Poetry and Power—The Inaugural Address of John F. Kennedy

JFK giving inaugural address

Widely viewed as one of the most enduring inaugural messages in United States history, the speech was meticulously crafted—then worked and reworked—by President-elect John F. Kennedy and his close advisor, Theodore (Ted) Sorensen. This exhibit focuses on the drafting of President Kennedy’s inaugural address between the election on November 8, 1960, and the inauguration on January 20, 1961. Many of the notes and drafts provide fascinating glimpses into the drafting process.

John F. Kennedy won the 1960 Presidential election by one of the smallest margins in U.S. history. In the midst of the Cold War and a nuclear arms race that threatened the world’s very existence, Kennedy had campaigned hard on the issue of American strength. The power and prestige of the United States was slipping, he had warned. Building America’s strength—military, economic, and moral—would be the best defense for the nation and for the cause of freedom around the globe. On Inauguration Day, he understood that his message would have to project a commanding image to inspire confidence at home and respect abroad. 

Kennedy’s inaugural address reflected his core beliefs and life experience. He was a war veteran—a combat hero. He had read the great speeches of the ages, and believed in the power of words. He thought that a democracy thrives only when citizens contribute their talents to the common good, and that it is up to leaders to inspire citizens to acts of sacrifice. And when he exhorted Americans to “Ask not, what your country can do for you,” he appealed to their noblest instincts, voicing a message that Americans were eager to hear. He lifted the spirits of his listeners, even as he confronted the grim reality of the nuclear age. The speech was a sensation.

Ultimately, however, the secret of the speech’s endurance—its ability to stir the souls of people around the world and through the years—cannot be found in these pages, but in the hearts of the people who heard the words, and in the spirit of the man who pronounced them.

Exhibit Highlights

  • John F. Kennedy’s dictation, taken down by his secretary Evelyn Lincoln on January 10, in a combination of shorthand and longhand
  • the earliest surviving draft of the inaugural address, prepared by Theodore Sorensen (typewritten with Kennedy’s handwritten notes)
  • the notes of Ted Sorensen, revealing some of Kennedy’s instructions
  • draft of the speech in John F. Kennedy’s own hand
  • pages of the final document reading copy of the speech that JFK had at the lectern as he delivered the message on January 20, 1961; one of these pages shows a last-minute change suggested to the President-elect by two of his aides.

This exhibit draws its name “Poetry and Power,” from a line in the poem Dedication written by Robert Frost to be read at the inauguration ceremony.