Kennedy Inauguration Plagiarism? by
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Prompted By Inaugurations

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I’ve enjoyed all of your stories about inaugurations, especially those about JFK’s in 1961. But do you know wherefrom he got his most famous quote?

Soon after that fabulous speech, the word started going around in alumni circles of The Choate School that they had heard words like that before. As a fellow alumnus (am I now indelibly labeled as a “preppy?”) I heard these rumblings. It turns out that line was modified from one that the former Headmaster used in some of his sermons. (We had to attend chapel daily, and twice on Sunday in those days!) This has been documented since then. Here’s one excerpt from an article from HuffPost:

Jack Kennedy attended Choate School in Wallingford, Connecticut. It’s now Choate-Rosemary Hall. The headmaster in Kennedy’s time was George St. John. The first page of his notebook contains a portion of an essay by Dean Lebaron Briggs who was St. John’s dean at Harvard. Let me read the last lines of that essay which St. John used for his chapel sermons:

As has often been said, the youth who loves his Alma Mater will always ask not “What can she do for me?” but “What can I do for her.”

Rather than scandalized, I’m sure most of us were proud that our little school played a part in actually educating JFK, and helping him make history!

Profile photo of Joe Worth Joe Worth

Characterizations: funny, right on!, well written


  1. Marian says:

    Thanks for the history lesson, Joe, you have a right to be proud!

  2. Suzy says:

    Joe, I love this story. Fascinating to learn, after all these years, where JFK got his most famous quote! I think your school was right to be proud about it. And I promise not to call you a preppy!

  3. Thanx Joe, I think I had heard JFK took that line from elsewhere, thanx for giving the due credit to your Alma Mater!

    If that is the most corrupt thing a politician does, I’ll take it, you too I’m sure!

  4. Ahh. Thanks for the background story. But it sounded so good when JFK said it. It was so full of hope and promise for our country. I’d love to hear someone say that today.

  5. John Shutkin says:

    That is a fascinating story, Joe, and thanks for sharing it with us. To be fair to JFK, that sort of oratorical phrasing is not all that uncommon and, as in his inauguration speech, often quite an effective rhetorical device. Indeed, one the senior partners of my former law firm, a very prominent First Amendment lawyer, loved to start off his briefs as follows: “First, let us explain what this case is not about. Then we will explain what it is about.”

    And I must admit that, as a kid who went to public school near Choate, we did view all of you guys there as “preppies.” Trust you will forgive me.

    I’m delighted that you are contributing to Retro with such great stories.

  6. Laurie Levy says:

    So interesting, Joe. I have always wondered in situations like this whether the appropriation was intentional or just something in the person’s head that he thinks he created. I guess we will never know.

  7. Dave Ventre says:

    My personal view is that it didn’t quite come up to plagiarism; that JFK expressed a general concept (often now called “giving back”) in specific terms for a specific audience.

  8. Betsy Pfau says:

    Gee, I always thought it was written by Ted Sorensen. Good to know that JFK just cribbed it from a sermon at Choate. Thanks for that info, Joe. Better than Melania lifting a whole paragraph from a speech by Michelle!

  9. I never knew this! Thanks for the informative anecdote and references.

  10. Joe Worth says:

    Thanks to all for your positive and friendly comments!

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