Words are powerful, capable even of changing the course of history. They can win wars or prevent them. They can impart comforting knowledge in the face of adversity and inspire others to great feats and great discoveries. They can set people free, or at least set them on a path to freedom. Here, we’ve highlighted eight famous quotes that have changed history, from the rousing words of Elizabeth I to an impassioned plea for equality and justice by Nelson Mandela.
I know I have the body but of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm.
— Queen Elizabeth I
In 1588, while awaiting an expected invasion by the Spanish Armada, Queen Elizabeth I addressed her troops gathered at Tilbury, England. Elizabeth, dressed in a white velvet dress and wearing a breastplate, rode among her troops upon a gray horse, cutting an almost mythical figure. While her rousing speech didn’t directly affect the outcome of the failed Armada, the English had a newfound faith in their queen, which would help make the small nation a world power.
I hold the sun to be situated motionless in the center of the revolution of the celestial orbs while the earth rotates on its axis and revolves about the sun.
— Galileo Galilei
Heliocentrism — the idea that the Earth and planets revolve around the sun at the center of the universe— had been around since the ancient Greeks. But it was Galileo who first provided proof using a telescope. In 1615, he was investigated by the Roman Inquisition of the Catholic Church for his supposedly heretical beliefs, and spent part of his life under house arrest. Today, he is considered the father of observational astronomy, modern physics, and the scientific method.
That from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
— Abraham Lincoln
On November 19, 1863 — a little over four months after Union armies defeated the Confederacy at the decisive Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War — President Lincoln delivered a short speech in honor of those who died in defense of freedom. The speech was only about 272 words long (the precise wording is disputed), but the Gettysburg Address remains one of the most important speeches in U.S. history and a turning point in the Civil War.
I come to ask you to help to win this fight. If we win it, this hardest of all fights, then, to be sure, in the future it is going to be made easier for women all over the world to win their fight when their time comes.
— Emmeline Pankhurst
When British activist Emmeline Pankhurst traveled to Hartford, Connecticut for an event in November 1913, where she delivered a speech that united suffragists and suffragettes from both nations, bolstering and expanding the fight for women’s voting rights. Her “Freedom or Death” speech is considered one of the most important of her career.
We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.
— Winston Churchill
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill delivered this speech in the House of Commons on June 4, 1940, following the Battle of Dunkirk. With the Allies heroically evacuated from Dunkirk, an invasion of Britain by Nazi Germany was a distinct possibility. It was time for Churchill to rally the nation, and that he certainly did.
We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.
— John F. Kennedy
President John F. Kennedy’s speech at Rice University in 1962 made NASA’s fledgling Apollo program a national priority. In doing so, he paved the way for one of humankind’s greatest achievements: stepping onto the lunar surface in 1969. The speech had far-reaching consequences, not only for the space race but for space exploration for decades to come.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.
— Martin Luther King Jr.
On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered what would become a defining moment of the civil rights movement — and one of the most iconic speeches in U.S. history. King addressed the crowd of some 250,000 civil rights supporters from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, calling for an end to racism in the United States, and civil and economic rights for all citizens.
I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to see realized. But, my lord, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.
— Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela gave his “I Am Prepared to Die” speech from the dock as a defendant at the Rivonia Trial of 1964, in which he and other leading opponents of apartheid went on trial on charges of sabotage, a crime that carried the death penalty. The three-hour speech is considered one of the great speeches of the 20th century, and a rallying cry for racial justice and democratic ideals. Mandela, however, was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. He served 27 years of the sentence, and four years after his release in 1990, he was elected the first Black president of South Africa.