtco.com/great-american-speeches-7782. Bennett, Colette. (2017, February 21). 10 Great American Speeches for the 7-12 Classroom. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/great-american-speeches-7782 Bennett, Colette. "10 Great American Speeches for the 7-12 Classroom." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/great-american-speeches-7782 (accessed December 14, 2017).