New book recounts 100 Speeches that Changed the World

Review by C.J. Bunce

As history writer Colin Salter remarks in his new book 100 Speeches that Changed the World, “Speeches have always been the greatest form of advocacy.  The speaker’s careful choice of words, phrases, and sentences to persuade his or her audience is as creative an act as the poet’s or playwright’s.”  And the speech has a job to do, a mission to accomplish.  “They must convince the listener of something; perhaps a speaker’s devotion, an apology, a government’s decision, or an accused man’s innocence.”  Speeches have a target audience, and if written and delivered well, they can change the world.  Salter has collected 100 speeches to defend the thesis in his title, that words can change behavior, and that his selections fit the bill.

Any time a writer conquers a work that looks like a list, along with considering and listening to the rationale for the inclusion of the entries, the reader is required to challenge that list.  It’s the challenge and fun of these kinds of books to ask whether these are good choices, bad choices, or whether there are better works that should have been included.  In the case of 100 Speeches that Changed the World, most of the speeches are from the 20th century, so there is a modern sensibility here.  This is a book ideal as a supplement for a high school or 100 level college literature course–most entries are from Americans, but many are from England.  Socrates’ response for being accused of corrupting the youth of Athens is the oldest, from 399 B.C.  Yet only five speeches pre-date the Gregorian calendar (so this isn’t a book for ancient history readers).  William Wallace, Patrick Henry, Robespierre, Frederick Douglass, Chief Joseph, and several U.S. Presidents and authors make up much of the rest, with emphases on the World Wars.  Lincoln, Hitler, Churchill, FDR, MLK, JFK, Mandela, and Obama have multiple entries, with the most artful commentaries included coming from the mouth of Churchill (four).

Stranger references are to responses, not actually speeches, from Elvis Presley and John Lennon.  Some court case opinions and comments are included, but they seem out of place here, fulfilling the usefulness and persuasiveness of works, perhaps, but do not merit inclusion as “speeches.”  Still 100 Speeches that Changed the World is a thought-provoking review of how men and women have used words to make great things happen, and also twist them to bring about their own ill ends.

The inclusion of so many American and British speeches is particularly interesting to read on the weekend of the Fourth of July.  Despite the countries’ conflicts of the 18th and 19th centuries, most of their history has been in joint pursuits.

Many of the speeches in the book are perfect to inspire current and future generations, such as words from Sojourner Truth, Gandhi, Malcolm X, Harvey Milk, and Steve Jobs.  And yet many others were left behind.  Would I have a better reaction had the book been titled something like Selections from the Best Speeches of the Modern World?  Perhaps.  Regardless of its title, and whether these 100 speeches are more emblematic than any other, Colin Salter has compiled some good reflections on historical thoughts of humanity here.  It’s a good companion to Salter’s book co-written with Scott Christianson, 100 People that Changed the World, reviewed here at borg (both would make interesting reads for book clubs).

From publisher Universe in a full-color hardcover, 100 Speeches that Changed the World would make a good choice for high schoolers on up, for anyone interested in world history and culture.  It’s available now here at Amazon.

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