Words that Changed History

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Words that Changed History
Words are the means by which history is created. Great works of language are capable of galvanizing the public, persuading countries to go to war, convincing citizens to revolt against tyranny, and encouraging men to lay down their lives for a cause. Some of history’s greatest rhetoricians were capable of changing history with a single speech or writing. Patrick Henry proved himself among the most powerful speech writers with his speech to the Virginia Convention in 1775, where he called for the colonies to declare war for independence against Great Britain. This same message of liberty is echoed by a fellow rhetorician, Abraham Lincoln, in his 1863 Gettysburg Address, during which the president addressed a troubled and torn nation regarding the necessity of the Civil War. In Germany in 1940, another great speaker, Adolf Hitler, addressed the German public and gave his Victory Will be Ours speech, which served to increase Germanic support for World War II. Martin Luther King also deserves a place in history as a master of language because his 1963 I have a Dream speech rallied Americans for the cause of racial equality. Despite the span of three centuries in the presentation of Henry’s, Lincoln’s, Hitler’s and King’s speeches, several rhetorical devices run throughout all four speeches. It is due to the well-crafted language in these works that, despite differing messages, the four compositions managed to inspire the men and women to whom the speeches were directed. Because of the rhetorical prowess of these speakers, these works changed history.

Repetition is a common thread throughout the four works. The repetition in Henry’s speech to the Virginia Convention serves to illustrate the ineffectiveness of the colonists’ attempt to avoid war:

We have petitioned; we have remonstrated; we have supplicated; we have

prostrated ourselves before the throne, and have implored its interposition to arrest the tyrannical hands of the ministry and parliament. Our petitions have been slighted; our remonstrations have produced additional violence and insult; our supplications have been disregarded; and we have been spurned, with contempt, from the foot of the throne…

The words “we have” and “our” are used to emphasize the futility of past war aversion tactics. The words “we” and “our” are inclusive of the speaker to reiterate a sense of unity between the speaker and the audience. By repeating “we” and “our,” Henry is punctuating the fact that he has suffered with his audience and so, by urging them to support a war against Great Britain, he is looking out for their best interests. The anaphora used by Henry creates a powerful tone of unity, which inspired the listening colonists into action against Great Britain.

The repetition of inclusive terms is also present in Hitler’s Victory Will be Ours speech. Hitler states, “they [the British] cannot even solve their own problems…they believe that they are called upon by God [to control the world]…. We Germans lay no claim to world domination. We only ask to be left alone in our own living space. But as far as this living space is concerned, we permit to interference.” Hitler repeats the words “we” and “they” in order to convey a black and white difference between the objectives of Germany and Western Europe. Hitler characterizes the British, or “they,” as selfish and domineering and the Germans, or “we,” as entitled and ordained by God. Hitler’s use of repetition influenced the German people to think of him as a fellow German and inspired his audience to trust him, and by extension, the rest of the German Third Reich. The repetition in the speech further serves to instill in the German people a hatred of Great Britain.

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address also employed repetition of the word “we” throughout the speech. However, Lincoln’s use of the word “we” creates a broader influence: “We are met on a great battle-field of …war. We have come to dedicate…that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live…. But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate – we can not consecrate – we can not hallow this ground.” By using “we,” Lincoln was incorporating not only his immediate audience, but the entire population of the United States, both in the Union and in the Confederacy. This complete inclusion is significant because it embodies the Union’s objective of reunifying the United States. Lincoln also use repetition of the work “that” in order to unify the phrases that follow each “that.” By repeating “that,” Lincoln succeeds in synonymizing the concept “that these dead shall not have died in vain” with the idea of the “nation…hav[ing] a new birth of freedom” and thus equating success in the war with the justification of the deaths during the war. Lincoln’s use of repetition served to reiterate and reinforce that both the Confederacy and the Union were part of the same country, a unified “we.” By unifying the country in words, Lincoln inspired his audience to double their dedication reunifying the country physically.

Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech, like the speeches of Lincoln, Hitler, and Henry, used repetition to achieve its objective of inspiration. At one point in the speech, King repeats the phrase “go back” in order to give the audience hope that “somehow this situation [of segregation] can and will be changed.” He also, and more notably and more powerfully, repeats the phrase “I have a dream” at the beginning of nine lines and, thereby, creates an inspiring and hopeful tone. The last section of this speech is marked by the repetition of the phrase “Let freedom ring,” which serves to end the speech on a note of triumph and hope. With each repetition of the phrases, “I have a dream,” and “Let freedom ring,” King creates a more powerful impact, building the overall tone of empowerment and


Like repetition, classic appeals are prevalent throughout all four historical works. Ethos, or the appeal to authority, is used in each work in the form of an invocation of God as a supporter of the speaker’s objective. It is assumed that the authority of God cannot be questioned and so neither can a cause which, it is claimed, God advocates. Hitler, in Victory Will be Ours, states that “God almighty has not created the world for the English to dominate” in order to imply that God is not on the side of the British. Hitler further states that “God … has blessed [Germany’s]…efforts during the past thirteen years’ and that God …will not abandon [Germany] in order to provide evidence for the ultimate claim of the speech “that victory will be [Germany’s] … because it is so ordained.” King also calls upon God in the I Have a Dream speech, referring to both black and white people as “God’s children” in order to from a sense of unity beyond races. In the final line of the I Have a Dream speech, King quotes an “old Negro spiritual” in which he thanks “God Almighty” for freedom. King uses the mention of God to show that God, the ultimate authority, grants freedom to all people and that it is the duty of government to comply with His will. In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln also briefly invokes the authority of God for the purpose of credibility, stating that the Union is “under God,” implying that going against the Union is going against God. Patrick Henry, likewise, uses God to sway the opinion of the audience. Henry claims that the “Majesty of Heaven” should be “revere[d] above all earthly kings,” and that to “keep back…[his] opinions [concerning freedom would be] … an act of disloyalty toward [God].” Henry also claims that “God … will raise up friends to fight our battles for us,” implying that God is on the side of the colonists and that He will “forbid” their defeat.

In order for works of literature to have a great impact, it is essential that they employ the use of pathos. It is emotion that excites people and that excitement is likely to inspire them to action. Henry utilizes pathos in the speech to the Virginia Convention by using both syntax and diction. Strong, fearsome language, such as “submission and slavery,” is used in Henry’s speech to inspire the fear of slavery, of losing all freedom and rights as a result of continued British rule. Henry also uses rhetorical questions to convey an emotional tone of urgency, using loaded diction that indicates that “peace” would be “purchased at the price of chains and slavery.” Henry uses exclamatory statements to continue the speech’s tone of emotional empowerment so that the ending line: “give me liberty or give me death!” despite being a false dichotomy, helped spark the Revolutionary War. Hitler, like Henry, utilized pathos to create negative emotions in the audience. Hitler characterized Germany as victimized, “deceived,” and peaceful, while personifying the enemy, Great Britain as selfish, “capitalistic,” and “warmongering.” Hitler’s characterization of Germany and Great Britain, though factually inaccurate, served to ignite and emotionally charge the German citizens he was addressing, leading to increased support in the leadership of the Third Reich and support of World War II.

King, in I Have a Dream, and Lincoln, in the Gettysburg Address, utilize pathos appeal by inspiring a sense of pride in the cause of freedom. Lincoln uses simple, straightforward syntax and diction, stating that “all men are created equal.” Lincoln humbles himself and reveres “the brave men, living and dead, who struggled [at Gettysburg]” so that he inspires a response of emotional pride and humility. King’s use of pathos was also centers around “freedom” and “justice” and uses poetic analogies and powerful statements to bring about an emotional response in the audience. King compares “racial injustice” to “quicksand” and a “sweltering summer,” but “freedom and equality” are characterized as the “solid rock of brotherhood” and “an invigorating autumn.” These comparisons serve to emotionally charge the audience, filling the listeners with vigor and hope. King furthers that objective with solid, powerful statements that embody the purpose of his speech. The mantras “I have a dream” and “let freedom ring” were so emotionally powerful that they are now sees as slogans for the civil rights movement. Both King and Lincoln use pathos appeal in their speeches to create emotional responses in their audiences, inspiring a powerful reverence for freedom.

When these speeches were first given, they were not met with the reception that the writers intended: in the case of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, the response was awe, and in the case of Hitler’s Victory Will be Ours, Henry’s speech to the Virginia Convention, and King’s I Have a Dream speech, the response was roars of applause. Each of the four speeches resulted in momentous actions. Henry’s masterful use of rhetoric made his speech to the Virginia Convention one of the most influential speeches in the colonists’ decision to break free from Great Britain. Lincoln’s reverent and emotionally touching Gettysburg Address helped unite the torn Union. Hitler’s well-crafted Victory Will be Ours speech kindled the German people’s hatred of the British and thus fueled World War II. King’s eloquent I Have a Dream speech propelled forward the civil rights movement. These works are not just historical texts because they inspired actions, they created history.

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