January 9, 1961

JFK's Farewell to Massachusetts Legislature

On this day in 1961, John F. Kennedy bade farewell to the people of Massachusetts and reminded them of the state's unique legacy. In a speech at the State House, the youngest man and first Catholic elected to the presidency quoted the words of John Winthrop in 1630, "We must always consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill—the eyes of all people are upon us." "No man about to enter high office in this country," Kennedy said, "can ever be unmindful of the contribution this state has made to our national greatness." He referred to the "enduring qualities of Massachusetts" — "they are," he explained, "an indelible part of my life, my convictions, my view of the past, and my hopes for the future."

The Massachusetts Eleventh Congressional District, now obsolete, was represented by men who rose to high national political office, among them John Quincy Adams, John F. Kennedy, and Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy, known from boyhood as Jack, was born on May 29, 1917. His father was the politically ambitious, self-made millionaire Joseph P. Kennedy; his mother, Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, was the daughter of Boston Mayor "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald who launched a political dynasty.

The Kennedys raised their sons to occupy positions of power in the world. When his eldest son and namesake was killed in World War II, Joseph Kennedy focused his expectations on Jack. A Harvard graduate and war hero, the second Kennedy son was bright, witty, articulate, and attractive. At his father's urging and with his financial backing, he ran for Congress in 1946. Mayor Curley asked "With those two names, Kennedy and Fitzgerald, how could he lose?"

Indeed, although he was the Ivy League-educated son of a millionaire, he succeeded in winning the votes of the longshoremen, truck drivers, and other blue-collar workers who lived in the Massachusetts Eleventh District, now obsolete, s seat also occupied by President John Quincy Adams and future House Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill. In a year when the Massachusetts Democratic Party lost a U.S. Senate seat and the governorship, 29-year-old John F. Kennedy handily defeated his Republican opponent. In 1947, he headed to Washington.

"The enduring qualities of Massachusetts are an indelible part of my life, my convictions, my view of the past, and my hopes for the future."

After two terms in the House, he decided to run for the Senate. In 1952, he narrowly defeated Boston Brahmin Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. to win a seat in the U.S. Senate. Many of his supporters were drawn from the state's large immigrant communities. As biographer Robert Dallek has written, he was the "beneficiary of his father's fabulous wealth, a Harvard education, and a heroic career in the military fighting to preserve American values. Jack Kennedy was a model of what every immigrant family aspired to for themselves and their children."

In 1951, he had fallen in love with a beautiful 22-year-old socialite, Jacqueline Bouvier. Their wedding in September 1953 was called the social event of the year. His marriage and political success took place as Kennedy faced serious threats to his health. Diagnosed with Addison's disease in 1947, he suffered from other medical problems as well—headaches, stomach aches, respiratory infections, and almost constant back pain. In late 1954 and early 1955, he had several life-threatening operations on his spine. Between May 1955 and September 1957, he was hospitalized nine times for a total of 44 days.

During his convalescence, he wrote a collection of essays about eight senators who had risked their careers by taking unpopular stands. Profiles in Courage became a bestseller and won the 1957 Pulitzer Prize for biography. His national reputation continued to grow. In 1958, he won re-election to the Senate with a remarkable 73.6% of the vote, the largest popular margin ever received by a candidate in Massachusetts.

“With those two names, Kennedy and Fitzgerald, how could he lose?"

In January of 1960, John F. Kennedy announced he would seek the presidency. His health problems were a closely guarded secret. It was commonly known, however, that he was a practicing Catholic. He was only the second Catholic to attempt a run for president, and many believed his religion would doom his candidacy. After winning the Democratic nomination in the summer of 1960, he took the position "I am not the Catholic candidate for President. I am the Democratic party's candidate for President, who happens also to be a Catholic."

During the fall of 1960, Kennedy and Republican nominee Richard Nixon sparred in a series of historic televised debates. On November 8, 1960, John F. Kennedy won a narrow victory. The closeness of the race was due in large part to the fact that millions of Protestants were unwilling to vote for a Catholic. At 43, he was the youngest man and the first Roman Catholic to be elected to the nation's highest office.

"Jack Kennedy was a model of what every immigrant family aspired to for themselves and their children."

In January 9, 1961, President-elect Kennedy addressed the Massachusetts legislature. In perhaps the most famous line of the speech, he acknowledged that "of those to whom much is given, much is required." But his main subject was the unique legacy of the Bay State. "No man about to enter high office in this country," he said, "can ever be unmindful of the contribution this state has made to our national greatness…. Courage—judgment—integrity—dedication—these are the historic qualities of the Bay Colony and the Bay State."

On January 20, he stood in the bitter cold on the steps of the Capitol and, before a crowd of 20,000 people, was inaugurated the 35th President of the United States.

If You Go

The John F. Kennedy Library and Museum is located in Boston, near the JFK/UMASS stop on the Red Line.

John F. Kennedy's birthplace and childhood home in Brookline is a National Historic Site.

Location

This Mass Moment occurred in the Greater Boston region of Massachusetts.

Sources

The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, by Doris Kearns Goodwin (Simon & Schuster, 1987).

An Unfinished Life, by Robert Dallek (Little Brown and Company, 2003).

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