Today marks the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s famous speech, “I have a Dream”. This set me to wondering where MLK sits in the Pantheon of American orators. So here is my list. It is only my opinion; as a public speaker and a student of rhetoric, it is based on more than simple personal preference, I hope, but should not be mistaken as the opinion of an expert.
I have selected those Americans who were not only eloquent, but great. That is, they were not just word-smiths, but made a profound impact on American thought or culture, at least partly because of their words. Furthermore, in the spirit of America, I am going to adopt a sports metaphor: a basketball all-star team (with starters and reserves).
The reserves first:
- Patrick Henry
- Ronald Reagan
- Jonathon Edwards
- John F. Kennedy
- Susan B. Anthony
- William Jennings Bryan
- Theodore Roosevelt
- Martin Luther King
- Abraham Lincoln
- Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Ranking the starters
In the fifth spot, I would put Franklin Delano Roosevelt
In the fourth spot, I would put Theodore Roosevelt.
Third spot goes to William Jennings Bryan
Runner up goes to Abraham Lincoln
Top prize to Martin Luther King
TR and FDR both had some amazing speeches, and greatly influenced public policy through their rhetoric. I put TR above FDR because his speeches were more authentically his, that is, I don’t think he used a speech-writer very much. Bryan gets a nod above these two giants for three reasons: his mastery of the English language, his masterful use of metaphors (as in the cross of gold) and the fact that he had to influence by rhetoric alone, without the power and prestige of the presidency (which also affects my marks on MLK). As to Lincoln, I wouldn’t have much to argue with someone who listed him as first. He had the most difficult and delicate task, that of galvanizing union effort without demonizing the south. And his Gettysburg address masterfully re-interpreted American history, even as it hallowed the dead.
But no speech I have seen compares to the absolute mastery of “I have a Dream”. MLK is also faced with a delicate rhetorical challenge: to show the justice of the black cause, to rally the spirits of his supporters of this cause, and to call white Americans to join it. He masterfully applies the allusions of the ancient Isaiah to the civil rights struggle, and skillfully weaves black oratorical style with the best forms of more traditional American oratory. The speech is exactly as long as it should be. This speech changed the country, and I regard it as the finest example of great oratory in our countries history.
You can see a video analysis of the speech here.