WBUR

John F. Kennedy’s ‘City Upon A Hill’

In a series called “November 1963,” we’re listening back to America’s 35th president, JFK. Some of what you hear might be immediately familiar. Some might surprise you. All of it, we hope, whether from a public address or a private moment, will shed light on the complexities of a man and the challenges that defined his presidency.

BOSTON — On Jan. 9, 1961, the 43-year-old president-elect returned to Massachusetts to thank the Commonwealth. Before an audience of legislators, officials and 700 spectators in the State House, Kennedy looked back on his political career, and ahead to the presidency.

President-elect Kennedy as he spoke to a joint session of the Massachusetts Legislature. (AP)

President-elect Kennedy as he spoke to a joint session of the Massachusetts Legislature. (AP)

“For 43 years, whether I was in London, or in Washington, or in the South Pacific, or elsewhere — this has been my home. And, God willing, wherever I serve, this shall remain my home.”

Kennedy likened the citizens of the Commonwealth to the ancient Athenians, and quoted Pericles. “We do not imitate,” he said. “For, we are a model to others.” He expressed a debt of gratitude to the state that launched him, as well as a promise.

“The enduring qualities of Massachusetts — the common threads woven by the pilgrim and the puritan, the fisherman and the farmer, the Yankee and the immigrant — will not be and could not be forgotten in this nation’s executive mansion. They are an indelible part of my life, my convictions, my view of the past, and my hopes for the future.”

Kennedy was a keen student of history, and this address hinted at his own preoccupation with how posterity would size him up.

“I have been guided by the standard John Winthrop set before his shipmates on the flagship Arabella 331 years ago, as they, too, faced the task of building a new government on a perilous frontier. ‘We must always consider,’ he said. ‘That we shall be as a city upon a hill — the eyes of all people are upon us.’ Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us.”

Evoking his 1957 Pulitzer Prize winning book “Profiles In Courage,” Kennedy concluded by calling for courage, judgment, integrity and dedication.

“These are the qualities which, with God’s help, this son of Massachusetts hopes will characterize our government’s conduct in the four stormy years that lie ahead. I ask for your help and your prayers as I embark on this new and solemn journey.”

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