Inaugural address of John F. Kennedy

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A video of Kennedy giving his inaugural address after being sworn in as the thirty-fifth President of the United States on January 20, 1961

U.S. President John F. Kennedy delivered his only inaugural address at 12:51 (ET) Friday, January 20, 1961,[1] immediately after taking the presidential oath of office administered by Chief Justice Earl Warren.[2]


John F. Kennedy was nominated as the Democratic candidate for the presidency in the 1960 presidential election, defeating Republican candidate and Vice President Richard Nixon. In doing so he became the youngest man elected U.S. president and the first Roman Catholic president, but not the youngest president.[3]

By a twist of fate, Kennedy, in replacing Dwight D. Eisenhower, then 70, made the youngest elected president replace the oldest to serve at that time (Ronald Reagan surpassed Eisenhower as the oldest president to serve in 1981.[4]).[5]

Inaugural address[edit]

President John F. Kennedy delivers his inaugural address.

Kennedy took the oath of office at at 12:51 (ET) Friday, 20 January 1961,[1][6] and gave the speech afterwards.[2]

The address is 1364 words and took 13 minutes and 42 seconds to deliver, from the first word to the last word, not including applause at the end, making it the fourth-shortest inaugural address ever delivered. The speech was also the first inaugural address delivered to a televised audience in color.[7] It is widely considered to be among the best presidential inauguration speeches in American history.[8]


President John F. Kennedy

The speech was crafted by Kennedy and his speech writer Ted Sorenson. Kennedy had Sorenson study President Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address as well as other inaugural speeches.[9] Kennedy began collecting thoughts and ideas for his inauguration speech in late November 1960. He took suggestions from various friends, aides and counselors, including suggestions from clergymen for biblical quotations. Kennedy then made several drafts using his own thoughts and some of those suggestions.[10] Kennedy included in his speech several suggestions made by Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith and by the former Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson II. Kennedy's line "Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate." is nearly identical to Galbraith's suggestion "We shall never negotiate out of fear. But we shall never fear to negotiate." Stevenson's suggestion "if the free way of life doesn’t help the many poor of this world it will never save the few rich." was the basis for Kennedy's line "If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich."[11]

Main ideas of the speech[edit]

As a president coming into power at the height of the Cold War, JFK's duty of both representing the United States as a force to be reckoned with while maintaining peaceful international relations was daunting, at the very least. It is this overarching goal of his presidential term that dominates his inaugural address. Kennedy highlights the newly discovered dangers of nuclear power coupled with the accelerating arms race, and essentially makes the main point that this focus on pure firepower should be replaced with a focus on maintenance of international relations and helping the impoverished in the world. [12] Based on these, it appears that Kennedy's main goal in the speech was to emphasize optimism and idealism in a time of constant panic and anxiety.

Rhetorical elements[edit]

The main focus of the speech can crudely be boiled down to one theme – the relationship between duty and power. [13] This is emphasized by Kennedy's strong use of juxtaposition in the first part of the speech. For example, he states in the second passage, "...Man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life," a clear calling-out of not only America, but also other nations of power for skewed Cold War priorities. He again employs the strategy in the fifth passage when he says, "United there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative adventures. Divided there is little we can do," again appealing to the idea of refocusing of international values. [14]

One of the main components of classical rhetoric, to prepon (the appropriate), is also extremely prevalent in this address. [15]Recognizing the fear and anxiety prevalent in the American people since the start of the Cold War, Kennedy geared his speech to have an optimistic and even idealistic tone as a means of providing comfort. He does this by quickly moving the time of the speech into the future, and invokes repetition of the phrase "Let both sides..." to allude to how he plans to deal with strained relations while also appealing to the end goal of international unity. He also phrases negative ideas in a manner so as to present them as opportunities – a challenge, appealing to innately American ideals. A great line to emphasize this is in the fourth from last passage, where he states, "In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger," a simple twist of words that challenges the American public rather than frightening them.

Finally, one cannot discuss John F. Kennedy's inaugural address without mentioning his famous words, "ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." This use of chiasmus can be seen even as a thesis statement of his speech – a call to action for the public to do what is right for the greater good.

Inauguration day[edit]

The eve of the address was marked by heavy snow, but plans made to cancel the address were overridden.[2] After attending the Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Georgetown, Kennedy headed towards the U.S. Capitol building accompanied by President Dwight Eisenhower to the inaugural ceremony.[2]

Robert Frost attended the inaugural ceremonies, and brought a handwritten poem titled Dedication meant for the President. Although Frost had planned to read aloud a typed copy of the poem at the ceremonies, the sun glare reflecting off the heavy snow that fell the night before made it difficult to read.[16][17] Frost then recited by memory The Gift Outright, and handed the original handwritten version of Dedication to John and his wife Jacqueline, who framed the poem and wrote on the back: For Jack. First thing I had framed to be put in your office. First thing to be hung there.[16]

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The full inaugural address made by John F. Kennedy after being sworn in as the thirty-fifth President of the United States on January 20, 1961. (Duration:14 minutes)

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The most famous passage from the inaugural address is etched in stone at Kennedy's gravesite in Arlington National Cemetery, with the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument in the background.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "White House Diaries". John F. Kennedy Library and Museum. Retrieved January 8, 2008. 
  2. ^ a b c d "John F. Kennedy Inaugural Address". Bartleby. Retrieved January 8, 2008. 
  3. ^ "World War II and a Future in Politics", John F. Kennedy, The 35th President of the United States, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, p. 3, retrieved May 5, 2010 
  4. ^ Reuters (May 17, 1981). "Reagan Now Oldest President". The New York Times. p. 28. 
  5. ^ Lawrence, W.H. (January 21, 1961). "Kennedy Sworn in, Asks 'Global Alliance' Against Tyranny, Want, Disease, and War; Republicans and Diplomats Hail Address". The New York Times. p. 1. 
  6. ^ "Kennedy Was in Office Despite Delay in Oath". The New York Times. January 21, 1961. p. 13. 
  7. ^ Wolly, Brian (17 December 2008). "History & Archaeology: Inaugural Firsts – When was the first inaugural parade? Who had the longest inaugural address? A look at presidential inaugurations through time". Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved 26 January 2013. 
  8. ^ Kennedy, John Fitzgerald. "Inaugural Address". American Rhetoric. Retrieved July 7, 2008. 
  9. ^ JFK Library. "Analyzing the Inaugural Address". Retrieved January 21, 2011. 
  10. ^ National Archives and Records Administration. "John F. Kennedy's inaugural address, 1961". Retrieved January 29, 2008. 
  11. ^ "Analyzing the Rhetoric of JFK’s Inaugural Address". Department of Education and Public Programs, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. Retrieved 8 January 2013. 
  12. ^ "John F. Kennedy Inaugural Address". Bartleby. Retrieved October 4, 2013.
  13. ^ "The Timeless Speech: A Close Textual Analysis of John F. Kennedy's Inaugural". Biane. Retrieved October 5, 2013.
  14. ^ "Text Analysis, John F. Kennedy, 1961." Cruz. Retrieved October 5, 2013
  15. ^ "Toward a Sophistic Definition of Rhetoric." Poulakos. Philosophy and Rhetoric 16(1983):35–48.
  16. ^ a b "Robert Frost's Original Poem for JFK's Inauguration Finds Way to Kennedy Presidential Library". John F. Kennedy Library and Museum. Retrieved January 8, 2008. 
  17. ^ "The Poetry of Robert Frost". Library of Congress. Retrieved May 5, 2010. 

External links[edit]