Written & Spoken Word

John F. Kennedy speaking at Amherst College

Wealth Inequality and the Value of the Artist

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TITLE: Remarks at Amherst College upon receiving an honorary degree, 26 October 1963

AUTHOR: John F. Kennedy

ARCHIVAL CREATORS: Department of Defense. Defense Communications Agency. White House Communications Agency.

SOURCE: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

LICENSE: Public domain.

On October 23, 1963 - exactly one month before he was assassinated - President John F. Kennedy received an honorary degree and delivered a short speech at Amherst College. The occasion was the groundbreaking for a library honoring poet Robert Frost, who at the age of 86 had recited his poem "The Gift Outright" at Kennedy's inauguration in January of 1961. Frost had died in late January of 1963, nine months before Kennedy's remarks.

Kennedy's speech can be divided into two main parts. In the first part, Kennedy reminds the Amherst students that "Privilege is here, and with privilege goes responsibility...private colleges, taken as a whole, draw 50 percent of their students from the wealthiest 10 percent of our Nation...There is inherited wealth and inherited poverty. And unless th egraduates of this college and other colleges like it who are given a running start in life -- unless they are willing to put back into our society, those talents, the broad sympathy, the understanding, the compassion -- unless they are willing to put those qualities back into the service of the Great Republic, then obviously the presuppositions upon which our democracy is based are bound to be fallible."

In the second part of his speech, Kennedy had even more to say about the value of the artist (including the poet) to American life: "Our national strength matters, but the spirit which informs and controls our strength matters just as much. This was the special significance of Robert Frost. He brought an unsparing instinct for reality to bear on the platitudes and pieties of society. His sense of the human tragedy fortified him against self-deception and easy consolation. 'I have been,' he wrote, 'one acquainted with the night.' And because he knew the midnight as well as the high noon, because he understood the ordeal as well as the triumph of the human spirit, he gave his age strength with which to overcome despair. At bottom, he held a deep faith in the spirit of man, and it is hardly an accident that Robert Frost coupled poetry and power, for he saw poetry as the means of saving power from itself...The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state."

You can listen to the speech by clicking below: