In Tuesday’s post, we talked about the steps you should be taking now to prepare yourself for your upcoming semester in America- stuff like paperwork, money, health- and we hinted at preparing a reading list, which is what everyone wants to hear about during the summer. But it is important: knowing a few things about the place you are going is as vital as geography and language- without a baseline of knowledge you are lost at sea.

However, given the weather, it seemed unfair to list out, as planned, thousands of pages of De Toqueville, Doris Kearns Goodwin, or William Vollman. That might come at some point, but for now, we’re going to focus on a different slice of American writing. We’ve already talked about great novels, so here we’re going to focus on speeches, a huge part of any political tradition. Great speeches are not just a moment in time- they capture something about the country, larger issues, more fundamental leanings. They are as good a way as any to use history to describe the present.

Lincoln

Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address, maybe the most famous speech in American history.

Washington’s Farewell Address

George Washington, known as the Father of His Country, was the first U.S. President. During his time in office, he helped establish many things that preserve the democracy- namely, he resigned from the military, ensuring civilian control, and he stepped down after two terms, instead of staying on as a king. He wasn’t known as a great orator, but his farewell address in 1796 really stands out. It is most famous for his admonition to avoid foreign entanglements, but it also talks a lot about the role of political parties and their dangerous effect.

“The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.”

Here we see one of the first examples of deep distrust for the political process, a distrust that lingers to this day. It is a warning about the perils inherent in a democracy. From the beginning, this great experiment was plagued by doubt and a kind of double-thinking: we have a great system, but everyone in it is terrible.

Lincoln’s Two Great Speeches

Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President, best known as the man who freed the slaves and won the Civil War, and who took a bullet for his troubles. He has two speeches that resonate to this day- the incredibly famous (and wonderfully brief) Gettysburg Address, and the astonishingly powerful Second Inaugural. The Address reaffirms strength in the United States (specifically, its government)- “and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth”; the second, toward the end of the brutal Civil War, when Lincoln was mere weeks from death, told with horrible prophecy that the legacy of slavery and the war would not go away with war’s end. It was a speech not of victory, which at that moment was inevitable, but of terrible reconciliation. It foretold the next 100 years of racial struggle.

Fondly do we hope–fervently do we pray–that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword

Martin Luther King’s Dream

In 1963, nearly 100 years after the Civil War ended, a young preacher named Martin Luther King Jr. stepped to a podium in Washington DC, during a march for civil rights, and riveted the nation with his stunning moral force. He appealed to an end of discrimination by telling Americans that racism was not merely unjust or merely cruel- and it was both- but that it was deeply un-American, and if we wanted to retain the soul of the country, it had to end. It was a moral reckoning that made sure no one could ignore the cause of racial justice anymore- either accept it or fight it, and those who chose the latter were already on the losing side of history. It is good to read, but you should watch it.

Two Presidents, Four Terms, Two Visions
The role of President is often to communicate to the nation their visions. The two best at that in the last 40 years have been on opposite sides of the political spectrum- Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama. Reagan’s Second Inaugural contained the heart of the modern conservative movement, when he said the famous words: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Both supporters and opponents often ignore the first part, but the point holds- it is the encapsulation of the Republican ideology, which still holds true. There is nothing the government can do that the private sector can’t do better, and there is nothing that states or individuals can do that government and regulations can’t mess up.

On the other side of that is Barack Obama, who doesn’t believe that the government is the end-all be-all, but rather a distillation of our collective political will, and not something alien and distant. It encapsulates the modern liberal belief that working together through institutions and providing opportunity, not just assuming it, is the better way to go through life. It can be summed up here: “The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.”

So, here are but a handful of speeches, all famous, that you can read to learn about the political debates that have shaped this nation and have, in one form or the other, echoed their way to us through the centuries. There are many others – Malcom X’s “Ballot or Bullet” speech; John C. Calhoun’s “On The Importance of Domestic Slavery”; William Jenning Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” – that, for good or ill, help to illustrate the history of the nation. Enjoy the reading!

 

The international student experience is both challenging and exciting. Whether you are a student considering studying in America, their parent, the host family, the Head of School, an international coordinator, or even a potential classmate, there are as many opportunities for confusion as there are to learn. The ISPA is here to help bridge that gap, to ensure that this opportunity and adventure is met with the highest level of success.