A young child wearing a white shirt and a red bowtie stands in front of a microphone and delivers a speech. Behind him two girls sit down and listen.

10 American Orators Who Aren’t Abraham Lincoln

5 min read

In lists of America’s most famous orators, Abraham Lincoln often features at the top. Working at Ford’s Theatre, I have seen performances of many of Lincoln’s most famous speeches and witnessed how they continue to touch audiences and inspire our better angels. But Lincoln was not the only American who enacted change with the power of words and how they were delivered.

As part of our oratory education programs, students from across the country come to perform historic speeches on the Ford’s Theatre stage each spring. Some of their speeches are from historical giants like President Lincoln, Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr., but others are from lesser known Americans.

I collected 10 of my favorite speeches performed by students on the Ford’s Theatre stage recently that may be unfamiliar to you. Read on to learn more about these great, but lesser known, orators

1. Angelina Grimke, “What Has the North to do With slavery?”

Angelina Grimke was an ardent abolitionist and women’s rights advocate. She delivered her speech, “What has the North to do with slavery?” at the annual anti-slavery convention in Philadelphia on May 14, 1838, where she reminded Northerners that, “We may talk of occupying neutral ground, but on this subject, in its present attitude, there is no such thing as neutral ground.” 

2. William Sloane Coffin, Jr., “The Anvil of Individual Conscience” 

Dr. William Sloan Coffin, Jr., was a Yale University chaplain and activist against the Vietnam War. On October 20, 1967, Dr. Coffin spoke at a rally in Boston encouraging students to refuse to participate in the draft. He famously lectured the students in the crowd that, “it is a long-standing tradition, sanctioned by American democracy, that the dictates of government must be tested on the anvil of individual conscience.”

3. Judge Learned Hand, “The Spirit of Liberty”

Learned Hand was a federal district judge and judicial philosopher who was an advocate of civil liberties. On May 21, 1944, during World War II and in the midst of anti-immigrant anxiety, Hand spoke to a crowd about what he felt the Spirit of Liberty truly means. He told the crowd, “The spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias.”

4. Margaret Chase Smith, “The Declaration of Conscience”

Margaret Chase Smith was a Republican senator from Maine, who served from 1949 to 1973. Between 1949 and 1954, she was the only woman in the Senate. On June 1, 1950, Smith gave a speech on the Senate floor opposing the McCarthyist tactics within her own party. She said, “As an American, I want to see our nation recapture the strength and unity it once had when we fought the enemy instead of ourselves.” 

5. Chief Joseph, “I Will Fight No More Forever”

Chief Joseph was the leader of the Nez Perce people, who were forcibly removed from Oregon in 1877. Chief Joseph was widely known for how he tactically outmaneuvered the United States Army, until he was forced to surrender. In his speech on October 5, 1877, Chief Joseph told U.S. General Miles, “I want to have time to look for my children, to see how many I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”

6. Samantha Smith, “Look Around and See Only Friends”

In 1982, Samantha Smith was only 10 years old when she wrote a letter to leader of the Soviet Union, Yuri Andropov, asking him how he would avoid nuclear war. Smith was invited to the Soviet Union and later spoke at the International Child’s Symposium on December 26, 1983, where she recommended that all nations participate in an International Granddaughter Exchange as a sign of goodwill. She said, “If we start with an International Granddaughter Exchange and keep expanding it and expanding it, then the year 2001 can be the year when all of us can look around and see only friends, no opposite nations, no enemies, and no bombs.” 

7. Harold Ickes, “What Constitutes an American?” 

Harold Ickes served as Secretary of the Interior during the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. On May 18, 1941, many Americans still doubted whether the United States should enter the war against Nazi Germany. But Ickes gave a speech where he proclaimed, “An American is one who loves justice and believes in the dignity of man. An American is one who will fight for his freedom and that of his neighbor.” 

8. Adam Clayton Powell, “Speech on Civil Rights”

Congressmen Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., was a 12-term congressman who represented Harlem, in New York City, between 1945 and 1971. On February 2, 1955, as one of only three black congressmen, Powell spoke about Civil Rights legislation before the House in Washington, D.C. He warned, “The United States Congress is a 19th-century body in a 20th-century world. In the field of civil rights we are still conducting ourselves along the pattern of yesterday’s world.” 

9. Severn Cullis-Suzuki, “United Nations Earth Summit Speech”

Severn Cullis-Suzuki was only nine when she founded the Environmental Children’s Organization. In June 1992, at age 12, she attended the U.N. Earth Summit to represent the organization. In her speech, which later went viral in a video called “The Girl Who Silenced the World for 5 Minutes,” she implored, “Do not forget why you are attending these conferences — who you’re doing this for. We are your own children. You are deciding what kind of a world we are growing up in.” 

10. Charles B. Morgan, “Four Little Girls Were Killed in Birmingham”

Charles Morgan was a lawyer and activist who lived in Birmingham, Alabama, when a bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church killed four young black girls. Afterward, on September 16, 1963, at a meeting of the all-white Birmingham Young Men’s Business Club, Morgan declared that, “Every person in this community who has in any way contributed during the past several years to the popularity of hatred, is at least as guilty, or more so, than the demented fool who threw that bomb.” 

Every year, a new group of student orators bring to life the words of inspiring Americans throughout history. I’m so grateful to be able to see these students gain public speaking skills and share them with the world! 

Anali Alegria is Communications Associate at Ford’s Theatre. 

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Anali Alegria is Communications Associate at Ford’s Theatre. 

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