Remarks of Representative John F. Kennedy at the Eastern Massachusetts Division Of Student Councils Convention, Watertown High School, Watertown, Massachusetts, April 1, 1950

Speech source: Papers of John F. Kennedy. Pre-Presidential Papers. House of Representatives Files. Series 2.2. Speech Files, 1946-1952. Box 95, Folder: "Eastern Massachusetts Division of Student Councils Convention, 1 April 1950".

I am happy to be here today at this Spring Convention.

The qualities of leadership that have brought each of you here today will be of great benefit to you and of inestimable value to your country in later years. It is, of course, axiomatic that the function of the public school is to prepare you to meet the responsibilities of later life. But it is also true that public schools are expected to develop leaders for a democratic society. Certainly, all of you must recognize an obligation of the most pressing sort to participate in, and to contribute to the life of your country.

There are many areas to which you can bring your services, but I am concerned today with only one – the vast field of activity open to men and women in present day public life.

Certainly, without leaders of deep intellectual and moral capacity the bountiful resources of our nation will be frittered away in frustrated attempts to solve conflicts both within and without our borders.

Certainly, where ever you go, you are critically needed. The problems that require your help are many.

Never before in our history has there been a greater need for men and women of integrity and courage in public service. Never before in our history has there been a greater need for young people to take up willingly the responsibility for free government.

As the problems that face us have become more complex, as the function of government has become enlarged, there has been a corresponding assumption of authority by the state. It is obvious from the history of the past 20 years that whether we like it or not – whether we be Republicans or Democrats – the government will continue to play an increasingly large part in our lives.

The theme of today – the scarlet thread that runs throughout the thoughts and actions of people all over the world – is one of resignation of major problems into the all-absorbing hands of the great leviathan – the state. This trend is not divisible – we in the United States suffer from it, if less intensely.

It is, therefore, vital that we become concerned with maintaining the authority of the people, of the individual, over the state.

The assurance must be given that "every man shall be protected in doing what he believes – against the influence of authority and majorities, of custom and opinion."

Charles Beard, the historian, has pointed out that the American Revolution rested on three premises: that each individual is endowed by god with certain inalienable rights, that governments are instituted to protect these rights, and that when a government takes these rights away, the people must revolt. This is the system we are seeking to preserve.

We are faced on this cold Saturday afternoon with a world torn by devastation and struggle. We cling precariously to a cold peace, while all about us we can hear the muffled drums of war. The battle is on all fronts. Even words like "freedom" and "democracy" have been captured and enslaved by the enemy.

Even here in America we are face to face with possible domestic disaster. A cloud on the horizon – growing unemployment – with the possibility ever present that it may foredoom a collapse – is of vital concern.

As Peter Drucker wrote recently in Harper’s Magazine: "prevention of depression and chronic unemployment has become an absolute necessity for any industrialized society."

The ever expanding power of the federal government, the absorption of many of the functions that states and cities once considered to be responsibilities of their own, must now be a source of concern to all those who believe as did the Irish patriot, Henry Grattan: "control over local affairs is the essence of liberty."

The failure to use with vigor the privilege of the secret ballot reflects a general uninterest in the affairs of government, and could have serious consequences in times of crises.

The endless variety of our economic and political problems should serve as a magnet in drawing trained citizens to the service of their country, state and nation.

The ever expanding need for men and women of integrity and competence in our political life should strike a responsive chord in educated men and women who have affection for their country.

Certainly, the never ending search for peace, the ceaseless waging of the cold war, requires a dogged persistence and determination of the highest order against an enemy whose actions fit perfectly the dictum of Lord Acton: "power tends to corrupt – and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

These are only some of the problems that need to be faced. Certainly you as educated boys and girls are committed to a deep searching analysis of them.

I have described briefly some of the major problems that we face. I have related briefly the need for men and women in government whose actions are based on sound philosophical ground.

It should be obvious that with the decision of government becoming increasingly more important in our lives, with the issue of war and peace hanging in the balance – the somber question indeed of our survival at stake – each man and woman among you can afford, in some degree at least, to answer the call to service.

I do not mean by that that you should all embark on careers in the executive or legislative branch of our government. But I do mean that you are obligated to participate in, to contribute to the national life at all levels.

In your community, in your state and in your national government, widespread opportunities are before you. Many of you, without doubt may become potential candidates for political office. Let that potential become a reality!

Those among you, who, because of temperament or other reasons, would not aspire to public office, can certainly be of help to responsible candidates in your own home town. Remember too, that your national government does not require the services of administrators and layers alone. Those of you who possess technical tendencies and abilities, whether it be in the fields of, for example, chemistry, accounting, cartography, your talents can contribute materially to efficient and worthwhile government.

That is certainly the major challenge that any graduate of any high school this year must face, especially with the talents of leadership that you have already demonstrated you possess.

High on the wall of the House of Representatives in Washington, so that everyone can see, are written words we should remember: they were from a speech by a distinguished senator from our native state of Massachusetts – Daniel Webster: "let us develop the resources of our land, call forth its powers, build up its institutions, and promote all of its great interests and see whether we also in our day and generation may not perform something worthy to be remembered."