JFK’s Inaugural Speech
June 2, 2006
John Fitzgerald Kennedy is credited as being one of America’s greatest speakers. That is why, when asked to choose a speech to do a rhetorical analysis on from the Top 100 American Speeches on www.americanrhetoric.com, I had to choose his “Inaugural Address” from January 20, 1961. This speech is ranked second, under Martin Luther King Jr.’s, “I Have a Dream.” President Kennedy utilized many of the tools typically used in rhetorical or persuasive writing. He took full advantage of Aristotle’s three areas of rhetorical speech writing: Ethos, Pathos, and Logos, paired along with other literary tools such as repetition, rhythm, and comparison.
President Kennedy opens his speech by establishing credibility, or ethos, “For I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forebears prescribed nearly a century and three-quarters ago.(Americanrhetoric.com)” This excerpt tells the American people that he has followed the rules and has a legitimate responsibility to the American public as did the Presidents in the past. He is official.
Then, a few moments later, JFK begins to capitalize on the emotions of the people, tying himself to them, identifying with them by using words such as “we.” This is the pathos part of his speech, “the torch has 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 unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world. (americanrhetoric.com)” Throughout Kennedy’s speech he uses emotionally charged words to draw in the American public and get them to relate to the topics at hand.
He also uses Aristotle’s logos, or logic, to convince the people, “we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required -- not because the Communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich. (americanrhetoric.com)” Here, JFK calls the public to join the effort to free the people stuck in communist countries by cleverly making it an issue of justice rather than power, and then comparing the success of their poor society, to the prosperity of our rich nation. This use of comparison is also a tool of rhetoric.
JFK also uses repetition to persuade the American people. He begins several sections in the middle of his speech with the same phrase, “Let both sides. . .” then uses very strong verbs to call the public to action such as “explore,” “formulate,” “seek,” and “unite.”
Kennedy also uses the literary tool, the metaphor, “The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it. And the glow from that fire can truly light the world.” We cannot literally light the world on fire, but he means that we can influence the world as an incendiary nation.
Perhaps the most famous sentence is immediately following that metaphor. It is a sentence, that was delivered with great enthusiasm, as illustrated by the fervor behind JFK’s delivery, “And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.(americanrhetoric.com)” This play on words is one of the most remembered phrases of all time. Why? Because JFK delivers it with rhythm and charisma.
In conclusion, unfortunately this short paper cannot fully address all the tools of rhetoric that JFK and his writing team used, but outlined above are just a few examples of the reasons why this speech was so effective and remembered. He followed Aristotle’s philosophy on rhetoric and fully took advantage of the power behind literary devices, adding his own personal character with enthusiasm and charisma.