In the footsteps of Lincoln, Gandhi, Gorbachev

Word power: Lincoln, Gandhi, and Gorbachev delivered speeches that changed the world.

Is this one of those turning points in history? This was the week a British prime minister declared a state of emergency and called on a nation to come together to fight a deadly enemy.

All non-essential shops closed. Gatherings of more than two people banned. “Stay at home, protect the NHS, and save lives.”

Never in peacetime has a UK prime minister had to make a speech like this one.

If this sounds overly dramatic, it is worth remembering that some of the most important speeches in history were overlooked at the time.

When President Abraham Lincoln stood up on 19 November 1863 in the town of Gettysburg, he wasn’t even the main speaker. He was there to commemorate the bloodiest battle in the American Civil War.

His rousing defence of a “government of the people, by the people, for the people” united a war-weary country at a critical time, and is now remembered as one of the greatest speeches ever made.

Often many years pass before we realise the significance of an event. In 1942, Mahatma Gandhi called on Indians to “do or die” and resist the British Empire with peaceful civil disobedience.

Great speeches also end wars. In 1988, the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev stunned his audience at the United Nations when he announced Russian troops would leave Eastern Europe. Within twelve months of Gorbachev’s speech, the Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet Union collapsed, and the Cold War was over.

So, will history remember Boris Johnson’s speech in the same way?

A turn of phrase

Some say this is indeed a historic moment. Boris Johnson looked uncomfortable as he warned that “gatherings will be dispersed” – a draconian announcement, unthinkable a few weeks ago. But his words united us in a common objective.

Others say we should wait and see. Words only count if they are followed by action. If people continue to ignore his calls to stay at home and the police struggle to enforce the measures, his speech will be remembered for all the wrong reasons.

You Decide

  1. Can history be changed with just a few words?


  1. Start a lockdown diary. Make it physical – as in a paper notebook, filled in daily – with pen or pencil. Describe the small things. (When you are old, you will treasure this and so will your children.)

Some People Say...

“Speech is power: speech is to persuade, to convert, to compel. It is to bring another out of his bad sense into your good sense.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), American writer

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Many experts believed it was only a matter of time before the UK joined the rest of Europe in a full lockdown to halt the spread of coronavirus. However, these are the biggest changes in the way people live since the end of WW2. Freedom of movement, the right to public space, and the right to work are all key values in a democracy. Removing these freedoms is a huge step for a government to make.
What do we not know?
Extreme measures and bold words will only work if they come at the right time. The UK government has been careful not to act too early, but many think it may have left it too late. Already critics are saying Boris Johnson did not go far enough, whilst others fear the measures will be ignored. As with other important events in history, it will be many years before we can see the full picture and know whether this speech really was the turning point of the crisis.

Word Watch

Abraham Lincoln
The 16th president of the US, Lincoln was assassinated six days after the end of the civil war.
The Battle of Gettysburg in 1863 was a decisive victory for the Union against the southern states and a major turning point in the war.
To honour, remember, and celebrate.
American Civil War
A major conflict between the northern and southern states over the right of white citizens to own black slaves. The southern pro-slavery states attempted to break away from the US, but were defeated in 1865.
Exciting, inspiring, and encouraging people to take action.
Tired, bored of war.
Here, it means very important.
Mahatma Gandhi
Indian lawyer and campaigner for the independence of Indian from the British Empire.
British Empire
The British ruled India between 1858 and 1947.
Civil disobedience
Gandhi promoted non-violent protest instead of armed resistance. His methods inspired many future movements, from American civil rights to the global campaign for action on climate crisis.
Mikhail Gorbachev
A Russian politician and the last leader of the Soviet Union.
Soviet Union
A collection of states controlled by communist Russia between 1922 and 1991.
Cold War
A period of political tension between the Soviet Union and the US and both their allies after World War Two, between 1947 and 1991.
Made to go in different directions.
Laws that are seen as particularly harsh or severe.

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