John Frederick Kennedy’s inaugural address is one of the most rhetorically effective speeches performed by a United States president. It may not be the most famous speech by President Kennedy, but it contains a number of very powerful messages that address the majority of complex issues that concerned the United States in the era of the Cold War. It is undeniable that Roosevelt’s inaugural speech is just as important and presented crucial policies such as the New Deal to the public, but it is slightly inelegant in its presentation. A closer examination of President Kennedy’s speech is required to fully understand the techniques that make it so effective. This paper will examine his use of rhetoric and explain why it is so effective.
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Use of Rhetoric
One of the elements that President Kennedy’s inaugural speech focuses on is a deliberate choice of words and their arrangement. All the messages of the speech are presented in simple and clear sentences that avoid political jargon. This approach creates a natural flow of the speech and allows all the listeners to understand the multitude of messages contained in it. President Kennedy also evoked some key imagery such as the values instilled by the founding fathers and how their struggle in the revolutionary war is experienced by countries around the world in that era.
Some of the most important messages were also punctuated by words that conveyed the message that the danger of nuclear war is paramount and that only through a levelheaded approach can it be avoided. Through his words, he created an image of a strong, but the just United States of America. That sense of justice was a key element of his personality as the previous history of the United States involved a number of unjust actions that led to grave consequences (Burns, 2016).
Meanwhile, he used words that were respected by the citizens of the United States on a historical level. Independence, freedom, and rights were emphasized, but not just in the context of the country, but in the world at large. Americans have previously experienced multiple isolationist movements, which is why they use of these specific words is important. The use of “independence” evokes the Declaration of Independence which created the United States as a country, “freedom” is one of the core values for which the revolutionary war was fought, and “rights” are not only crucial for every American, but they also remind people of the Bill of Rights, which was essential for the ratification of the country’s Constitution (Cogan, 2015; Brinkley, 2015).
The masterful use of these elements draws a clearly defined line between patriotism and nationalism. By emphasizing justice, “doing the right thing,” and respect for other nations, he made sure that his words are taken as encouragement, rather than aggression or call for war (Department of Education and Public Programs, n.d.).
The speech also contains one of the most famous uses of charisma in rhetoric history. Through the use of clever inversion, President Kennedy asked people to stop thinking too much about themselves and instead dedicate more time to supporting their country. This message could be interpreted in an extremely negative fashion as if Kennedy is against social security programs and civil rights. However, the rhetoric of his speech is so strong that the message is delivered clearly, with no confusion about its meaning. In fact, this line of text is still perhaps the most memorable political statement made by a United States politician (Dugan & Newport, 2013).
Finally, all three angles of the rhetorical triangle are engaged to their maximum capacity during this speech. Ethos or the speaker is naturally powerful due to his position as the newly elected president. His message, or logos, is structured in such a way that it delivers information on all the important issues of the country in a patriotic, succinct, and clear fashion. This message engages the pathos, or the audience, through historical imagery, the simple structure of the speech, and projection of the most cherished values of the audience on the topics of discussion.
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Why It Is Effective
As it was mentioned previously in the paper, President Roosevelt’s inaugural speech is certainly iconic and holds great importance to American history. It gave hope to a country that was in the midst of the most economically difficult era of its modern history. Moreover, his speech provided a detailed plan of how he wanted to deal with this issue. However, the presentation of his speech was extremely formal as the culture of the time dictated.
The message was delivered clearly to educated people who were aware of complex sentence structure. On the other hand, this approach could result in a lesser understanding of the message from people with incomplete or no education. His speech is eloquent, powerful, and contains an iconic quote, but the rhetoric of President Kennedy’s speech is still more effective. His words united the country under just principles in a time of an almost apocalyptic crisis.
The most memorable and famous speeches were created with effective rhetoric in mind. The inaugural speech of President Kennedy shows that he chose very specific words and literary devices to deliver a message of unity, strength, and justice to the people in a patriotic fashion. He was not able to finish his term due to his assassination, but his words will be remembered for centuries to come due to their power. However, Roosevelt’s speech is exemplary for the time, and should not be seen as inferior.
Brinkley, D. (2015). American heritage history of the United States. New York, NY: New Word City.
Cogan, N. H. (2015). The complete Bill of Rights: The drafts, debates, sources, and origins. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Department of Education and Public Programs. (n.d.). Analyzing the rhetoric of JFK’s inaugural address. Web.
Dugan, A. & Newport, F. (2013). Americans rate JFK as top modern president. Web.