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I was trying to remember the origination of the phrase "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." I'm aware president John F. Kennedy famously said it, but I thought he wasn't the first, despite that that (sadly) comprises most of an Internet search's results.

And before you state that JFK heard it from his school's headmaster (which I read somewhere), I'll tell you that I was surprised to see it spoken years ago when shown on a very old and grainy, black-and-white film on PBS TV by (if I recall) a president in front of the White House, perhaps of the WWI era. Can anyone confirm my recollection and name the speaker?

I am embarrassed to say that I may have confused the quote with another famous presidential quote, FDR's "The only thing we have to fear..." However, I am not too embarrassed to tell the truth here. Thank you all for your sincere answers.

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    Any film from the WWI era would have been silent. Are you sure you are not just misremembering a version of the Kennedy quote you might have seen? – suchiuomizu Mar 14 at 18:37
  • @suchiuomizu Good point; but I am confident it was much earlier than the 1960s. It stood out to me because I had always thought those were Kennedy's words. Maybe there was a voice recording that was added later to the film? The film was in poor shape (as was the audio) and the clothing worn was from decades before the 1960s. – kackle123 dances with Monica Mar 14 at 20:55
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    The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy - Wikipedia says This appears to be an elegant rephrasing of Franklin D. Roosevelt's acceptance speech at the 1936 Democratic National Convention: "To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny." – Mark Johnson Mar 14 at 21:13
  • Well, the only thing that comes close in my Internet searching is that apparently Harding said "Our most dangerous tendency is to expect too much of government, and at the same time to do for it too little," ("A Humorous Account of America's Past: 1898 to 1945" by Richard T. Stanley). I'll just have to assume I am mistaken. – kackle123 dances with Monica Mar 14 at 21:16
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    @MarkJohnson I WAS confident the wording was exact, that's why I was so surprised. But that's okay, I appreciate your reply. ...I come to SE to get my balloons deflated. ;) – kackle123 dances with Monica Mar 14 at 21:19
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The Yale Book of Quotations (edited by Fred R. Shapiro) mentions several quotations related to that one. The most likely inspiration for Kennedy's line seems to be the following passage from Khalil Gibran's 1925 essay "The New Frontier":

Are you a politician asking what your country can do for you or a zealous one asking what you can do for your country? If you are the first, then you are a parasite; is the second, then you are an oasis in a desert.

Another one, from an 1884 Memorial Day address by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.:

We pause to become conscious of our national life and to rejoice in it, to recall what our country has done for us, and to ask ourselves what we can do for our country in return.

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A summery from some of the comments, which may be interesting to others:

The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy - Wikipedia says This appears to be an elegant rephrasing of Franklin D. Roosevelt's acceptance speech at the 1936 Democratic National Convention :

"To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny."


First inauguration of Franklin D. Roosevelt - Wikipedia

So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is...fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and of vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. And I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.


Presidency of Warren G. Harding - Inauguration - Wikipedia

My Countrymen: When one surveys the world about him after the great storm, noting the marks of destruction and yet rejoicing in the ruggedness of the things which withstood it, if he is an American he breathes the clarified atmosphere with a strange mingling of regret and new hope. ... Our most dangerous tendency is to expect too much from the government and at the same time do too little for it.

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