“Ask What You Can Do For Your Country:” The History of an Inaugural Sentence

“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 in 1961, 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 never 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.

Kennedy Inaug. 2
Kennedy delivered his famous address on January 21, 1961. Image credit: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.

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.

Kennedy Innagural
The page from the reading copy of Kennedy’s address with our venerable quote. Image credit: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.

In fact, that morning, just hours before he was to give his inaugural speech, Kennedy scratched the word “will” and replaced it with “can.” Even though Kennedy’s challenge to the American people had been formulating in his mind for decades, it was constantly updating and changing to reflect his current thinking.

But Kennedy wasn’t even the first politician to challenge the American people to think of what they could do for their country. As Schlesinger wrote, there was a long tradition of

Arthur Schlesinger, Special Assistant and occasional speech writer in the Kennedy Administration. Image credit: National Portrait Gallery.

challenging or calling Americans to action. “Though the [inaugural] line is clearly Kennedy’s own, like all such lines it had its historic analogues,” the historian contended, “Gilbert Seldes cites the remarks of the mayor of Haverhill at the funeral of John Greenleaf Whittier [1892] as quoted by Van Wyck Brooks in New England: Indian Summer: “Here may we be reminded that man is most honored, not by that which a city may do for him, but by that which he has done for the city.” And James Rowe, Jr., Oliver Wendell Holmes’s last law clerk, points out the following lines from a Memorial Day address delivered by Justice Holmes in 1884: “It is now the moment when by common consent we pause to become conscious of our national life and to rejoice in it, to recall what our country has done for each of us, and to ask ourselves what we can do for our county in return.”

John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892) was also an accomplished poet and published several volumes of poetry. Image credit: The Life and Letters of John Whittier, Volume II.

In his history of the administration, Schlesinger never reveals if Kennedy was aware of these historical precedents. But even if he was, I think Kennedy’s words are unique and deserve the special place that they have in American history. It is true that Kennedy was not the first person to publicly suggest that individual contributions to American society are more important than the accolades and services that society can offer to the individual. However, it seems to me that the president was the first speaker to use this rhetoric in a forward-thinking, all-inclusive way. Hopefully that makes sense, let me explain what I mean.

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. (1841-1935) later served as a justice on the Supreme Court. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery pretty close to Kennedy. Image credit: National Portrait Gallery.

John Greenleaf Whittier was a noted abolitionist and called for the end of slavery until it was finally declared unconstitutional by the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. When he died in 1892 and the mayor of his hometown Haverehill eulogized him saying that “man is most honored, not by that which a city may do for him, but by that which he has done for the city.” In Oliver Wendell Holmes’ 1884 Memorial Day speech, he declared that “we pause to become conscious of our national life and to rejoice in it, to recall what our country has done for each of us, and to ask ourselves what we can do for our country in return.” Holmes, a Civil War veteran himself, was speaking to a group of G.A.R. veterans who had also sacrificed life and limb for their nation. In both of these situations, this rhetoric seems to be backwards looking, celebrating past contributions to society and those who have already given their sweat and blood to better their society. These words were also aimed towards an individual (Whittier) or a specific group of people (veterans) who were in a position to help their country in the face of clear threats and obstacles (slavery and civil war). While their accomplishments were worthy of every praise and honor, they seem limited to specific times, events, and persons.

John F. Kennedy, on the other hand, is much more inclusive in his call to action. Speaking at the presidential inauguration gave the newly elected president an opportunity to reach all Americans regardless of their background or status. Kennedy’s message was not aimed at a specific group or individual facing an imminent threat, it was being broadcasted to a national audience. I wonder if the Haverhill mayor and Holmes would have thought this message was appropriate for such a diverse audience, given that many listeners probably were not in a position to impact their society in the same big ways that an abolitionist or soldier could.

These words also are focused on future deeds that haven’t yet been accomplished. Kennedy turned his predecessors’ rhetoric on its head by calling for action in the future instead of reflecting on deeds already finished. The president seems to be calling for every American, regardless of who or where they are in life, to get more involved in improving the lives of others in any way that they can. He urged Americans to look for more ways to improve their society. Kennedy was more interested in what the American people could do, rather than what they had already done for their country.

Though Kennedy’s words closely mirror those of the Haverhill mayor and Holmes, I think it’s safe to say that the president’s message was something new for the American people. By 1961, the idea that anyone could be involved in making their country a better place had been proven in World War II (especially on the home front) and in the growing Civil Rights movement. I think Kennedy’s inauguration/call to action is really symbolic of the growing sense that anyone can make a difference in their society, a concept that was at the core of many movements and ideas in the 1960s. A few examples off the top of my head are: continued participation in the Civil Rights movement (just look at Ella Baker and the growth of grass-roots organizing), increased involvement in boycotts and other protests centered around consumer habits (I’m thinking about Caesar Chavez and others here), and the “personal is political” concept and its impact on Women’s Rights groups.

Did Kennedy inspire all these millions of Americans to action? He certainly inspired Bill Moyers: “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…Preserving civilization is the work not of some miracle-working superhuman personality but of each one of us. The best leaders don’t expect us just to pay out taxes and abdicate, they sign us up for civic duty and insist we sharpen our skills as citizens.” Sounds like Moyers understood Kennedy’s message loud and clear.

Personal participation in civics, government, and society has long roots in American history and were regularly used long before Kennedy was even born. Clearly, celebrating individuals who work to improve their society was just as important in Whittier and Holmes’ day as it was in the 1960s. But, I do think that Kennedy’s decision to use this kind of all-inclusive, forward thinking rhetoric in his inauguration does signal a shift in how Americans think about who impacts society and what the best ways to create positive change are. It was definitely a lot more mainstream after the early 1960s.

Kennedy Inaug.
How many people in Kennedy’s audience were really inspired to “do for your country?” Image credit: Library of Congress.

What do you think? I’ve been reading some different analyses of Kennedy’s inauguration speech and have found that many others interpret it differently than me. Other historians have written that Kennedy’s inaugural speech was inspired by and a continuation of “hard-line cold war rhetoric that reduced global politics to an apocalyptic battle between democracy and communism.” Kennedy’s words were focused on increased U.S. expansion and intervention around the globe, ostensibly on behalf of freedom, pledging U.S. support to any nation or individuals seeking to pursue liberty and democracy. To learn more about Kennedy’s inauguration and the rest of his administration, I recommend Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s “A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House” (1965). You can read Kennedy’s original draft of his inaugural speech on the Kennedy Library’s website here. The quotes I used from Bill Moyers come from “To Touch the World” The Peace Corps Experience.” The Peace Corps, was founded by Kennedy in 1961, shortly after his inaugural address. The president personally appointed Moyers to be associate director of public affairs in the corps that year as well.


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