Skip to main content

Whose Line Is It Anyway?

June 2024
1min read

Was JFK’s Most Famous Quote Coined When Arthur Was President?

Late this Spring the New York Times reported on yet another controversy over John F. Kennedy’s ever-restless memory. Two writers have produced books with diametrically opposed conclusions about his most famous line. In Ask Not: The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy and the Speech That Changed America , Thurston Clarke insists it was JFK alone who wrote, “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” In Sounding the Trumpet: The Making of John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address , Richard J. Tofel says it was supplied by Kennedy’s speechwriter Theodore Sorensen.

But whatever JFK’s immediate inspiration (which might well have included his old school’s dictum that what matters is “not what Choate does for you but what you can do for Choate”), Hugh Rawson and Margaret Miner point out in the American Heritage Dictionary of American Quotations that “the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations found a similar exhortation in the funeral oration for John Greenleaf Whittier in 1892” and that in an 1884 Memorial Day address Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., said, “We pause … to recall what our country has done for each of us, and to ask ourselves what we can do for our country in return.”

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.