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John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address 1961: Rhetorical Analysis and Summary

It’s time to analyze the inaugural address of US President John F. Kennedy. There are legends about his life and death, movies are made, and books are written. Let’s look behind the screen of the story about the legendary political figure. 

Do you know the quote: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”? It is John F. Kennedy’s most famous quote, delivered by the President at his inauguration in 1961.

In this article, you will learn about the most significant events in the life of US President John F. Kennedy, read some interesting facts about the inaugural speech, and, of course, get acquainted with its detailed analysis and summary.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy Brief Biography

John Fitzgerald Kennedy is the 35th President of the United States, a political and public figure.

John F. Kennedy was born in 1917 in Brookline, Massachusetts. His father Joseph Patrick Kennedy was a wealthy businessman. Through his friendship with Franklin D. Roosevelt, Joseph Kennedy received several federal government appointments.

Joseph sent his sons to the prestigious Choate Boarding School in Connecticut. The teachers spoke of John as a smart, intelligent boy, but he was a mediocre student: he was lazy and did not study if the subject did not arouse his interest. John was fond of literature and poetry, especially Robert Frost. 

In 1937, Joseph Kennedy (John’s father) was appointed the US Ambassador to Great Britain. While studying at Harvard, John continues to be an ordinary student, but everything changes after visits to his father in London. John rethought a lot, seeing what a difficult and tense situation in Europe.

Kennedy finally became interested in politics, history, and international relations. He comes back to Harvard a completely different person. Now John F. Kennedy wants to succeed not only in his studies but also in the student community. Soon he becomes a member of the Hasty Pudding Club, and then the Spee Club, which he was very proud of, and also published in the university newspaper.

After graduating from university in 1940, John F. Kennedy was assigned to the Office of Naval Intelligence. 

During World War II, he operated a fast torpedo boat in the South Pacific. For bravery, John Kennedy was awarded the Purple Heart Medal and the Navy Cross, the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for his heroic actions on August 1–2, 1943.

In 1944, his elder brother Joe was killed in battle. Now all the hopes and expectations from the Kennedy family are directed to John. The war is over and he decides to join the family business and start a political path. 

In 1946, the people of Massachusetts elected John F. Kennedy to the US House of Representatives. This event was the start of his further successful political career.

In 1952, he went to the Senate, and in 1960, at the age of 43, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was elected president of the United States.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy: Presidency

John F. Kennedy was not only the youngest president in the history of the United States but also the first Catholic president. Many envied his success, others distrusted him because of his age and his religion. Maybe that’s why John F. Kennedy tried to show and prove his strength, especially in relations between the US and the Communist Party, as well as the USSR.

It can be said that John F. Kennedy, in a sense, was unlucky to become president in such difficult time, both for the United States and the world as a whole.

During the Kennedy administration, the country experienced a series of unfortunate events in foreign policy: the Vietnam War, the unsuccessful landing in the Bay of Pigs (a military operation organized with the participation of the US government to overthrow the government of Fidel Castro in Cuba).

A special test for the president was the “Cuban Missile Crisis” in 1962, which practically brought the world to a nuclear war.

There were also problems in US domestic politics, for example, in civil rights. In the south of the country, tension was growing – violence was growing, discrimination against African Americans, all this was aggravated by the inaction and unwillingness of the authorities to change anything.

These events forced Kennedy to take action. Kennedy gave his famous Report to the American People on Civil Rights on national television and radio, launching his initiative for civil rights legislation—to provide equal access to public schools and other facilities, and greater protection of voting rights. His proposals became part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a landmark civil rights and labor law in the United States that outlaws discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex,[a] and national origin.
It prohibits unequal application of voter registration requirements, racial segregation in schools and public accommodations, and employment discrimination.
The act “remains one of the most significant legislative achievements in American history”.


Unfortunately, John F. Kennedy couldn’t enjoy the moment when the Civil Rights Act came into force.

On November 22, 1963, in Dallas, Texas, Lee Harvey Oswald shot Kennedy while riding in a presidential motorcade through Dealey Plaza. John F. Kennedy died from his wounds. 

Analysis of JFK’s Inaugural Address

How the Inaugural Address Was Created

The talent of oratory was not given to John F. Kennedy at birth. Only hard work and continuous practice helped him to achieve such success. Yes, Kennedy, of course, had a personal assistant and adviser, speechwriter Ted Sorensen. But every speech that was written by Sorensen, John repeatedly edited and always made his corrections, as evidenced by archival documents.

John Kennedy and speechwriter Ted Sorensen Inaugural Address
President John F. Kennedy and his speechwriter and adviser Ted Sorensen


Kennedy began preparing for his inaugural address long before January 1961. He asked Ted Sorensen to study and be inspired by Abraham Lincoln’s speech, known as the Gettysburg Address. All the inaugural speeches of previous presidents were re-read, and John F. Kennedy also asked other people, including clergymen, to make suggestions for the text of the future speech.

Like Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy deviated from the text and made 32 spontaneous changes during his inaugural address. One such correction resulted in the most famous quote: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

The inspiration for this quote was the motto of the Choate School where Kennedy studied: “Ask not what your school can do for you – but what you can do for your school.”

After John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech, his rating skyrocketed to 75%.

Interesting Facts About John F. Kennedy’s Inauguration

  • The speech text consists of 1,366 words. It is the shortest inaugural address in US history.
  • It was also the first color television broadcast, gathering almost 60 million people at the screens.
  • It was the first inauguration of a president to feature the poet Robert Frost, whose work Kennedy admired. Robert Frost recited from memory the poem “The Gift Outright”:

The land was ours before we were the land’s 

She was our land more than a hundred years 

Before we were her people. She was ours 

In Massachusetts, in Virginia, 

But we were England’s, still colonials, 

Possessing what we still were unpossessed by, 

Possessed by what we now no more possessed. 

Something we were withholding made us weak 

Until we found out that it was ourselves 

We were withholding from our land of living, 

And forthwith found salvation in surrender. 

Such as we were we gave ourselves outright 

(The deed of gift was many deeds of war) 

To the land vaguely realizing westward, 

But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced, 

Such as she was, such as she will become.

The love of literature helped and led John F. Kennedy to create his own masterpiece – a special speech that has been admired by many generations.

Rhetorical Analysis of JFK’s Inaugural Speech: The Rhythm of the Speech

John F. Kennedy alternates between long sentences and short sentences, thus holding the attention of the listeners. The speech is fresh and interesting; without monotony and sameness.

In the following fragment, for example, the first sentence is simply huge. It opens up gradually, like a nesting doll, and the paragraph ends with a short phrase-accent: 

“Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage, and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty. This much we pledge—and more.”

The tone of JFK Inaugural Address 

John Kennedy’s inaugural address does not contain complicated terms and intricate expressions. It is simple and clear.

Because, first of all, the president spoke to the people, to all Americans, to unite, support and guide, strengthen their faith and instill hope. For this, professional vocabulary and terminology are not needed. Therefore, the words in the inaugural address are simple, and none of them require additional clarifications.

What Rhetorical Devices Did John Kennedy Use in Inaugural Address? (Figures and Tropes)

JFK Inaugural Address: rhetorical analysis
JFK Inaugural Address: rhetorical analysis

John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address is based on two rhetorical figures of speech – antithesis and parallelism, and they are closely intertwined with each other. Other speech figures and literary tropes complement the text and give it different colors.

This is how the President begins his speech, and here you can see the use of both antithesis and parallelism:

“We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom, symbolizing an end as well as a beginning, signifying renewal as well as change.” 

So, let’s look at what rhetorical figures of speech and tropes John F. Kennedy used in the text of his famous inaugural address, what they mean, and, of course, examples:

  1. Antithesis is the opposition of words, concepts, and images that are interconnected by common features (contrast).

The most striking example of antithesis is Kennedy’s famous quote:

“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

More examples of using an antithesis in the text:

  • “Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.”
  • “We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom…”
  • “not because the communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right.”
  • “Not as a call to bear arms… not as a call to battle.., but a call to bear the burden…”

2. Parallelism is the identical or the same construction of various words or sentences of the text:

“United there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided there is little we can do…”

3. Alliteration is the repetition of the same consonants in several words:

  • Let us go forth to lead the land we love…”
  • Pay any price, bear any burden…” 

4. Metaphor is a hidden comparison, the use of words in a figurative sense based on similarity and analogy with the characteristics of some object or phenomenon (a waterfall of stars, a wall of fire, a pearl of art, a bear of a problem).

Metaphor gives imagery to speech, helps to keep the listener’s attention, and influencing their imagination. John F. Kennedy used this technique repeatedly: 

  • “And if a beachhead of cooperation may push back the jungle of suspicion…”;
  • “the bonds of mass misery”;
  • “the chains of poverty”. 

5. Personification is the transfer of the properties and qualities of a person to inanimate objects:

  • “To our sister republics south of our border…” 
  • “But this peaceful revolution of hope cannot become the prey of hostile powers.” 
  • “the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science engulf all humanity in planned or accidental self-destruction…”
  • “… the glow from that fire can truly light the world.”

6. A paradox is an expression in which the conclusion does not coincide with the premise and does not follow from it, but, on the contrary, contradicts it, giving an unexpected interpretation: 

“Only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed.”

7. Lexical repetition is a rhetorical figure that consists of the deliberate repetition of the same word or speech construction in a visible section of the text.

“…not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are…”;

“For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life.”

8. Anaphora is the repetition of the same initial words or sound combinations. 

Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us. Let both sides, for the first time, formulate serious and precise proposals for the inspection and control of arms, and bring the absolute power to destroy other nations under the absolute control of all nations. Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors.

Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths and encourage the arts and commerce. Let both sides unite to heed in all corners of the earth the command of Isaiah to “undo the heavy burdens . . . (and) let the oppressed go free.” 

9. Allusion is a kind of hint, analogy, or reference to a well-known historical event, it can also be a catchphrase or quote.

The text for the inaugural address was inspired by President Abraham Lincoln’s speeches. Therefore, it is not surprising that Kennedy used allusion. In this case, it is a reference to Lincoln’s phrase “the last best hope of earth.” John Kennedy modified this phrase and created a new meaning, calling the UN “last best hope”: 

“To that world assembly of sovereign states, the United Nations, our last best hope in an age where the instruments of war have far outpaced the instruments of peace.”

10. Antimetabole is a repetition of words in successive clauses, but in a different order, so the meaning changes: 

“Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.”

11. Polysyndeton is the repeated use of the coordinating conjunctions:

“formulate serious and precise proposals for the inspection and control of arms, and bring the absolute power to destroy other nations…”

Inaugural Address: Summary and Main Points of the JFK’s Speech

In the first part of the inaugural address, Kennedy paints a picture of the world:

The world is very different now, for man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe — the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.”

John F. Kennedy addresses allied countries, fraternal countries, and enemy states. 

By the way, how subtly and politically correct Kennedy speaks of “enemies”, giving a chance for freedom of choice and the opportunity to change this choice:

“Finally, to those nations who would make themselves our adversary, we offer not a pledge but a request: that both sides begin anew the quest for peace.”

In the second part, John F. Kennedy encourages people from all corners of the world to unite, to create a new world order together, and proposes to complete the following steps for this:

“Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths and encourage the arts and commerce. Let both sides unite to heed in all corners of the earth the command of Isaiah to “undo the heavy burdens . . . (and) let the oppressed go free.” And if a beachhead of cooperation may push back the jungle of suspicion, let both sides join in creating a new endeavor, not a new balance of power, but a new world of law, where the strong are just and the weak secure and the peace preserved.”

I hope this analysis of John F. Kennedy’s speech has piqued your interest in reading the full text of the legendary inaugural address.

You can read also post “Analysis and Key Points of the US Declaration of Independence 1776”.


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