The John F. Kennedy Centenary

By Benjamin Shapell, Sara Willen | May 23, 2017

Add to History Board Share Print
President John F. Kennedy delivers his inaugural address after taking the oath of office on Jan. 20, 1961. AP.

Most Americans know three of them by heart. Scant phrases which, though spoken in the most ritualistic and formal of settings, commonly define an age, and a speaker. “With malice toward none” Lincoln said in his second inaugural address, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Nothing to fear but fear itself” in his first. John F. Kennedy, whose centenary is celebrated this month, uttered the third such phrase at his only inauguration and it is, in popular memory, recalled the most simply: “Ask not.” Of course, that is not the whole of the quotation, or the whole story, which is told here…

The seventeen most inspiring words in 20th century American history were spoken by John F. Kennedy, around mid-day, on January 20, 1961, in Washington, D.C. The occasion was his Presidential Inauguration, and came as he was concluding his Inaugural Address.  Kennedy, the first President born in the 20th century, and 27 years younger than his predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, had just declared that the torch had 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 pledged to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Then he spoke the seventeen words –

“And so, my fellow Americans: Ask not what your country can do for you –  ask what you can do for your country.”

Those words, when first heard over a half-century ago, were positively electrifying. No president had ever challenged citizens, in peacetime, to sacrifice or commit to a larger vision. With that single sentence, Kennedy inspired people to new possibilities. He raised their expectations of themselves, and of their nation. In response, some joined the Peace Corps, others the Green Berets; thousands flocked to Washington to be part of the “New Frontier.” Students, thinking ahead to government service, went to law school or into programs with social benefit. All across the country, Kennedy’s words changed lives.  “It was a special time,” a Senator remembered years later. “Lord, I’ve never had such a feeling before or since then. It was marvelous; without living it, you can’t express it. It gave the country a lift; it gave the world a lift. People cried in the dusty streets of Africa when he died.” All because of, really, seventeen simple words of inspiration.

~

Scholars of Kennedy’s Inaugural Address – and there are, as in most things Kennedy, a plethora of them – have tried for years to ascertain the “authorship” of its most famous phrase. Some give JFK sole credit, some say the line was speechwriter Ted Sorenson’s, and yet still others deduce that inasmuch as Kennedy and Sorenson working on a speech together were closer than the head is to the pillow, the question is moot. Nonetheless, the line did not appear out of nowhere: Kennedy had used a version of it at least a half-dozen times before. It first appeared in his famous July 15, 1960 “New Frontier” speech accepting the presidential nomination at the National Democratic Convention in Los Angeles [also in the Shapell Manuscript Collection]. There he proclaimed “The New Frontier… sums up not what I intend to offer the American people, but what I intend to ask of them.” Over the next four months, Kennedy, speaking both extemporaneously and from written texts, tinkered over and over with the wording of the challenge he would issue on Inauguration Day. Using a rhetorical device first made popular by the ancient Hebrews –  adopted by the Greeks and then the Romans, who called it, in Latin, “chiasmus” – Kennedy honed his phrase. In one speech, it was “It is not what I promise I will do; it is what I ask you to join me in doing.” In another, “I do not run for the Presidency emphasizing the services that I am going to bring to you. I run emphasizing the services which the American people must offer their country.” Back and forth, longer and shorter, until finally, two days before his Inauguration, he had the single sentence he knew would always be remembered.

Scholars of Kennedy’s Inaugural Address – and there are, as in most things Kennedy, a plethora of them – have tried for years to ascertain the “authorship” of its most famous phrase. Some give JFK sole credit, some say the line was speechwriter Ted Sorenson’s, and yet still others deduce that inasmuch as Kennedy and Sorenson working on a speech together were closer than the head is to the pillow, the question is moot. Nonetheless, the line did not appear out of nowhere: Kennedy had used a version of it at least a half-dozen times before. It first appeared in his famous July 15, 1960 “New Frontier” speech accepting the presidential nomination at the National Democratic Convention in Los Angeles [also in the Shapell Manuscript Collection]. There he proclaimed “The New Frontier… sums up not what I intend to offer the American people, but what I intend to ask of them.” Over the next four months, Kennedy, speaking both extemporaneously and from written texts, tinkered over and over with the wording of the challenge he would issue on Inauguration Day. Using a rhetorical device first made popular by the ancient Hebrews –  adopted by the Greeks and then the Romans, who called it, in Latin, “chiasmus” – Kennedy honed his phrase. In one speech, it was “It is not what I promise I will do; it is what I ask you to join me in doing.” In another, “I do not run for the Presidency emphasizing the services that I am going to bring to you. I run emphasizing the services which the American people must offer their country.” Back and forth, longer and shorter, until finally, two days before his Inauguration, he had the single sentence he knew would always be remembered.

By January 18th, in the draft of the Address which he took with him to the podium on Inauguration Day, was the “master sentence” toward which the speech built. Some say he had first heard a version of it as a teenager, when his prep school headmaster, borrowing the notion from no less than Cicero. Others speculate the core phrasing came from an Oliver Wendell Holmes speech; but Kennedy, an avid reader since childhood and drawn to political philosophy all his life, didn’t need to copy anyone else’s words. He had been writing his own, as a published author, since college. The citizens of a democracy, he believed, had a responsibility to contribute their best efforts to its survival. This thought had been with him a long time, all the way back, at least, to 1945, when he jotted in a notebook a quote from Rousseau: ”As soon as any man says of the affairs of state, What does it matter to me? The state may be given up as lost.” So on January 20th, 1961 in Washington, D.C., John F. Kennedy put a positive version of that concept to the American people, and for a 1,000 days after that, it lit up lives across the globe.

JOHN FITZGERALD KENNEDY. 1917 – 1963. The 35th President of the United  States. Of his famous Inaugural Address, House Speaker Sam Rayburn said: “That speech he made out there was better than anything Franklin Roosevelt said at his best – it was better than Lincoln. I think – really think – that he is a man of destiny.”

Autograph Quotation Signed, as President, being the “Ask not” quote from his Inaugural Address, 1 page, quarto, The White House, Washington, no date. Of the greatest rarity. From the estate of General Maxwell Taylor.