“And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you- ask what you can do for your country.”
A short yet iconic line. I bet you just read it in Kennedy’s voice too (I did). On that cold and gloomy January day, the president broke the ice with a message of hope and excitement that inspired millions of Americans and promised a fresh new start for the country. These words are just the tip of the iceberg, and if we dig a little deeper we can use this short sentence to learn a whole lot more about civics, politics, and the changing role of individual Americans in society from the Civil War to today.
Several decades after the inauguration, Bill Moyers reflected on Kennedy’s inspirational rhetoric and personality: “I remember John Kennedy not so much for what he was or what he wasn’t but for what he empowered in me. We all edit history to give some form to the puzzle of our lives, and I cherish the memory of him for awakening me to a different story for myself. He placed my life in a larger narrative than I could ever have written. In his public voice John Kennedy spoke to my generation of service and sharing; he called us to careers of discovery through lives open to others…It was for us not a trumpet but a bell, sounding in countless individual hearts that one clear note that said: “You matter. You can signify. You can make a difference.” Romantic? Yes, there was a romance to it. But we were not then so callous toward romance.” According to Moyers, what Kennedy brought a new perspective on an American’s individual role in improving their society. To the young Kennedy supporter, this message rang much louder and clearer than anything he had ever heard before.
You may be interested to know that although Kennedy’s inaugural call to action sounded new and different from his political contemporaries, it was actually the result many years worth of experience and thinking. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., eminent historian and special assistant to President Kennedy recalled that: “This thought had lain in Kennedy’s mind for a long time. As far back as 1945 he had noted down in a loose leaf notebook a quotation from Rousseau: “As soon as any man says of the affairs of the state, What does it matter to me? the state may be given up as lost.” In his address accepting the democratic nomination in 1960, he said of the New Frontier, “It sums up not what I intend to offer the American people, but what I intend to ask of them.” On September 5 at Cadillac Square in Detroit, Kennedy departed from his prepared text to say “The new frontier is not what I promise I am going to do for you. The new frontier is what I ask you to do for our country.” He continued to polish the thought in the back of his mind until he was ready to put it in final form for the inaugural address.” Continue reading ““Ask What You Can Do For Your Country:” The History of an Inaugural Sentence”
If you remember my post on Currier & Ives and the Nostalgic Past, you’ll remember that I wrote about the sharp divide between the world depicted by Currier & Ives prints and reality. I also wrote about how these images created a nostalgic vision of the world that didn’t reflect reality accurately, kind of like a funhouse mirror (historian Roland Marchand uses the term ‘Zerrspiegel’ to describe this phenomenon among advertisers and commercial artists).
If you recall (or even read) my other post, then you might remember that I quoted a passage from historian Jackson Lears about what nostalgia meant to Americans in the 19th century. I thought it was especially useful in understanding how longings for the past shaped how Americans looked at their lives in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Turns out that Dr. Lears has written another interesting book, “Rebirth of a Nation.” Its a history of the United States from 1877 (end of Reconstruction) to 1922 (not sure yet what he is using as a bookend here). I’m only a few chapters in, and I came across this interesting passage that made me think about nostalgia, Currier & Ives artwork, and how Americans thought about themselves and their history at the turn of the 20th century. In his chapter on the struggles between city and country Americans, he quotes Tom Watson, a Populist farmer from Georgia who championed poor farmers and agrarian causes. In 1888, Watson was a member of the state legislature and found himself speaking out against “prosy people” who had never worked the tough farm life and were trying to make money by investing in agriculture from their distant city offices:
“It takes these city fellows to draw ideal pictures of Farm life- pictures which are no more true to real life than a Fashion plate is to an actual man or woman…In Grady’s farm life there are no poor cows. They are all fat! Their bells tinkle musically in clover scented meadows & all you’ve got to do is hold a pan under the udder & you catch it full of golden butter. In real life we find the poor old Brindle cow with wolves in her back & “hollow horn” on her head & she always wants to back up where the wind won’t play a tune on her ribs & when you milk her you get the genuine ‘blue milk’…”
Do you think that farming is “the loveliest of all professions on the face of the earth?” Would you argue that agrarian work is “the vocation on which all prosperity rests?” Or would you be so bold as to say that working on a farm “brings men into contact with that mysterious principle of life, that essence of God in the world?” If you answered yes to any of these, then you should have gone to the Maryland Agricultural College in 1895! This small land-grant college that eventually became the University of Maryland, College Park (my alma mater!) was originally a school devoted to training farmers and using agriculture experimentation to support the state’s farms. In order to really understand the college’s role in agriculture in the late 1800s and early 1900s, I think the best thing to do to get acquainted with Richard Silvester, the 16th president of the school.
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I always enjoy reading old yearbooks, trade literature, and other “small run” publications from the past. Especially before the 1950s, the writers and editors of these works were really quite clever in their writing and it makes for a really fun and interesting time. It feels like the writers are free to be a little more honest and less scripted than usual. I wonder if part of the reason why the writer’s personality can really come out is because editing isn’t quite as rigorous or serious as it would be for a major publication that is circulated to a large group of people. Or maybe its because these types of publications aren’t created for the money and there is a friendlier relationship between writers and readers…Today I was going through old issues of the “Reveille,” yearbook for the Maryland Agricultural College (University of Maryland, College Park today). Here’s a neat little drawing that I found on one of the last pages, before the patron ads:
I flipped through the yearbook and it looks like our clever poet (and perhaps artist?) was R.V. Truitt of the Class of 1914. According to his senior biography, he was a biology student from Snow Hill, Maryland. Involved in a dozen campus activities from yearbook to lacrosse and the Programme Committee on Junior Prom. He was also “quite a military man” and was a captain in the college’s military cadet program. “Although it took the Faculty a long time to realize Truitt’s ability,” his fellow students confessed the students were not so slow, judging by the positions of responsibility they have entrusted to him. We believe that his ability will place Truitt on top in his future undertakings.” Whatever happened to Truitt, I’m sure his creativity and clever writing served him well. Click here to read his full senior entry! Luckily, the University of Maryland University Archives has digitized most of their yearbooks, you can find more of them here. Happy reading!