John F. Kennedy's inaugural address, 1961

"It was better than mine."

John F. Kennedy, comparing the inaugural address of Thomas Jefferson to his own, January 19, 1961

The inaugural ceremony is a defining moment in a President's career, and no one knew this better than John F. Kennedy as he prepared for his own inauguration of January 20, 1961. He wanted his address to be short and clear—devoid of partisan rhetoric and focused on foreign policy. He began constructing the speech in late November, working from a speech file kept by his secretary and soliciting suggestions from friends and advisors. While his colleagues submitted ideas and drafts, clergymen provided lists of Biblical quotations. The final product, however, was distinctly the work of Kennedy himself. Aides recount that every sentence was worked, reworked, and reduced.

Kennedy wrote his thoughts in his nearly indecipherable longhand on a yellow legal pad. The climax of the speech and its most memorable phrase, "Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country," was honed down from a thought about sacrifice that Kennedy had long held in his mind and had expressed in various ways in campaign speeches.

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National Archives and Records Administration