HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA — Speeches, in general, have a bad reputation. More often than not, they're something that the public is forced to sit through in order to get on with whatever they've gathered for. (Think of the succession of politicians that precede even the most insignificant ribbon cuttings, or the sponsors who insist on the spotlight before trophies are awarded.) Occasionally, though, a speech can rise to the level of art, define a moment in history, or even transcend history itself, and AmericanRhetoric.com has gathered a collection of some of history's greatest speeches into a one-stop survey of the art of oration.
The two year-old creation of Michael Eidenmuller (an assistant professor of communications at the University of Texas at Tyler), American Rhetoric isn't likely to win any awards for visual design or navigational elegance, but it does offer a staggering collection of speeches, sermons, debates, interviews, courtroom, and cinematic oratory. (Speeches are frequently available in more than one format, including text, RealAudio and even the occasional streaming video offering.)
While it would be safe to call the American Rhetoric collection immense, the actual number of unique examples is difficult to pin down, as the site offers both local and offsite material. (Though some reviews have referred to 5000 speeches, the site itself quotes 5000+ versions - the Gettysburg Address, for example, being offered in two RealAudio and one text version.)
With links to other "great speeches" databases, there's bound to be some overlap in material, while some specific examples (such as the broadcast of the Hindenburg disaster) can't really be called speeches, and other sites (including the Supreme Court's listings of speeches by sitting Justices) will continue to expand as time passes. Suffice it to say that if you're intrigued by the material, you'll need more than one visit to do it justice.
The main collection is available through the Online Speech Bank, which covers everything from Patrick Henry's, "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death," to the golden musings of DuPont and Verizon corporate executives, as well as (despite the site's moniker) speakers from Umberto Eco to Winston Churchill.
With entries like the aforementioned corporate addresses and Halle Berry's Oscar Acceptance Speech, the Speech Bank is clearly more concerned with aggregation than excellence, but it does have the advantage of serendipity. (Without having to scroll through the full list, you may never have thought to look for Babe Ruth's "Farewell to Baseball," or the infamously long addresses of Fidel Castro.)
Still, if your interests are more selective, Rhetoric also offers a few subsets, including speeches about 9-11 and the war in Iraq, classic Movie Speeches (currently topped by Jack Nicholson's "You can't handle the truth," from A Few Good Men), and a collection of The Top 100 American Speeches of the 20th century. (The latter list created by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Texas A&M University in 1999.) Ranked on the basis of "social and political impact, and rhetorical artistry," the list begins with Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech, delivered at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, and is followed by JFK's 1961 Inaugural Address. Just over half of the Top 100 are available in audio as well as text formats - the audio option is invaluable in illustrating that a skilful and sincere delivery can add impact to even the most eloquently written words.
For the more dedicated student of oration, the site offers the views of Aristotle and Plato, while Rhetorical Figures presents definitions and MP3 examples of such terms of the trade as Allusion, Epistrophe and Hyperbole. Other exercises include a look at two different versions of coverage of a famous Dennis Rodman "episode," and an interactive quiz.
Most of us know at least a few lines from historic speeches, and any number of online quotation archives can supply the best known extracts from many more, but seeing (or better yet, listening to) a speech in its entirety allows us to put those famous words into the context of the entire work, and gives us the chance to discover less familiar, but no less impressive, passages.
American Rhetoric can be found at http://www.americanrhetoric.com/.