Historical Speech Analysis

Historical Speech Analysis

Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel’s speech ‘The Perils of Indifference,’ is presented as part of the Millennium Lecture Series at the White House, in the presence of then, President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton. His speech is mainly based on his own story and about the violence and indifference of the past and present. I analyzed this speech using the five canons of rhetoric: Invention, Disposition, Style, Memory, and Delivery. This speech addresses the five canons of rhetoric for an exceptional and powerful speech in the history.


A speech is inefficient if it does not have the relevant information to impact the audience positively. The canon of invention provides guidelines for creating your speech content (Jaffe 2016). This canon deals with the purpose and gathering of materials for the speech. Elie Wiesel chose a very sensitive topic for his speech. He gave a speech focusing on his own life, world wars, concentration camps and Nazism to make share his ideas. It is evident throughout the speech that Elie Wiesel considered his audience. He also questioned the President and the audience several times. At the beginning of the speech, he mentions and welcomes his audience by saying, “Mr. President, Mrs. Clinton, members of Congress, Ambassador Holbrooke, Excellencies, friends.” He had to be very careful as he is delivering a speech on a sensitive topic in front of government delegates. Although he complains about Franklin Delano Roosevelt about sending back Jews back to Nazi-occupied Germany, he is calm and humbly expressed his thoughts, analyzing the audience. He questions, “And that ship, which is already in the shores of the United States, is sent back. I don’t understand. Roosevelt is a good man, with a heart. He understood those who needed help. Why didn’t he allow these refugees to disembark?” He takes the audience back to the horrendous events from the past and conveys his vision for a better future, this part deals with the emotions of the audience and would instantly grab their attention. The general purpose of this speech is to inform. Elie Wiesel has done some immense research on the topics he is to present. He proves his research by stating facts, for example, he says, “It has been suggested, and it is documented, that the Wehrmacht could not have conducted its invasion of France without oil obtained from American sources.” The immense research is what makes the speech reliable.


The credible information would be hard to interpret if the content is disorganized. After gathering all the information for the speech, organizing the information in a sensible way are components of the canon of disposition or arrangement. The canon of disposition involves the arrangement of speech into three broad categories: introduction, main-body, and conclusion. Elie Wiesel starts his speech by welcoming his guests, and the introduction consists of his own story where he talks about how he is saved by the American soldiers and thanks the president for his part. He says, “And now, I stand before you, Mr. President — Commander-in-Chief of the army that freed me, and tens of thousands of others — and I am filled with a profound and abiding gratitude to the American people.” He starts off with a personal example, to show his audience about how rough the past is due to the war and violence. The transition from the introduction to the body is smooth as he starts off by questioning the “legacy” of the past. The body starts off by various questions that puzzle the listeners and leaves the listeners craving for answers. For example, “What are its courses and inescapable consequences? Is it a philosophy? Is there a philosophy of indifference conceivable? Can one possibly view indifference as a virtue?” He talks about the indifference and its consequences. The body paragraph discusses mainly how a small indifference can change the life of a person. He gives two examples to prove his point. The first example is about his rescue from the Nazis and being a Nobel Laureate. Another example he gives in the speech about the 1,000 Jews who were denied entry into America and were sent back to Nazi-occupied Germany. He explains the different aspects of indifference. Examples connected the ideas of the speech. He connects the entire body with questions regarding the indifferences in people and about how it becomes inhumane. He says, “Indifference is not a beginning; it is an end…Indifference, then, is not only a sin, it is a punishment.” He connects his ideas in a way that makes it easy for the listeners to understand. All his ideas are based on a word, i.e., “indifference.” By giving these examples, differences, and similarities, he grabs his audience’s attention towards him. The transition from the body to the conclusion is evident as he questions the listeners about whether or not we have learnt to become “human” from the past. The conclusion meets the rhetoric claims for an effective conclusion as he refers to the introduction and summarizes the main points in the speech. He says, “Some of them — so many of them — could be saved…And so, once again, I think of the young Jewish boy from the Carpathian Mountains. He has accompanied the old man I have become throughout these years of quest and struggle.” This also serves as a final memorable statement. The use of connectives and excellent organizational pattern throughout the speech is evident, and these ideas make this speech a great historical speech.


Every speaker has their way or style of communicating. The canon of style contains principles for using language effectively in both speaking and writing (Jaffe, 2016). Elie Wiesel’s speech is well-written grammatically, and choice of vocabulary is flawless and very formal. Using concrete and straightforward words help the listeners understand easily. He chose right words in his speech and only some of the words were technical, and they were mostly, names of places. His choice of words is flawless, and he made sure he did not offend anyone in the audience. The major highlight in the speech is he gave the general definition of words like “indifference” and “gratitude,” which makes it easier for listeners to understand. He is being very careful of what he is saying since he chose a very sensitive topic. He used several figures of speech, for example, “…indifference is always the friend of the enemy…” He uses paradox in this line to convey an idea that indifference could indirectly affect us. He avoids slang expressions in his entire speech. Elie Wiesel’s speech is more like a conversation between him and his audience. Using a proper style has increased the credibility of the speaker and the ideas being conveyed.

Memory and Delivery

Although the previous three canons are important in speech making, the canon of memory and delivery is very important because it is these canons deals with conveying the speaker’s ideas to the audience. The canon of memory includes four methods of delivering speeches; they are memorized, manuscript, impromptu and extemporaneous delivery. Elie Wiesel read his speech from paper, which is called the manuscript delivery. It is the best method for delivering this type of speech because it involves a lot of examples and historical events. The canon of delivery is important because, this is the part where the audience look at the speaker, judge the content and grasp the ideas or concepts. This canon involves the rules or standards for presenting a speech (Jaffe, 2016). Elie Wiesel delivers his speech enthusiastically and with great energy. He genuinely had a conversation with the audience, had frequent eye-contact and showed enormous confidence which increased the credibility of his speech. His body gestures were very limited, that is, he limited his facial expressions and emotions. He shows enormous confidence while delivering the speech. He also refers to people from the audience, for example, “And I am grateful to you, Hillary, or Mrs. Clinton, for what you said, and for what you are doing for children in the world, for the homeless, for the victims of injustice, the victims of destiny and society” and grabs the others attention. He altered his tone frequently every time he questions and when he talks about “death of children every minute.” He also made frequent pauses to ensure that the audience understood his speech.


The five canons of rhetoric are merely the guidelines for a good speech. Through the analysis of Elie Wiesel’s speech, it is evident that the speech met the guidelines for an effective and powerful speech in the history. Elie Wiesel started the speech with an emotional introduction and concluded with the same emotion. He has done great research for the speech and introduced many of his audience to significant historical events. The organization of the speech is perfect with a clear introduction, body, and conclusion. The choice of language, vocabulary and grammar is exceptional and met the requirements of the canon of style.

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