Answer Man: Who inspired JFK's 'Ask not' quote?

News-DemocratNovember 23, 2013 

A few recent presidents are remembered for their famous quotes, such as "Read my lips -- no new taxes" (George W. Bush) and "I did not have sex with that woman, Monica Lewinsky" (Bill Clinton). President Kennedy, of course, is praised for his much more substantial and eloquent "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what can you do for your country." But didn't Kennedy take that line from some Roman orator? -- Ron Krause, of Shiloh

If you do even the most cursory research into the origins of this signature line from JFK's inaugural address, you'll probably wind up with an equally pithy thought: Ask not who might have said it first, but, rather, ask who hasn't said it.

Starting with an orator two millennia ago, I found at least a half-dozen suspects who could have inspired Kennedy, ranging from a famous Supreme Court justice to a little-known private school principal.

Exactly where Kennedy may have run across the line likely will remain a mystery of history, so I leave it to you to choose from these strong possibilities:

Roads to the quote all lead to ancient Rome and the famed statesman and philosopher (Marcus Tullius) Cicero. (You'll find some that websites say Cicero may have picked it up from the Roman poet Juneval, but that's impossible since Cicero had died two centuries before. Someone obviously confused his BCEs and A.D.s)

"JFK drew regularly on the writings and lives of heroes of history to influence," Michael Sloan, a Wake Forest University classics professor, said in a school release this week. "Great orators are well-educated, well-read and well-practiced and leave a legacy that demonstrates how, once articulated, great truths in moments of individual and national crises can unite human beings."

Ironically, Cicero also was assassinated by enemies in 43 B.C., but the "ask not" quote (which is obviously an approximate translation from the Latin) has been spicing up speeches and texts ever since.

At a Memorial Day address in 1884 in Keene, N.H., Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said, "It is now the moment when by common consent we pause to become conscious of our national life and to rejoice in it, to recall what our country has done for each of us, and to ask ourselves what we can do for our country in return."

Eight years later, the mayor of Haverhill, Mass., waxed poetic at the funeral of poet and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier, "Here may we be reminded that man is most honored, not by that which a city may do for him, but by that which he has done for the city."

In 1904, American educator LeBaron Russell Briggs wrote in his book "Routine and Ideals," "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?'"

At the 1916 Republican National Convention, Sen. and future President Warren Harding brought the delegates to their feet with, "In the fulfillment we must have a citizenship less concerned about what the government can do for it and more anxious about what it can do for the nation."

And, although some historians deny it, political commentator Chris Matthews suggests in his book "Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero" that the ruler of Camelot stole it from his days at the prestigious Choate prep school in Connecticut, where headmaster George St. John frequently exhorted his charges to think "not what Choate does for you, but what you can do for Choate."

So just how the thought ingrained itself in Kennedy's mind is anybody's guess, but the idea apparently was up there for a long time. As Arthur Schlesinger noted in his book "A Thousand Days," as far back as 1945 Kennedy had jotted down this thought from 18th century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, "As soon as any man says of the affairs of the state, what does it matter to me? the state may be given up as lost."

Scavenger hunt

Speaking of Kennedy, the Answer Man could use some help: After Kennedy was assassinated, students from Cathedral and Belleville Township high schools and Notre Dame Academy here raised money for a plaque to commemorate his appearance at the old St. Clair County Courthouse. The courthouse, of course, was razed in 1972. Does anyone know where the plaque is?

Today's trivia

How many laps were there in the typical chariot race in ancient Rome?

Answer to Saturday's trivia: Los Angeles lies at 118.15 degrees west longitude. Surely, there aren't more than two or three state capitals west of Lala-land, right? Wrong -- there are six (and stop calling me Shirley). In addition to the obvious Honolulu (157.56 degrees west), there are (from east to west) Carson City, Nev. (119.46 degrees), Sacramento, Calif. (121.30); Olympia, Wash. (122.53) Salem, Ore. (123.01); and Juneau, Alaska (134.27). (A tip of the Answer Man brain to John Fehrmann for that tantalizing tidbit.)

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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