On January 20, 1961, John F. Kennedy began his presidency with one of the most rhetorically eloquent inaugural speeches in American history. After imploring his new constituents to uphold freedom and maintain national strength, he spoke the immortal words: “My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Throughout Kennedy’s all-too-short presidential administration, he continued to communicate with clarity, passion and all-American conviction.
As the first American president born in the 20th century, John F. Kennedy found himself in the position to redefine American values that were becoming increasingly based on military conflict abroad and racial conflict at home. Kennedy repeatedly returned to the values upon which his country was founded: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
“This Nation was founded by men of many nations and backgrounds. It was founded on the principle that all men are created equal, and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.” - Radio and Television Report to the American People on Civil Rights, 1963
“Let us not emphasize all on which we differ but all we have in common. Let us consider not what we fear separately but what we share together.” - Remarks at Harvard University, 1956
“United there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided there is little we can do — for we dare not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder.” - Inaugural Address, 1961
“I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty…an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft.” - Remarks at Amherst College, 1963
“The cost of freedom is always high, but Americans have always paid it. And one path we shall never choose, and that is the path of surrender, or submission.” - Address During the Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962
How could America compete and thrive during a seemingly endless Cold War? According to Kennedy, the answer was in education and a focus on the future.
“Liberty without learning is always in peril; learning without liberty is always in vain.” - Address at Vanderbilt University, 1963
“The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by skeptics or cynics whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need men who can dream of things that never were and ask ‘Why not?’” - Address Before the Irish Parliament, 1963
“Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” - Address in the Assembly Hall at the Paulskirche in Frankfurt, 1963
“A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on. Ideas have endurance without death.” - Opening of the USIA Transmitter, 1963
“Our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education. Our requirements for world leadership, our hopes for economic growth, and the demands of citizenship itself in an era such as this all require the maximum development of every young American's capacity. The human mind is our fundamental resource.” - Special Message to the Congress on Education, 1961
Kennedy’s book Profiles in Courage paints a picture of a man educated by the experiences of the past while guiding the leaders of the future. His quotes about gathering courage in every situation are applicable decades after his death.
“A man does what he must – in spite of personal consequences, in spite of obstacles and dangers and pressures – and that is the basis of all human morality.” - Profiles in Courage
“The stories of past courage … can teach, they can offer hope, they can provide inspiration. But they cannot supply courage itself. For this each man must look into his own soul.” - Profiles in Courage
“We have the power to make this the best generation of mankind in the history of the world or make it the last.” - Address Before the 18th General Assembly of the United Nations, 1963
“Efforts and courage are not enough without purpose and direction.” - Remarks at the Coliseum in North Carolina, 1960
“For courage — not complacency — is our need today. Leadership — not salesmanship. And the only valid test of leadership is the ability to lead, and lead vigorously." - Acceptance of Democratic Nomination for President, 1960
While John F. Kennedy’s speeches stand the test of time and rhetoric, he’s not the only president to impress crowds with his words. For more inspiration from the presidential podium, check out: