Voices from the Past
Of late, I have been listening to historic audio recordings online. There is something haunting about hearing the voices and sounds of a world that one generally experiences only in print. Consider, for example the earliest recorded human voice, made in France in 1860. When this almost entirely incomprehensible bit of sound was captured, the election that would put Lincoln in the White House and split apart the country was raging on the other side of the Atlantic.
Thirty-seven years later, Wilford Woodruff, the president of the Mormon church who abandoned polygamy in 1890, recorded this statement of his religious beliefs. Four years later in 1901 Booker T. Washington made this speech on “The American Negro” and William Jennings Bryan denounced imperialism. (Here is a 1921 re-recording of his famous “Cross of Gold” speech, originally given in 1896, a year before Woodruff’s recording was made.)
On the other side of the Atlantic, in 1908 Christabel Harriette Pankhurst, one of the so-called “militant suffragettes,” justified protests and civil disobedience to get votes for women, and a year later David Lloyd George, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, defended the so-called “People’s Budget” of 1909, which marked the beginning of the British welfare state.
Here is a 1912 recording of Theodore Roosevelt in which he makes the case for vigorous trust-busting authority. Notice the nasally quality to his voice. This was pretty common among 19th and early 20th century orators, as it allowed their voices to be heard farther without the benefit of loud speakers. Later in the decade V.I. Lenin gave this speech (in Russian) about a fallen comrade. At the time of the speech, the civil war precipitated by the October Revolution still raged across Russia.
In 1931, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. made this recording on his 90th birthday giving his thoughts on life, struggle, work, and his impending death. A few years later, FDR won re-election in the campaign of 1936 and gave this “fireside chat” on his plans to tame the federal judiciary. Four years later, in the summer of 1940 Winston Churchill spoke to the House of Commons in the aftermath of Dunkirk, declaring “We will never surrender!” It still counts, in my mind, as the most heroic moment of political rhetoric and statesmanship in the twentieth century, and one of the great moments of all time. I get goose bumps listening to it, despite Churchill’s lisp.
Finally, in honor of yesterday’s anniversary, I offer this, less historical, recording of Reagan’s challenge, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Another of the great moments of 20th century political oratory.