John F. Kennedy: Inaugural Address. Text Analysis

John F. Kennedy: Inaugural Address. Text Analysis.

Text analysis has never been an easy discipline. However, our Ministry of Education disagrees, making the poor senior students analyse speeches, short stories or scientific articles once a week.
Here is my modest contribution to this field – JFK’s Inaugural Address, text analysis.


John Fitzgerald Kennedy was the 35th President of the United States, serving from 1961 until his assassination in 1963. Kennedy is the first and only Catholic president, the youngest elected to the office, at the age of 43, and the only president to have won a Pulitzer Prize. Events during his administration include the the Cuban Missile Crisis, the building of the Berlin Wall, the Space Race, the African American Civil Rights Movement and early events of the Vietnam War. His policy is known as the New Frontier. His death became one of the most shocking events in the history of the USA.
Kennedy’s inaugural address turned out to be the fourth-shortest inaugural address ever delivered. It is widely considered to be among the best presidential inauguration speeches in American history.

Kennedy divided his inaugural address into four parts. Each section is short and to the point, making the speech motivating for the American people. The introduction is concerned with how the American people will always remember their founders and what they put forth for the survival of America. After this introductory sentence comes the body of speech. The first part deals with American values and beliefs now and then, the second part consists of several pledges. With mentioning the two sides of the world, Kennedy leads over to the third section of the body of speech, where he outlines how the U.S. must explore both sides of the issue, carefully considering all options. In the final part Kennedy expresses his trust that his “fellow citizens” will be able to restore peace across the world.

Kennedy’s Address belongs to the publicistic functional style, the aim of which is to make the speaker’s point of view clear to the listener or reader, thus to persuade him and make him act in the desired way. The publicistic functional style combines the features of the emotive prose (emotional appeal) and scientific prose (strict logical argumentation, coherent and logical syntactic structure of the utterances, careful paragraphing, expanded system of various types of connectives).
Kennedy’s Address is a piece of oratory, thus, it is closer to emotive prose, as it is individual and subjective to a certain extent.

As it was already mentioned, the text falls into 4 logical parts.

The first part, dealing with the values and beliefs of the American nation, is laid in the present temporal plane generally, which is expressed by both lexical markers (The world is … nowWe dare not forget todaythis centurywe are committed today) and grammatical markers (the use of Present Simple tense).
However, the plane of the present is interspersed by the implies of the future plane, also presented by lexical markers (dare not forget; let the word go).

The second part of the address refers the listener to a number of pledges, which implies the predomination of the future plane here, in spite of the use of the Present Simple tense. This is emphasized by the use of the modal verb shall possessing the sense of futureness in its semantic structure (we shall pay any price; shall not have passed away; shall not always expect; we shall always hope).

The third part of the speech presents the future temporal plane too, which is expressed by the numerous use of the verb let, which implies the author’s vision of the future, and the use of the Future Simple tense “All this will not be finished”.

The fourth part combines different temporal planes: the present (Now the trumpet summons, etc.), and the future – (Will you join, etc).

Apart from that, there are retrospective insertions in the text, such as: “…the same solemn oath our forebears prescribed nearly a century ago”, “that first revolution”, “and to remember that, in the past,..”, “since this country was founded”, “The graves of young Americans, who answered the call”. These insertions refer the listener to the past of the American nation, to the most memorable moments, such as the Civil War, the World War II, and the creation of the independent USA. This helps the orator to present his ideas, which correspond to the ones, stated in the Declaration of the Independence – liberty and equality: “the celebration of freedom”, “the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God”.

The spatial continuum is presented by both direct markers (the world, the globe) and indirect markers, e.g. the demonstrative pronoun this, which is a deictic device: “this time and place”“this country”. In general, the second part of the address is rich for the spatial markers, pointing out the countries, to which the author refers himself. For this, the parallel construction together with the anaphoric repetition is used: each new paragraph starts with the particle “to” along with the addressee: “To those old allies”, “To those new states”, “To those peoples in the huts and villages”, “To our sister republics”, “To that world assembly of sovereign states“, “…to those nations who would make themselves our adversary”.

Although the speaker doesn’t name these countries and peoples directly, using the euphemistic constructions, they still can be easily identified. For example, “those old allies” of the USA are the capitalistic countries of Europe (Britain, France, Italy, etc.), while “the foes” are the communistic countries, the USSR in particular.

In his address, Kennedy uses various stylistic devises, among which, parallelism and antithesis are the most recurrent. These add to the strength of the speech.

In the introduction Kennedy uses a first stylistic device, parallelism, combined with the antithesis: “an end, as well as a beginning – … renewal, as well as change.” This introduces the theme of continuity which Kennedy uses throughout the entire speech.

In the third and fourth paragraph, the president makes use of the theme of continuity again, which leads to the “new generation of Americans”. Here, Kennedy uses antithesis as well as an alliteration, “support any friend, oppose any foe”, and a metaphor: “the torch has been passed”. All these stylistic devices stress the contrast between good and bad, and make it sink into the listener’s mind. Apart from that, the speaker makes use of climaxat home and around the world. That can be found throughout the whole inaugural speech as a sort of leitmotiv, most noticeably at the end when he addresses the citizens of America and the citizens of the world.

The second part of the speech is based on parallelism, mentioned above, and is full of antitheses, e.g. “well or ill”, “support any friend, oppose any foe”. Parallelism mostly expresses contrasts: “United, there is little we cannot do […]. Divided, there is little we can do”, “We shall not always expect to find them supporting our view. But we shall always hope to find them […] supporting their own freedom.

Kennedy concludes his address to the “new States” with a strong metaphor: “those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside”. These words are the reference to a famous limerick: “There was a young lady of Niger, who smiled as she rode on a tiger, they returned from the ride with a lady inside, and the smile on the face of the tiger”. This illustrates what Kennedy considers the fate of dictatorship in the past and in the future.

One more impressive parallelism including an antithesis is at the end of the next paragraph – “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.” In the paragraph dealing with John F.Kennedy’s pledge to the South American states, the president uses figurative language which makes the speech more vivid (“casting off the chains of poverty”, etc.), as he does in the next paragraph: “to strengthen its shield of the

The following paragraph forms a conclusion to the second section of the body of speech and leads over to its third part by introducing the theme of two opposing powers. Here, Kennedy uses once more a strong metaphor: “the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science engulf all humanity in […] self-destruction.

A very obvious parallelistic repetition is in the last sentence of part two – “when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt”.


A famous sentence leads over to Kennedy’s ideas and plans for the two opposing powers in the third part of the speech: “Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.” This is a chiasm, effectively emphasizing the author’s concept.


Kennedy extends his proposals for the future of the adversaries with an anaphora (“Let both sides”, repeated five times throughout the text). In each and every component of this anaphora, he uses a stylistic device – antithetical parallelism in the first and second part, antithesis (“wonders” – “terrors”) and enumeration in the third, and a quotation from the Bible in the fourth part (“the command of Isaiah – […] ‘undo the heavy burdens … and […] let the oppressed go free’”). Furthermore, Kennedy uses a metaphor in the last part of the anaphora – “jungle of suspicion” to express his attitude to the world’s situation of tension.


In the first paragraph of the fourth part, Kennedy uses the theme of continuity in American history again (“each generation of Americans has been summoned”).

The next paragraph starts with an expression which has a Biblical origin (“the trumpet summons us”). Kennedy uses an alliteration together with a metaphor: “but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle”.   Next comes a personal address directed to the American public by Kennedy, and a rhetorical question, which aim is to summon his fellow citizens to “join in that historic effort”. This involves the listeners and makes them think deeply.

The phrase “The energy, the faith, the devotion” is a climax, as the emotional increase from the first word to the third one can clearly be seen. These three qualities will, in Kennedy’s metaphorical language, “light our country”, “and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.


The next lines have become a famous saying – not only because of their content, but because of the expressive power that touches the heart of every listener, attained by the usage of inversion: “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.

Here, Kennedy once more uses the climax, which also appears in the very last paragraph of the inaugural speech (“whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world”).


In the last sentence of the speech, Kennedy refers to God again, as in the beginning, thus, framing his address: “I have sworn before…God” – “God’s work must truly be our own”.


The most recurrent words in Kennedy’s speech are let (16 times); free, freedom (8 times); nation (8 times), fellow (4 times), pledge (7 times). It is important to mention, that the lexeme “pledge” is another allusion to the declaration of Independence “We mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor”, again emphasizing the aim of the president to continue once proclaimed postulates of freedom and equality for the nation.

Thus, the words freedom and nation might be considered as key words in the text, as they bear the concept of the author: “Americans would succeed in the fight for peace, if every man and woman, whether they be black or white or Hispanic or any other ethnic race, pulled together and worked as one, not as individuals”.

195 thoughts on “John F. Kennedy: Inaugural Address. Text Analysis”

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