A Rhetorical Analysis of JFK’s Inaugural Address

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Before George W. Bush and Barrack Obama have taken the seat of being the president of United States, one man has already enjoyed the position and earned a star in that hall of fame like Abraham Lincoln did. He is former U.S. president, John F. Kennedy, who, without a doubt, has been critically acclaimed as one of the best presidents who has ruled in the United States of America. Together with this great recognition, JFK has also earned popularity and greatness with his inaugural address that did not only direct to his fellow citizens but to people all over the world.

His inaugural address, which he delivered on the 20th of January 1961, though not the shortest of presidency speeches, was still considered to be brief — containing only 1, 355 words — and simple — choosing fancy words because as he told his speechwriter, Sorensen, he didn’t want the people to think he’s a *windbag. Despite the simplicity, JFK has still paved his way to captivate the hearts and minds of the people with his inaugural address. Who would not, when the address contained numerous rhetorical devices to embellish itself?

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*windbag — a person who, like the wind does,

just blows off everything he or she says away

Rhetorical devices are techniques that help a writer or a speaker beautify a discourse, and persuade and influence people regarding the argument presented. In JFK’s inaugural speech, his rhetorical devices have done the job of pleasing and persuading the people with his message. Out of only 1, 355 words, he has been able to use 13 rhetorical devices to persuade people. One in particular is Alliteration.

Alliteration is a consecutive repetition of initial sounds (vowels and consonants) in a phrase or a sentence. In JFK’s speech, there have been a total of 28 alliterations used. The following alliterations are identified in bold letter and are labeled by their paragraph number:

(1) same solemn oath

(2) man holds in his mortal hands

(2) for which our forebears fought

(3) go forth from this time

(3) to friend and foe alike

(4) whether it wishes us well

(4) we shall pay any price, bear any burden

(4) the survival and success of liberty

(6) faithful friends

(7) colonial control

(7) strongly supporting

(8) struggling to break the bonds of mass misery

(10) sovereign states

(10) writ may run

(11) before the dark powers of destruction

(13) the steady spread of the deadly atom

(14) sincerity is always subject to proof

(19) peace preserved

(22) bear the burden

(23) a grand and global alliance

(27) high standards of strength and sacrifice

(27) go forth to lead the land we love

Another rhetorical device that has been presented in JFK’s inaugural address is Anaphora.

Anaphora refers to the repetition of one or more words at the head of consecutive phrases, clauses, or sentences. There has been a total of six anaphors presented in JFK’s speech. First set of anaphors is indicated in Paragraph 2:

(2) … to abolish all forms of human society

and all forms of human life

Another set of anaphors is also shown in Paragraph 7:

(7) We shall not always expect to find them supporting our view.

But we shall always hope to find them strongly supporting their own freedom…

Third set of anaphors is presented from Paragraph 6 to Paragraph 11 of JFK’s inaugural address:

(6) To those old allies whose cultural and spiritual origins we share…

(7) To those new states whom we welcome to the ranks of the free…

(8) To those people in the huts and villages of half the globe…

(9) To our sister republics south of our border…

(10) To that world assembly of sovereign states, the United Nations…

(11) Finally, to those nations who would make themselves our adversary…

In succeeding Paragraphs 15 to 19, a fourth set of anaphors is also bestowed:

(15) Let both sides explore what problems unite us…

(16) Let both sides for the first time, formulate serious and precise proposals…

(17) Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors…

(18) Let both sides unite to heed, in all corners of the earth…

(19) Let both sides join in creating a new endeavor…

A fifth set of anaphors is also specified in Paragraph 8:

(8) … not because the communists may be doing it,

not because we seek their votes,

but because it is right…

Lastly, a sixth set of anaphors is denoted in Paragraph 22:

(22) … not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need —

not as a call to battle, though embattled we are…

A number of metaphors have been also stated in the inaugural address of JFK.

A metaphor is a rhetorical device that directly compares a person with an object. A total of eight metaphors are listed in JFK’s speech:

(3) … that the torch has been passed…

(7) … those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger…

(9) … to assist free men and free governments in casting off the chains of poverty…

(9) … this peaceful revolution of hope cannot become the prey of hostile powers…

(9) … this hemisphere intends to remain the master of its own house…

(13) … racing to alter that uncertain balance of terror that stays…

(19) And if a beachhead of cooperation may

(19) push back the jungle of suspicion…

Antitheses have also been specified in JFK’s speech of inauguration to the people. An antithesis refers to a contrast within parallel phrases. An overall of eight antitheses is indicated as taken from the address:

(1) We observe today not a victory of party but celebration of freedom, symbolizing an end as well as a beginning, signifying renewal as well as change…

(2) … not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.

(6) United there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided there is little we can do…

(15) Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.

(19) … not a new balance of power, but a new world of law.

(24) I do not shrink from this responsibility — I welcome it.

(25) And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.

(26) … ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.

Two parallelisms have also been identified in the speech. A parallelism refers to the congruency of tenses of verbs as used in succession in sentences.

(4) … pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe…

(8) If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.

Two apostrophes have also been stated in the inaugural address. An apostrophe refers to the interruption of thought to directly address a person or a personification. Paragraphs 21 and Paragraphs 25 contained examples of apostrophes:

(21) In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than mine…

(25) And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you…

Two opposing rhetorical devices — Polysyndeton and Asyndeton — have also been shown in JFK’s speech. A polysyndeton refers to the insertion of conjunctions before each word in a list. It is evident in Paragraph 19:

(19) … where the strong are just and the weak secure and the peace preserved…

On the other hand, an asyndeton refers to the absence of conjunctions in a sentence, as seen in Paragraphs 4, 17, and 24:

(4) … bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, (and) oppose any foe…

(17) Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, (and) tap the ocean depths…

(24) … the energy, the faith, (and) the devotion…

The use of chiasmus has also been apparent to beautify JFK’s inaugural address. A chiasmus is a rhetorical device that reverses the grammatical order of one phrase to the next. In Paragraphs 14 and 25, examples of chiasmus have been stated:

(14) Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.

(25) … ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your

country.

Other rhetorical devices have also been used in JFK’s inaugural address. Anastrophe, which refers to the inversion of word order (syntax) to mark emphasis, is made evident in Paragraph 5:

(5) This much we pledge — and more.

The punctuation of a point with an *aphorism, called Sententia, has also been made evident in Paragraph 18:

(18) … to «undo the heavy burdens, and let the opposed go free…

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*aphorism — saying; adage; cliché;maxim

Tricolon, which refers to a series of three parallel words, phrases, clauses, or statements, has also been presented in Paragraph 22:

(22) … not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need —

not as a call to battle, though embattled we are,

but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle.

In some instances, numerous rhetorical devices could be implied in a phrase, clause, or a statement. A number of statements with numerous rhetorical devices for each statement have been apparently implied in JFK’s inaugural speech.

Paragraph 25 indicates four rhetorical devices: Apostrophe, Chiasmus, Antimetabole, and Antithesis; Paragraph 4, two devices: Parallelism and Asyndeton; Paragraph 15, two devices: Anaphora and Antithesis.

Paragraph 25:

(Apostrophe)

And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.

(Chiasmus)

And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.

(Antimetabole)

And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.

(Antithesis)

And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.

Paragraph 4:

(Parallelism)

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, to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

(Asyndeton)

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, (and) oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

Paragraph 15:

(Anaphora)

(15) Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those

problems which divide us.

(16) Let both sides for the first time, formulate serious and precise proposals for the inspection and control of arms, and bring the absolute power to destroy other nations under the absolute control of all nations.

(17) Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths, and encourage the arts and commerce.

(18) Let both sides unite to heed, in all corners of the earth, the command of Isaiah to «undo the heavy burdens, and [to] let the oppressed go free.»

(19) Let both sides join in creating a new endeavor — not a new balance of power, but a new world of law where the strong are just, and the weak secure, and the peace preserved.

(Antithesis)

(15) Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.



Angelyn T Laus

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