Famous speeches from every U.S. president
Presidential speeches have been an invaluable part of U.S. democracy since Washington’s inaugural address on April 30, 1789. While much of the oral tradition has remained unchanged, the evolution of mass communication has turned speeches into conversations. Using historical documents, government and political science websites, and news articles, Stacker curated a gallery of famous speeches from every U.S. president.
Whether presented as an inaugural address, a message to Congress, a State of the Union, or a response to a national event, presidential speeches are snapshots of the nation’s values and challenges at a given point in time. They have been used to unite what seemed like an irrevocably divided country. They hold Americans accountable to the country's founding values and signal the adoption of new ones.
In the throes of crises, death, scandal, and disillusionment, presidents have had to find the right words to quell fears, assert changes, and heal morale. In peacetime and moments of relative prosperity, presidents have used speeches to celebrate or to galvanize the country behind a greater good, a call to action, or a reason for hope.
Each speech, especially in moments of tribulation, marks the evolution of America. They are important not just for what they communicate in the moment, but what for what they communicate about that moment when viewed retroactively through the lens of history.
Presidents throughout history have found new ways to communicate with the country. From the regular use of radio with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats to Kennedy’s first live, unedited television broadcast, to constant and immediate communication enabled by social media, technology has shaped presidential correspondence with the nation.
It has also empowered Americans to gauge accuracy and transparency. Real-time fact-checking, whether by organizations like FactCheck.org or by individuals, is becoming synonymous with presidential rhetoric.
Read on to understand what these speeches were about and how they relate to particular moments in U.S. history.
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- Speech name: Farewell address
- Date delivered: Sept. 19, 1796
One of the greatest things Washington ever did for the office of the presidency was quit. By refusing to serve as president for a third term, Washington established a precedent for limiting executive power and signaled the value of the transition of power. Washington’s farewell address, which was printed in papers, not delivered in person, cautioned against “pretended patriotism,” political divisions, and permanent foreign alliances. Washington questioned whether his words would have an enduring impact, but it’s easy to appreciate their timeless relevance even two centuries later.
- Speech name: Inaugural address
- Date delivered: March 4, 1797
Second in a long line of inaugural addresses that praised the principles of the Constitution, Adams’ speech also warns against losing perspective on the nation’s hard-won liberties. Corruption, fraud, and terror are among the evils that threaten the Constitution and those who lead by it.
- Speech name: First inaugural address
- Date delivered: March 4, 1801
In his first inaugural address, Jefferson presented his goals for the presidency and objectives for the nation. This included unifying Republicans and Federalists, establishing equal rights, and upholding the tenets of the Constitution.
- Speech name: Special message to congress on the foreign policy crisis—war message
- Date delivered: June 1, 1812
In this message to Congress, Madison asks Congress to declare war against Great Britain, citing four justifications, including impressment, illegal blockades, the Orders in Council, and British responsibility for inciting warfare among Native Americans. The House of Representatives voted 79-49 in favor of war. While the British revoked the Orders in Council in an attempt to avoid war, word reached the United States too late. June 18 marked the beginning of the War of 1812.
- Speech name: Seventh annual message
- Date delivered: Dec. 2, 1823
Layered into a routine annual message to Congress, Monroe outlined the philosophy and tenets for what would eventually be known as the Monroe Doctrine. This doctrine—named after Monroe but written by then-Secretary of State John Quincy Adams—established the United States as a sphere of influence in the Western Hemisphere and warned against European colonization in the New World. Monroe also asserted that any encroachment on the Western Hemisphere would be considered “dangerous to our peace and safety” and acted upon accordingly. Since this speech, the Monroe Doctrine has largely shaped U.S. foreign policy.
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John Quincy Adams
- Speech name: Speech to the U.S. House of Representatives on Foreign Policy
- Date delivered: July 4, 1821
John Quincy Adams’ most referenced speech was actually delivered when he served as the secretary of state, not the U.S. president. He praised America’s dedication to freedom and peace—not just her own, but of those around the world. “She goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all.” Considered to be, at best, ineffective and at worst, a failure, Adams’ legacy is defined more so by his diplomatic success before and after his presidency—including his facilitation of America’s expansion west to the Pacific, and his vocal opposition to slavery—than his time in office.
- Speech name: Second annual message to Congress
- Date delivered: Dec. 6, 1830
The United States was fervently embracing an attitude of territorial expansion when Andrew Jackson took office in 1829. A champion of the cultural shift toward frontier life, Jackson initiated the Indian Removal Act of 1830, allowing the government to remove Native Americans, at times forcibly, from territories within state borders in exchange for unsettled land west of the Mississippi. Just several months after signing and enacting the Indian Removal Act, Jackson delivered his "Second Annual Message to Congress" in which he defends the policy, lauds its early success, and reinforces the belief that all parties involved stood to benefit from it.
Martin Van Buren
- Speech name: Inaugural address
- Date delivered: March 4, 1837
Van Buren, the first president born an American citizen, used his inaugural address to assure the nation that he could represent and serve everyone. He talked about the country’s growth over the last 50 years and celebrated unique success. He delineated between the roles of state and federal government. He also vows to maintain the status quo of slavery in the country, appealing to skeptical constituents in the south.
William Henry Harrison
- Speech name: Inaugural address
- Date delivered: March 4, 1841
At just over two hours, William Henry Harrison’s inaugural address—and the only speech he gave as president of the United States—is the longest in history. Harrison’s presidential tenure, however, is the briefest in history, cut short when he died from pneumonia 31 days into his term. Invoking parallels to Roman emperors and immovable European monarchies, Harrison spoke of the dangers of the presidency and called for term limits to avoid corruption. The most prescient forewarning in Harrison’s inaugural address, which was delivered 20 years before the start of the American Civil War, comments on the dangers of disunion among the states.
- Speech name: Address upon assuming the office of president of the United States
- Date delivered: April 9, 1841
John Tyler became the first vice president to assume the office of the president after William Henry Harrison’s death in 1841, establishing the precedent for presidential succession. Instead of an inaugural address, Tyler delivers a statement to Congress acknowledging the novelty of the situation and vows to uphold the ideal of his predecessor.
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