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JFK Inaugural Speech Rhetorical Analysis

On January 20, 1961 millions of America turned on their televisions to see newly elected President John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s inaugural speech while thousands stood in front of the White House, all waiting for the new president to address the current state of war and economic hardships America was consumed in. What they didn’t know was that they were about to witness one of the most eloquent and memorable speeches in American history. Kennedy instills confidence and provokes the American people to action and their fight for liberty, something which was desperately needed during that time. While his speech’s respectful eloquence is appropriate for the occasion of an inauguration, its youthful energy and looks to the future make it distinctly John F. Kennedy’s.

Kennedy begins his speech using an antithesis to show the real importance behind his victory, a victory of freedom and change. Additionally, he uses abstract diction to get the audience’s attention and establish a connection with them. Through the use of abstract diction, words like freedom, liberty, poverty, devotion, sacrifice, he relates to the everyday American citizen as these words are synonymous with the American way. As result, he evokes pathos by using words that describe American society and ideals which brings in the audience due to his youthful energy. Furthermore, he alludes to God when he states, “For I have sworn you and Almighty God.” While he references God in his struggle for freedom and democracy repeatedly, he manipulates the syntax to show his alliance: you (America) and then God. This establishes credibility and trustworthiness.

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He uses other biblical allusions such as the command of Isaiah to signify the importance of freedom and democratic ideals globally, the basis of success for the future. He later juxtaposes the old generation and new generation of America to strengthen his outlook for the future and illustrating his youthful energy. He states “We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of the first revolution. Let the word go forth and from this time and place to friend to foe and alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of America…” (1). He bridges the old and new generation by a torch, which are the duties and responsibilities that are being passed from one generation to the next. When he says “ancient heritage” he alludes to the founding fathers and their fight for democracy and freedom. The people of today must uphold these ideals that this nation is built on. It invokes nationalistic emotions of pride in the audience.

To expand on this idea, he further uses an imperative sentence, “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the success of liberty,” to command the American people to let everyone know that America will uphold and these beliefs at all costs during this fight that America is in against communism. He shares his youthful energy with the audience by encouraging change all around the world for the better, which is only possible through the spread of democratic ideals. By making references to the founding fathers of America and using diction such as “freedom” “liberty” “renewal” and “heirs of the first revolution” he is able to connect to the people and share his energy for change and freedom. He also shares his look for the future by stating the importance of upholding the same beliefs and ideals that our forefathers upheld at all costs.

Kennedy addresses the importance of unity while sharing his youthful energy and future goals that can be attained through a union between nations. A prominent theme throughout the speech was the need for unity in order to attain a peaceful state for the world rather than it being a warzone. To further demonstrate he uses an anaphora to address all the different audiences, as a result unifying the audience as they all share the same purpose. He makes a different pledge to each to signify the importance of unification amongst America and other countries. In the first one, he uses an inversion, “United, there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided, there is little we can do,” to stress the fact that we must retain our old allies if we want to succeed. He pledges to unify with those who don’t share the same viewpoints. He further pledges to help the ones in Russia who are suffering because of communist ideals, not because it’ll strengthen their fight against communism but because it is morally right.

Not only this but the recurring word “pledge” is placed wherever Kennedy is about to make a promise. The word has a positive connotation because it is stronger than a promise and it gives a sense that it is coming from the heart. Promise nowadays is an everyday term, but the use of the pledge shows Kennedy’s youthful energy through his dedication and focus on achieving his goals. Throughout he establishes a confident and sincere tone, that illustrates his youthful energy and commitment to help others who are victims of communism while uniting with other nations to end the “mass misery” and “chains of poverty: while indirectly stating his future goal, world peace. Kennedy’s strongest use of parallelism was in paragraphs 14-17 where he used an anaphora “let both sides.” He calls for unity in the hortative sentence, “Let both sides explore what problems unite us… Let both sides, for the first time; formulate serious and precise proposals… Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of is terror… Let both sides unite to…”

The combination of parallelism and an anaphora places the importance of unity between both nations as well as a call of action to end this ongoing war that’s only proving to be destructive. He uses logos by stating the logic behind why wars should be avoided. Particularly when he explains, “Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belabouring those problems which divide us,” he presents a solution which is working together rather than working against one another where no one is benefitting. Also, the arrangement of the sentences he first states what should be done to stop this mayhem and then states about the negative aspect of continuing it emphasizes the significance of dwelling on what should be done. His youthful energy is seen through his activism and call for action where he stresses the fact that the solution to the problem is not war, but peaceful negotiations. He states his goal and looks for the future which is unity and peace between America and other nations.

Moreover, he shares his youthful energy to inspire Americans to contribute to their country and as a result, achieving a nation is the best of its capabilities. Notably, he used a zeugma, “Now the trumpet summons us again – not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though as embattled we are – but a call to bear a burden…” (2). The zeugma functions to make his request less demanding, but rather encouraging so it would provoke American citizens to do something for their country, such as joining the military. It inspires the audience by saying the trumpet summons us again, thus creating patriotic feelings. This ties in with the antimetabole he uses, “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” Due to the syntax, it sounds inspirational. The fact that the phrase starts off with a verb, ask, has a more dramatic effect while also establishing a more imposing and straightforward tone.

This imperative sentence lends to the point that JFK is trying to make, that he can’t do it alone. Another point JFK makes is that the people have the most power to make the biggest difference, For instance, when he says, “In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than in mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course” (2), he uses metonymy to show how the way things are run or will run will be left up to the people. It illustrates how the power to make a difference rests in the hands of the average American person. What Kennedy does is that he transfers the vibrant energy and determination inside of him to make a difference in the American population. Not only that but he once again unites everyone for a common purpose in the line “in your hands, my fellow citizens” those hands represent the whole American population that can make a difference.

It causes the audience to think about what he’s saying while leading them into a patriotic state of mind. Furthermore, when Kennedy refers to the audience as “we” “us” and “my fellow citizens” he establishes a more personal tone, results making them feel more cared about. By using words such as “we” and “us” it makes it seem as if everyone is sharing the job, thus strengthening his purpose and his goal, for everyone to contribute to their country. This causes readers to feel a connection as Americans to Kennedy. He shares his energy by saying that by everyone contributing, the world can become a better place. It also contributes to one of his goals, which is to have a nation where the people contribute more in a result achieving a nation that is the best it could be.

Kennedy’s inaugural speech is one to be remembered throughout history. Kennedy’s artful and abstract diction, effective use of rhetorical devices, and his confident tone throughout the speech reassure the American public of the abilities of their newly elected president. His use of repetition proves that he is serious about achieving peace and unity. By juxtaposing several ideas, he convinces America to believe in his position that will lead America into prosperity. He uses zeugmas and antimetaboles to inspire citizens to do something for their nation. Kennedy’s goal with his inaugural address was to voice his intentions as president, and use his youthful energy to convince people of his goals and outlook for the future. Without the use of effective rhetoric, Kennedy would never be able to get the American people on his side and trust him and his look for the future. His use of rhetorical devices is effective and relates to what America needed in a leader during the 1960s. The late, great Kennedy gained respect from many people with this speech, and till this day and forever on this speech will be always remembered and be set as a standard for future presidents to come.

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JFK Inaugural Speech Rhetorical Analysis. (2021, May 25). Retrieved June 19, 2021, from