Rhetorical Analysis of Speech John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Speech

Rhetorical Analysis of Speech John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Speech

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John F Kennedy delivered one of the finest speeches on January 20, 1961 after being sworn into office. His inauguration speech was so powerful that it captured the entire nations attention, and quotes from it are still remembered by people today. It is one of the finest speeches ever written. It provides a strong appeal to pathos, ethos and logos, and it is because of this that people who never heard the speech can quote lines from it.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy was the 35th president of the United States. He graduated from Harvard, and joined the navy. He worked as a reporter before entering the political arena. He later wrote “profiles in courage” which won the Pulitzer Prize Award. Being that JFK was the youngest president to ever be in office there is no doubt that he encountered a lot of skepticism. This speech had many purposes but most importantly it gave him positive recognition. The inaugural address was written to encourage the American public to get actively involved with their country. It also reassured them that it was not a contest that he won but rather chance at a beginning. This speech reassured the voters that they made the right choice and informed a country that they were going to see some changes.

The inaugural speech was structured so that it flowed. There is a lot of comparison and contrast in the first paragraph of the speech. For example “We observe today not a victory of a party but a celebration of freedom—symbolizing an end as well as a beginning—signifying a renewal as well as change.”(Kennedy, 1961) There is also some cause and effect in the paper. I think that this is to be expected because of all the discussions on war. He made it sound like because it was our moral responisibility we should go to war. These are the only two main structures that are used through the entire speech but they are used so well that it is not lacking substance with the lacking of structures.

“If a free society can not help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”(Kennedy, 1961) Statements such as these demonstrate how Kennedy appealed to the citizens by simply using reason. The use of logos in his speech was minimal compared to the use of pathos, and ethos.

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However in the few areas where it is evident it is used so well that even the minute usage of it makes for a better speech. Common sense may not be as common as its name misleads, and the use of it in writing strengthens the paper and better establishes the writer. “Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torched 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 around the world.”(Kennedy, 1961) All of the things that were said in this last sentence are common knowledge, however as a society it needs to be repeated to us, it needs to be heard over and over again until there is no shadow of a doubt in anybody’s mind. Although common knowledge Kennedy used this to strengthen his support and reassure society.

The Kennedy’s were a well-known political family with high morals and good character. So it is no surprise that in John F Kennedy’s inaugural speech there were continuous signs of ethos. He appealed to the audience with both moral characteristics and a sense of education. His moral perspective became clear as he discussed God and doing the “right” thing. “With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth and to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”(Kennedy, 1961) JFK acknowledges his duties as president and understands the amount of faith that the citizens have in him to elect him as president. “I do not shrink from this responsibility—I welcome it.”(Kennedy, 1961) John F Kennedy did not have to establish his experience with politics. His background and family spoke for itself. However he did use terms that further established his knowledge in the political arena. For example “forebears,” revolutionary beliefs,” and “iron tyranny.”(Kennedy, 1961)

With the Vietnam War affecting so many people, JFK was very careful in what he said. His use of Pathos includes many uses of patriotic expressions and words to rally the country in unity. His phrases such as “a celebration of freedom,” “cultural and spiritual origins,” “forge against these enemies” and “fruitful life”(Kennedy, 1961) are inspiring making the war sound like a moral duty rather then a political issue. However as well as these phrases depict an emotional portrait of civic duty nothing compares to the renowned quote: “Ask not what your country can do for you but ask what you can do for your country.”(Kennedy, 1961) This quote is so powerful because it uses one of the strongest objects of emotion, the United States, with moralistic responsibilities. It speaks to every person who lives in America on a personal level. It is the use of these expressions which JFK eloquently spoke in 1961 that made this speech so memorable, emotional, and meaningful.

In conclusion this essay was both powerful and eloquent. Its use of expressive and figurative language makes it a memorable speech. JFK uses his speech to communicate his commitment to the American public as well as the expected changes. His use of logos, ethos, and pathos makes it an incredible piece of writing.


Kennedy, J.F. (1961, January). JFK’s inaugural address. Retrieved February 22, 2003, from http://www.jax-inter.net/~cheryl/speech.html

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