For this post, I will be analyzing John F. Kennedy’s 1961 Inaugural Address with a Neo-Aristotelian approach.
On January 20, 1961, John F. Kennedy was sworn in as President of the United States and gave one of the most famous inaugural speeches in U.S. history. On the balcony of the Capitol Building in Washington D.C., Kennedy spoke to both his supporters and those who didn’t vote for him in order to gain the trust of the American people. The location is important because many other presidents before Kennedy have been sworn in at the exact same location, continuing a pattern of American history.
Throughout the many different voters at the time, Kennedy’s primary audience would have to be the people who did not vote for him – his address is a perfect way to unify all of the United States and help citizens feel better about his Presidency. In preparing for this moment, he sought both to inspire the nation and to send a message abroad signaling the challenges of the Cold War and his hope for peace in the nuclear age. The exigency of this speech surrounds the Cold War and the fears of the American people surrounding nuclear tactics.
The Five Canons
Kennedy uses a lot of artistic proofs in his speech, particularly emphasizing ethos and pathos. The entire speech surrounds a strong appeal to ethics – not only his own ethics but those of American citizens. He makes strong arguments surrounding the core of common American values and uses those values to convince his audience to make a change in the United States. He appeals to the shared background of this proud and disciplined generation of “heirs of [our] first revolution” and asserts that this generation will prove their patriotic loyalty by leading America to join in the effort to assure the “survival and success of liberty”. He assures that all Americans are members of the great American ‘melting pot’ whether they were born here or not. While we may have different ethnic or racial backgrounds, all who live in this proud country are all people who believe in values such as liberty, freedom, and justice. We are all descendants or supporters of the brave patriots who fought in the revolutionary war to stand for these same principles, and by referencing this shared heritage, Kennedy is able to further unite the American people.
His address is arranged accordingly to the ideas he presents throughout – he starts with addressing those around him – “Vice President Johnson, Mr. Speaker, Mr. Chief Justice, President Eisenhower, Vice President Nixon, President Truman, Reverend Clergy, fellow citizens:” and then moves on to talk to his audience. The address moves on to the differences between the time of the speech and the past and how Americans must embrace and combat that change. “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.” He then moves on to address different parts of the world and talk on how they should be unified and allied together. He emphasizes the importance of time and emphasizes the strength of the country.
The style of this speech may be what makes it so iconic – Kennedy uses a lot of amplification, parallelism, and anaphora that have deemed to be memorable lines since. One of the most famous lines in the speech is, “And so, my fellow Americans:
ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country.”That line is an example of parallelism. Another example is the line, “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.”
Along with style, an important device Kennedy used to make his speech memorable is repetition. He emphasizes the words “we” and “us” to spark a feeling of unity. He also adopted the same style of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address by uses short but convincing sentences. The repetition of phrases like, “Let both sides … Let both sides … Let both sides …” puts an emphasis on unity once again, which was the main idea of the address.
When watching the speech, you can tell Kennedy cared about what he was saying. His delivery was not only articulate but passionate and convincing. He comes across as patriotic and ambitious. When referencing any hardships with other countries, rather than sounding harsh or stern, he is genuine.
Effect and Implications
It’s important to note that Kennedy wanted to emphasize how he did not want to go to war but wanted to negotiate peace. He also didn’t want any trace of partisanship in the speech because he believed that he was the president of all parties, not just the Democratic party. Kennedy knew of the great importance of this speech since he won the election by one of the smallest popular vote margins in history. People who witnessed the speech or heard it broadcast over television and radio praised him – elementary school kids even wrote to him with their reactions to his ideas. Following his inaugural address, nearly seventy-five percent of Americans expressed approval of him and his ideas because of how well he expressed his morals and values.