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.

It felt like a decisive moment in the fight against coronavirus, but will history look back at Boris Johnson’s “invisible killer” speech as a turning point when everything changed?

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.

After two years of fighting, many longed for peace. But in just 272 words, Lincoln insisted that the “dead shall not have died in vain” and transformed the war into a battle between freedom and slavery.

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.

He and many others were arrested immediately after his speech and spent the rest of the World War Two in jail. But his inspiring words launched the Quit India Movement, which ultimately led to the county’s independence in 1947.

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. For over forty years, Europe and the world had been divided by a power struggle between the capitalist West and the communist East. 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 tired and uncomfortable as he warned that “gatherings will be dispersed” – a draconian announcement, unthinkable a few weeks ago. He acknowledged the fear and anxiety everyone is feeling and the huge scale of the measures needed. And his words united us in a common objective: “To halt the spread of this disease.”

Others say we should wait and see. Words only count if they are followed by action. Boris Johnson has been slow to respond to the unfolding crisis, his measures lagging behind those in Europe. If people continue to ignore his calls to stay at home and the police struggle to enforce the measures, his speech will be forgotten – or remembered for all the wrong reasons.

You Decide

  1. Can mere words change history?
  2. Are YOU going to change history?

Activities

  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.)
  2. It is an eerie time for many. The streets empty. A sense of dread in the air. Write the speech that you would like to make if you had a three-minute slot on the television news. Try it out on an adult in your household later.

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 the 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 core 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 momentous 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.
Gettysburg
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.
Commemorate
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.
Rousing
Exciting, inspiring, and encouraging people to take action.
Mahatma Gandhi
Indian lawyer and campaigner for the independence of India 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, a collection of states controlled by communist Russia between 1922 and 1991.
Draconian
Laws that are seen as particularly harsh or severe.

Subjects

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