Book Collects Greatness in 'American Speeches' A new, two-volume anthology of U.S. speeches offers ample evidence that political speaking has framed and rallied every great event from the Revolution to the present. Editor Ted Widmer talks about the famous and not-so-famous orators in American Speeches.
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Book Collects Greatness in 'American Speeches'

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Book Collects Greatness in 'American Speeches'

Book Collects Greatness in 'American Speeches'

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

During the campaign season, a stump speech may belie the rich and eloquent history of American rhetoric - or maybe it won't. Either way, a new two volume anthology of American speeches from the Library of America shows that political speaking has framed and rallied every great event from the revolution to the present day.

Ted Widmer is the director of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University. He used to write speeches in the Clinton White House and he has edited the new set. Widmer includes the obvious classics, such as the Gettysburg Address, but the pages of these books are also filled with remarks which have been forgotten over time, even if their authors have not.

Mr. TED WIDMER (John Carter Brown Library, Brown University): There's a little known speech by Lincoln on the way to become president. The train from Illinois takes him to Washington and there were death threats against him on the way. And he gets out at Philadelphia and gives a very short impromptu speech about what the Declaration of Independence means to him and what it means to all people on earth.

SIEGEL: We had a portion of Lincoln's address at Independence Hall in Philadelphia performed using the text from American Speeches Volume One.

Unidentified Man: It was not the mere matter of the separation of the colonies from the motherland, but something in that declaration giving liberty. Not alone to the people of this country but hope to the world for all future time. It was that which gave promise that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men and that all should have equal chance. This is the sentiment embodied in that Declaration of Independence.

SIEGEL: The anthology includes speeches from orators far less famous than Abraham Lincoln.

Mr. WIDMER: There are some relatively unknown people, or even completely unknown, in these volumes. There's a guy named Robert Brown Elliott who was an African American member of Congress from South Carolina who was speaking in Reconstruction and gives a very eloquent defense of his right to vote and to be a part of Congress.

SIEGEL: And Robert Brown Elliott concludes that speech with a paragraph about the Holy Scripture and a lengthily citation of the Book of Ruth. This is actually a question that I had in just reading over some of the early colonial and early American speeches that you've included, which is how important religious language was to the speeches. There were very frequent references to the Bible and to our creator.

Mr. WIDMER: The Bible's everywhere. Everywhere in Western history and progressive candidates, conservative candidates have all spoken about religion, and that's as it should be, because we are a religious people from our origins to the present day.

SIEGEL: Martin Luther King, Jr., is amply represented. Is he the most significant orator of the second half of the 20th century in the United States?

Mr. WIDMER: I think without question. There are others who are extremely capable, but his speeches are the most beautiful.

Dr. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: Even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meanings of its dreams. We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal.

SIEGEL: You also include Malcolm X's 1964 speech The Ballot or the Bullet, which is a very different kind of rhetoric.

MALCOLM X: We open our eyes today and look around American, we see America not through the eyes of someone who has enjoyed the fruits of Americanism. We see America through the eyes of someone who has been the victim of Americanism. We don't see any American dream. We've experienced only the American nightmare.

Mr. WIDMER: We didn't want to just include speeches that were about how happy we all are as a people. We wanted real ideas in opposition to each other and Malcolm X felt deeply estranged from the system as Martin Luther King his contemporary did not or was working in different ways to penetrate it. And I think it is important to see very different speeches from the same time.

The genius of the Library of America is that they have them all in chronological order so you can see Ronald Reagan's speech about Barry Goldwater, his first major speech and in many ways the beginnings of the modern conservative movement, right around the same time as that Malcolm X speech.

SIEGEL: Yes, the Barry Goldwater speech from October 27, 1964 is in many ways the introduction of Ronald Reagan, speech on behalf of Barry Goldwater to the country as a person who would eventually become president 16 years later.

President RONALD REAGAN: You and I are told increasingly we have to choose between a left or right. But I'd like to suggest there is no such thing as a left or right. There's only an up or down. Man's old age dream, the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order or down to the ant heap of totalitarism. And regardless of their sincerity, their humanitarian motives, those who would trade our freedom for security have embarked on this downward course.

SIEGEL: One of the first things that Ronald Reagan said in his speeches -

The sponsor has been identified, but unlike most television programs the performer hasn't been provided with a script. As a matter of fact I've been permitted to choose my own words and discuss my own ideas regarding the choice that we face in the next few weeks.

Hadn't he in fact been given a script?

Mr. WIDMER: I can't imagine that he wasn't given a script, but it's a great line anyway. Pure factual accuracy is not a requirement of a great speech, by the way. But the significance of that, it's one of the first really important televised speeches. It's not the first in our volume. I think Nixon's Checker Speech probably is, but television is important. It was important when it came in and it's still important. There's nothing wrong with adapting a speech to that medium.

SIEGEL: Well after having immersed yourself in American political oratory from the past 200 hundreds years, what have you learned about the trade?

Mr. WIDMER: Well, there's something very powerful about our origins as a people. You see speeches right up to the present talking about the Declaration of Independence. Everyone feels the need to get right with the Declaration of Independence, including the Confederates. They had to talk about it even if they were saying they disagreed with it, because our origins are so moving and still say something special about us as opposed to all other people. We were founded on this idea that everyone has a share in power. So going back to the beginning for inspiration is pretty inspiring.

SIEGEL: Well, Ted Widmer, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Mr. WIDMER: Thank you so much Robert.

SIEGEL: Ted Widmer, who is editor of the two volume collection American Speeches: Political Oratory from the Revolution to the Civil War, and Political Oratory from Abraham Lincoln to Bill Clinton.

BLOCK: And you can hear other famous speeches from Truman, Eisenhower and J.F.K. at our Web site,

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