American Portraits

The Torch Has Passed to a New Generation: John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address and Responsibility

In this lesson, students will analyze John F. Kennedy’s call in his Inaugural Address for responsible actions by the American citizenry.

Founding Principles

Civic Virtue image

Civic Virtue

A set of actions and habits necessary for the safe, effective, and mutually beneficial participation in a society.

Individual Responsibility image

Individual Responsibility

Individuals must take care of themselves and their families and be vigilant to preserve their liberty.


January 20, 1961, dawned as a cold day with a cutting wind. Brilliant sunlight reflected off the glistening eight inches of snow that had fallen the previous afternoon. Tens of thousands of dignitaries and ordinary Americans braved the winter weather for a chance to witness an event that was only occurring for the thirty-fifth time in the nation’s history—the inauguration of a president. The day would be rife with anticipation for any new president, but Americans were especially eager to hear from the nation’s youngest elected president in history about the course he would offer them….

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

Why is it important for you to act responsibly as a United States citizen?

Virtue Defined

Responsibility is accountability to myself and others.

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will analyze John F. Kennedy’s call in his Inaugural Address for responsible actions by the American citizenry.


  • Students will analyze John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address.
  • Students will examine Kennedy’s understanding of responsibility in American citizens.
  • Students will understand why acting responsibly affects the future of the United States.
  • Students will act responsibly in their own lives to protect freedom.


In the late 1950s, the United States was an affluent country and one of the world’s military superpowers along with the Soviet Union. Americans were enjoying a lengthy period of prosperity after the tumultuous decades of the Great Depression and World War II. Millions drove new cars on the new national highway system during vacations or enjoyed consumer goods in their suburban homes.

However, there were many significant challenges in postwar America. The U.S.S.R. and the U.S. were embroiled in the Cold War, a conflict that could spark into nuclear annihilation at any moment. The Russians seemed to be pulling ahead in the arms race and technology when they sent the satellite Sputnik into orbit. A series of small recessions caused economic setbacks, and many Americans lived in poverty and were not beneficiaries of postwar affluence. Finally, cultural critics complained about the sterility and conformity of American corporate life. When John F. Kennedy was elected as the youngest president in American history, he issued a ringing call to action for Americans to face these challenges and not settle for mediocrity.


  • Annihilation
  • Sterility
  • Conformity
  • Mediocrity
  • Affluence
  • Inauguration
  • Orator
  • Enunciate
  • Clarion
  • Totalitarian
  • Communism

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the “Walk-In-The-Shoes” question in mind as they read. Then have them answer the remaining questions below.

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Walk-In-The-Shoes Questions
As you read, imagine you are the protagonist.

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What fears or concerns might you have?
  • What may prevent you from acting in the way you ought?

Observation Questions

  • What was John F. Kennedy’s identity during this time? Was it different from how others perceived his identity?
  • What were the purposes of Kennedy’s speech? What were Kennedy’s purposes as president?
  • What did the purpose of Kennedy’s speech reveal about him as a leader?
  • Kennedy implored his fellow citizens to act responsibly in their own lives. What did this say about Kennedy’s own identity?

Discussion Questions
Discuss the following questions with your students.

  • What is the historical context of the narrative?
  • What historical circumstances presented a challenge to the protagonist?
  • How and why did the individual exhibit a moral and/or civic virtue in facing and overcoming the challenge?
  • How did the exercise of the virtue benefit civil society?
  • How might exercise of the virtue benefit the protagonist?
  • What might the exercise of the virtue cost the protagonist?
  • Would you react the same under similar circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How can you act similarly in your own life? What obstacles must you overcome in order to do so?

Additional Resources

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