Great American Documents: JFK’s Inaugural Address

Presidential inaugural speeches can define an administration’s character either through the ambitions set forward, the historical context in which they occur, or the contrast with the history that unfolds after the words are spoken.  President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration on January 20, 1961 contains one of the most recalled and quoted lines of politics during my life time… well almost, as I was somewhere between a twinkle in my parent’s eyes and the maternity ward.  Being reared in a conservative, Baptist home, I do not recall hearing much about JFK during my formative years.  I was intrigued when I read the speech, now 50 years on. 

The character that first stood out to me, was the number of times that he evokes the concept of the divine in our history and future.  For all the controversy about electing a Papist, I would have anticipated that he would have contained religious references to social cliches.  However, I read a sincerity in his reference (whether I agree or not that God has much to do with politics).   In contrast to our current climate of You-Gotta-Be-More-Born-Again-Than-Your-Opponent God-and-Country rhetoric today,  JFK says “… the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.”

The second quality of his address is his drawing upon the past and looking toward the future, “We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolutions.”  The ideals of the Founders set the basis for the ideals of his administration.  But, JFK recognizes that dreams and ambitions are fulfilled over time, not in 100 or 1000 days, one administration, “… nor perphase in our lifetime…”.

The third aspect is his use of contrasts: “friend and foe”, “tempered by war, disciplined by hard and bitter peace”, “little we cannot do in a host of cooperative adventures.  Divided there is little we can do”, “civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof”, “the final success or failure of our course…”  In using these images, JFK attempts to bring together the poles of opposition to highlight that often the goals are the same, though from different vantage points.

Finally, the most famous line from this address is better understood when placed in its context: “The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it — and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.  And so, my fellow American: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.  My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”  Freedom, liberty, cooperation… what novel concepts compared our lives caught somewhere between bureaucratic regulations and rigid claims to follow the one true way.

The remaining two years of JFK’s life were hardly time to see his ambitions come to pass.  Foes appeared to dominate the global political scheme, rather than cooperative players.  Yet, we have been trying to figure out how to apply the simple principles that Christ held up for our ideals for 2000 years too.

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About hermitsdoor

Up here in the mountains, we have a saying, "You can't get there from here", which really means "We wouldn't go the trouble to do that". Another concept is that "If you don't know, we ain't telling." For the rest, you'll have to read between the lines.
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4 Responses to Great American Documents: JFK’s Inaugural Address

  1. mj monaghan says:

    Very good speech, and thoughtful analysis, Oscar.

    • hermitsdoor says:

      Thanks. I wonder what inspiration we will be hearing in a year? By the tone of the campaign, I suspect that I will have a head ache, whichever candidate wins… was that by 8 votes or 34 votes or we’re not sure. Gosh, the Supreme Courts settled the election before, let’s toss it to them. Or, maybe all those corporations, which are people, can now vote… Does that only include corporations based in the USA, actually paying USA taxes, or do multi-nation corporations and USA corporations which funnel their assets off-shores get to be people too? OH! the state of our country!

  2. The Vicar says:

    “This election was not about electing one person as governor. Rather it was about what we the people collectively elected for the future of our state….. We chose pragmatism and ethics over partisan politics and dysfunction, and we demanded an end to gridlock….. And so in order to return to policies of opportunity and prosperity, we must change the ethics of Albany and end the politics of cynicism and division in our state…. It will require a new brand of politics — a break from the days when progress was measured by the partisan points scored or the opponents defeated. No longer can we afford merely to tinker at the margins of the status quo or play the politics of pitting one group against another…..Lend your sweat, your toil and your passion to the effort of building One New York of which we can all be proud.”

    Gov. Eliot Spitzer, Inaugural Address January 1, 2007

    It seems that dreams are easier to articulate than they are to carry out. Perhaps if we focused on those things that unite us, rather than drawing lines to decide who is “in” and who is “out”, we might establish some common ground, and from there we could build some shared understanding of our differences while living in community.

    It’s easy to look back at JFK’s inaugural speech and long for a simpler time when American’s pulled together with one another. I was also young and not too aware of the political climate in the 1960’s, but it seems like there was a lot of unrest politically, socially, and globally.

    • hermitsdoor says:

      Is this why rhetoric gets a bad reputation? Technically, rhetoric is a style of speech, but more often the connotation is that rhetoric is talking one thing and doing another… Was E. Spitzer the governor in the porn ring? Ethics? Must have had some other idea…

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