But this Nation was not founded solely on the principle of citizens’ rights. Equally important, though too often not discussed, is the citizen’s responsibility. For our privileges can be no greater than our obligations. —John F. Kennedy, May 18, 1963, Nashville
May, 1963. JFK is in a centrifuge, buffeted by a series of challenges from abroad and at home that would have taxed anyone. Underneath the glamour and optimism of Camelot was a roiling mess of seemingly intractable problems, including the global threat of an aggressive, expansive Communism, and domestic unrest related to the irrefutable moral logic of the Civil Rights Movement set against implacable, and often violent, resistance.
All of this, the triumphs and the troubles, are, for the first time, playing out in black and white (and occasionally in living color) on television screens across America. We have clearly moved into a “see it now” age: in just the decade of the 1950s, the percentage of households with sets went from about 9% to about 87%. Soft censorship (reporter circumspection and editorial oversight) still existed, but the vast majority of people were getting their news visually, and sometimes that news contained graphic and unforgettable images.
Kennedy clearly understood the power of the new medium. He wrote a short essay for TV Guide in November 1959, in which he discussed his concerns about television’s potential for demagoguery, but also said it gave an opportunity to the viewing public to judge for itself a candidate’s sincerity—or lack of it. If that was a prediction, it was a pretty good one: Ten months later, in what was a decisive moment in the 1960 election, he was debating Richard Nixon, and winning, in part, on style points.
Charisma or not, glamour or not, it’s arguable JFK wasn’t quite ready for the Presidency when, at 43, he became the youngest man ever to be elected. His prior service in both the House and Senate had been unremarkable, and he had no executive experience. He made mistakes, some of them big ones. The Bay of Pigs fiasco, as well as expanding the American presence in Viet Nam are the most notable, but his often-fractious relationship with Congress, particularly in his first two years, didn’t help.
What Kennedy did have, in abundance, beyond just charisma, was the capacity to communicate (which is not necessarily the same thing as eloquence), the ability to express optimism, and the willingness to accept responsibility when he failed—in short, to lead in both good and bad times. Paired with that were personal qualities that gave substance to the image, most notably his intelligence, firmness of purpose, and coolness under fire, as his deft handling of the immensely dangerous Cuban Missile Crisis displayed.
What would eight years of JFK have looked like? None of us, fans, critics or somewhere in between, can know. Part of the enigma that was JFK stemmed from what the historian Robert Dalleck referred to as his “unfinished life.” We can project upon that life what we would like.
What we do have is the historical record of what he did, and what he said, if not always his inner thoughts. For those, we have to find opportunities to peek behind the curtain of the carefully choreographed. Such a moment may have come when he accepted an invitation to speak in Nashville to commemorate the 90th Anniversary of the founding of Vanderbilt University.
I had forgotten about this speech until Larry Sabato, Director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, and a JFK scholar, posted a link to a portion of it on Twitter. The image is a bit grainy and the sound quality isn’t perfect, but there’s something about it that is worth taking notice of.
JFK’s demeanor is serious and a bit subdued, and his words, while interesting and thoughtful, reflect that. It is not particularly eloquent; it doesn’t soar or stir the heart the way some of his more famous orations did. It is actually a bit flat (direct, but flat) when talking about Civil Rights, as if Kennedy is implicitly acknowledging that he knows there are no magic words to make the issue go away. Still, in its linkage of duty and rights, of the critical nature of education in a democracy, and of the greater obligations to society due from those who have more, there is clarity and real power.
I speak to you today, therefore, not of your rights as Americans, but of your responsibilities. They are many in number and different in nature. They do not rest with equal weight upon the shoulders of all. Equality of opportunity does not mean equality of responsibility. All Americans must be responsible citizens, but some must be more responsible than others, by virtue of their public or their private position, their role in the family or community, their prospects for the future, or their legacy from the past.
“Some must be more responsible than others.” This is such an interesting observation, especially when viewed through a contemporary lens. Nowadays, we no longer seem to speak this language at all. Our arguments about the obligations of the “uber-haves” are inexorably (and seemingly exclusively) connected not to service but to money, things like taxes and preferential legislative treatment. As to the “intellectual elites,” too many of us are tied up in self-congratulation that turns to entitlement. Our public-spiritedness is limited to those things from which we will benefit—schools and athletic facilities (until our kids graduate), libraries, museums and cultural centers that we patronize. Sometimes, what we give is not a gift at all—it’s a license to demand preferential treatment when public policy choices are being made.
Kennedy would never have accepted this. His sense of duty was, like many of his generation, more acute and personal. Roughly 70% of the members of Congress were veterans, and if you were a man and not a Vet, you needed a very good reason for it. Kennedy himself was a war hero, and he had lost an older brother, Joe Jr., in World War II when the experimental “drone” he was flying exploded prematurely. Service wasn’t just an abstraction, like mere patriotic words. Rather, JFK’s conception of service was a giving of yourself to an ideal, to your community, to your fellow citizen, to your country.
You have responsibilities, in short, to use your talents for the benefit of the society which helped develop those talents. You must decide, as Goethe put it, whether you will be an anvil or a hammer, whether you will give to the world in which you were reared and educated the broadest possible benefits of that education.
Kennedy pivots from the general to the specific. How must this audience of educated citizens serve.
Of the many special obligations incumbent upon an educated citizen, I would cite three as outstanding: your obligation to the pursuit of learning, your obligation to serve the public, your obligation to uphold the law.
Again, JFK voices a concern that has a very contemporary feel to it. Defend education from those who will try to dumb it down and tear it down.
If the pursuit of learning is not defended by the educated citizen, it will not be defended at all. For there will always be those who scoff at intellectuals, who cry out against research, who seek to limit our educational system.
Kennedy was speaking to a seemingly perpetual reality; the potent emotional argument, articulated in Richard Hofstadter’s 1963 Anti-intellectualism in American Life, that education was actually something pernicious. Science was bad, the humanities a sign of weakness, the educated snobbish, detached, and, when put in charge of anything, technocratic. In short, the egghead was neither a doer nor a person of conviction, but rather a shadowy figure, possibly insidious, corrosive of manly virtues, and thoroughly lacking in common sense.
Kennedy explicitly rejects this, asserting that knowledge is essential to democracy:
[T]he ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all, and  if we can, as Jefferson put it, ‘enlighten the people generally … tyranny and the oppressions of mind and body will vanish, like evil spirits at the dawn of day.’
Kennedy wasn’t done calling upon his audience:
[T]he educated citizen has an obligation to serve the public. He may be a precinct worker or President. He may give his talents at the courthouse, the State house, the White House. He may be a civil servant or a Senator, a candidate or a campaign worker, a winner or a loser. But he must be a participant and not a spectator.
If Kennedy had lived to see social media, would he have thought the constant online commenter (or author of an article such as this) a “participant”? I don’t think so. Service is not sport; it is giving something, with the only payback expected a sense of satisfaction. Service is communitarian in the best sense of the word. Service is not good intentions without action, it is commitment at a cost, and a cost willingly paid.
I would hope that all educated citizens would fulfill this obligation—in politics, in Government, here in Nashville, here in this State, in the Peace Corps, in the Foreign Service, in the Government Service, in the Tennessee Valley, in the world. You will find the pressures greater than the pay. You may endure more public attacks than support. But you will have the unequaled satisfaction of knowing that your character and talent are contributing to the direction and success of this free society.
“You may endure more public attacks than support.” How incredibly (and tragically) prescient. I don’t think we need much more commentary than that.
[F]inally, the educated citizen has an obligation to uphold the law. This is the obligation of every citizen in a free and peaceful society—but the educated citizen has a special responsibility by the virtue of his greater understanding.
Kennedy is not talking about jaywalking here. He is getting at something bigger, the struggle between the federal government and those states resisting desegregation. It’s an interesting framework—Kennedy is not trying to inspire, as Lincoln did at Gettysburg, by referring to Jefferson’s majestic words in the Declaration of Independence: “all men are created equal.” Instead, he is connecting citizenship to respect for the law.
He knows that law is the adhesive force in the cement of society, creating order out of chaos and coherence in place of anarchy. He knows that for one man to defy a law or court order he does not like is to invite others to defy those which they do not like, leading to a breakdown of all justice and all order. He knows, too, that every fellowman is entitled to be regarded with decency and treated with dignity. Any educated citizen who seeks to subvert the law, to suppress freedom, or to subject other human beings to acts that are less than human, degrades his heritage, ignores his learning, and betrays his obligation.
Certain other societies may respect the rule of force—we respect the rule of law.
For Kennedy, essentially a gradualist with an eye towards the 1964 election (and the need for Southern votes), it is perhaps the only framework he can use with conviction. However a person feels about minorities and minority rights, Americans are committed to the rule of law, and the world judges us on whether we are capable of holding to that standard. In May of 1963, we weren’t there.
The Nation, indeed the whole world, has watched recent events in the United States with alarm and dismay. No one can deny the complexity of the problems involved in assuring to all of our citizens their full rights as Americans. But no one can gainsay the fact that the determination to secure these rights is in the highest traditions of American freedom.
In these moments of tragic disorder, a special burden rests on the educated men and women of our country to reject the temptations of prejudice and violence, and to reaffirm the values of freedom and law on which our free society depends.
And, with that, Kennedy, having made his last points, moves to generic closing remarks. I don’t think he needed to do more.
We do. I wonder, if you took the text of this speech, scrubbed the references to Vanderbilt and the Tennessee statesmen, and republished it under another name, how people across the political spectrum would react. I suspect it would anger many, and for all the wrong reasons.
Professor Sabato has a pinned JFK quote on his Twitter account:
“The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.”
We are in those times.
The full text of the address may be found at the website of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.