When Democratic presidential candidate John Kennedy arrived in Columbia on Oct. 10, 1960, there was no guarantee he would be able to persuade South Carolinians to vote for him on Election Day.
Southerners were innately suspicious of him because of his Massachusetts roots and his Ivy League education, said retired U.S. Sen. Ernest F. “Fritz” Hollings, who led the Kennedy campaign in the state.
“He was from Boston, from Haavaad,” Hollings said, imitating Kennedy’s distinctive New England accent.
Add unrest over civil rights and concerns over the future of the agriculture and textile industries, and Kennedy had a tough path through the conservative South.
With a lively band behind him, Kennedy made the most of his South Carolina connections, evoking the memory of John C. Calhoun and other Southern touchstones. He tapped into broader American issues related to the farming and textile industries, issues that resonated with South Carolinians, and dismissed rival Republican Richard Nixon as a man who promises but doesn’t deliver.
On election night, South Carolina ended up in the Kennedy column by 11,000 votes.
Here are excerpts from that Oct. 10, 1960 speech, including moments when applause and laughter erupted:
Governor Hollings, Senator Johnston, ladies, and gentlemen, I am grateful for the generous introduction of an old friend of my brother’s and mine of many years, your distinguished and vigorous governor, Fritz Hollings. I am grateful to him for his invitation to be here today. (Applause.) And I appreciate the presence on this platform of my friend and colleague in the U.S. Senate, Senator Olin Johnston, with whom I served for many years. (Applause.)
I am glad to be in a state which cast its vote for me at the Democratic Convention in 1956 for vice president. I am glad to be in a city, the home of the University of South Carolina, which honored me in 1957, and I am glad to be the first Democratic candidate in the history of South Carolina to come to this state and ask your help. (Applause.)
What did the Republicans ever do for South Carolina? (Response from the audience.) Actually, I am here to pay tribute to a great South Carolinian who speaks unknown to every American, the New York Yankees’ Bobby Richardson. (Laughter.) Apparently he is one Yankee who has your blessings and I am here to gain them, too.
Actually, baseball and politics are different. The other day with the Boston Red Sox, Ted Williams retired. They said he was too old at 42. Perhaps experience does not count. (Laughter.)
I want to express my regrets for being late, and more than I can say. They told me 5 days ago a storm was coming up here, so we waited. (Laughter.) But there is a storm coming up here next Nov. 8 that is going to sweep Mr. Nixon all the way back to California. (Applause.) Actually I was not playing golf in Georgia; I was at Warm Springs. (Laughter and applause.) I was at Warm Springs visiting the home of a great Democratic president, Franklin Roosevelt. (Applause.)
For 8 years in the U.S. Senate I have occupied a seat which was once held in the Senate, from Massachusetts, by a distinguished senator, Senator Daniel Webster. He served in the time before 1850, when the Senate was at its height, and included within its ranks Lewis Cass, Clay, Douglas, Benton, and all the rest. But none of these were considered by Daniel Webster to match the talents and the character of the senator from South Carolina, John C. Calhoun. (Applause.) They were both born in the same year; Calhoun was a native of Abingdon, S.C. They both went to college in New England, one to Yale and the other to Dartmouth. They had both entered Congress as young men, and they stayed in Congress for 40 years, until they died in 1850, John Calhoun, and in 1852 Senator Daniel Webster. They worked together on foreign relations, the development of the United States, fiscal improvements. Each served in the House as well as in the Senate. Each was secretary of state. And yet through most of their lives, they also differed on great questions. But to his dying day, Senator Daniel Webster said of John C. Calhoun, “He was much the ablest man I ever knew. He could have demolished Newton, Calvin, or Locke as a logician.” He admired above all his powerful mind and his courage.
Sitting as I do in the U.S. Senate, succeeding Senator Webster in succession, I have also admired John C. Calhoun. When I was selected as chairman of a committee to pick five outstanding senators in the history of this country, John C. Calhoun’s name led all the rest, and his painting is now in the Senate reception room. (Applause.) And when I wrote a book about courageous senators, I mentioned John C. Calhoun. I am not here in South Carolina to make glittering promises or glowing predictions, but to express the hope that in 1960, South Carolina and the Nation will be guided by the spirit of Calhoun and his courage. “I never know what South Carolina thinks of a measure,” he once said. “I act to the best of my judgment and according to my conscience. If she approves, well and good. If she does not, and wishes anyone to take my place, I am ready to vacate. We are even.”
He demonstrated this in 1816 when he voted to raise the pay of congressmen from $6 a day to the munificent sum of $1,500 a year. Congressman after congressman was defeated. And yet John C. Calhoun, speaking in the House, spoke words that I invoke today. “This House is at liberty to decide on this question according to the dictates of its best judgment. Are we bound in all cases to do what is popular? Have the people of this country snatched the power of deliberation from this body? If we act in opposition to conscience and reason, are political errors, once prevalent, never to be corrected?”
That is the spirit of the Democratic Party, that is the spirit of Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. Are we bound in all cases to do what is popular? In 1960, the people of the United States have a very clear choice to make between Mr. Nixon and myself. We see America in different terms, and we see the future in entirely different terms. He runs on a slogan of “You have never had it so good.” I run on the slogan, “This is a great country that must be greater.” (Applause.) I think we can do better. (Applause.)
We must say as John Calhoun said, that we must appeal to conscience and reason, and not merely to what is popular. Mr. Nixon has taken a different course, for he does not belong as I do to the party of Calhoun. He belongs to the party of Herbert Hoover, who promised a chicken for every pot. He belongs to the party that kept cool with Coolidge, that returned to normalcy with Harding, that tried to repeal Social Security with Landon, that ran Dewey. We never did that. (Laughter.) Mr. Nixon is true to the traditions of his party. Popularity, not logic, is his standard. He promises a vast new program of aid to education. He promises in the last 2 weeks a great and vast housing program and he promises to outdo the Democrats in agriculture, public works, foreign aid, defense, and all the rest. But then he journeys South and he talks to you and he comes out against the federal bureaucracy, he comes out against the spending, he comes out against the Democratic Party because we support these programs.
I believe the American people and the people of South Carolina and the South and the North should be dealt with more frankly. I believe that the American people are wise enough to know that these promises are either election-year oratory, or they will require funds and effort by the federal government. I am just as opposed as Mr. Nixon to unbalanced budgets and to federal deficits. The largest deficit in the history of this country was in 1958, $12 billion. I do not believe that Washington should be the center of all action. We do not know as much about your problems as you do. There is no magic in tax money that comes to Washington and then is spent by us. But I must say that I believe not in big government for big government’s sake, but I believe in effective government, and I believe there is a responsibility for the national government. The farmers in this state who grow cotton, they cannot protect themselves without a national policy. The textile workers of this state who are working in some cases 2, 3, or 4 days, they cannot protect themselves against the imports that may destroy them, without national action. We cannot develop the Tennessee Valley without the people working together. There is a place for action on every level, and those who say that they are against action, I believe, are against the United States moving ahead in the 1960s. (Applause.) And instead of talking out of both sides of our mouth, I think every candidate should take his stand with Lyndon Johnson of Texas, who said he talks not as a Texan, not as a Southerner, not as a white man, but as an American in a united country, and I speak in that spirit today. (Applause.)
The test of popularity, rather than Calhoun’s test of conscience, has also been applied by my opponent in the sensitive area of civil rights. He makes a great show of discussing this subject when he comes south, but it is hardly the same speech he delivered in New York City last week. Up north he talks about legislation. Down here he emphasizes that laws alone are not enough. Up there he stresses how quickly he will act in all these areas. Down here he says, “I know this is a difficult problem.” Up there he criticizes the Democratic Party for having nominated a Southerner on the ticket. Down here he omits the civil rights plank in his own platform.
I don’t think Mr. Nixon is fooling anyone, North or South. I think it is clear that if we are to have progress in this area, and we must have progress to be true to our ideals and responsibilities, then presidential leadership is necessary so that every American can enjoy his full constitutional rights. Some of you may disagree with that view, but at least I have not changed that view in an election year, or according to where I am standing. (Applause.)
I don’t send Senator Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania to campaign for me in the North and Senator Barry Goldwater to come South, and say we don’t need any of this. (Applause.) All these are important issues, but I must say what is most important is that the United States recognize in the 1960s that these are difficult and dangerous times, that it is going to require the best of all of us, whether we live in Massachusetts or whether we live in South Carolina. I do not go to the American people - and it is upon your shoulders that the great decision will rest - promising that if I am elected life will be easy. I think to be a citizen of the United States in the 1960s is going to be a burdensome and hazardous occupation. But I have the greatest confidence in this country. I have the greatest confidence in our system of government. I know we can meet our responsibilities. And I do not agree with those who say that we downgrade the United States when we downgrade Republican leadership. (Applause.) I am not satisfied, in our most dangerous years, to have our steel mills working 50 percent, to have 35 percent of our brightest boys and girls never get to college, to be turning out half as many doctors and nurses as we now need, to find the largest agricultural surplus, $9 billion, stored away rotting while more than 5 million Americans go to bed every night on a substandard diet of 5 cents a day of surplus foods. I am not satisfied to see the United States stand still, to see farmers’ income driven down and given only for relief the same promises of Mr. Benson, applied with new lighting and new makeup. (Applause.)
These are dangerous days, but it is upon us that the hope of freedom lies; it is upon the United States, it is upon our vitality and our vigor and our willingness to embrace the future. I come as the candidate of the oldest political party on earth, in direct succession from Thomas Jefferson, in direct succession and standing where Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman stood in this century, and saying that we also in our day have a rendezvous with destiny. Our generation of Americans must meet its responsibility, not only to ourselves, but to all those who wish to trod on freedom’s road. I want Mr. Khrushchev to know that a new generation of Americans has taken over in this country, men who fought in Italy and the South Pacific in order to maintain this country’s freedom, men who have the greatest confidence in our country, men who want to see it move again, men who want to set it going again. And I come to South Carolina and ask your help in this campaign. I ask you to join us in building a stronger America, an America which will serve as an example to a watching world as we sit on a most conspicuous stage. We will give leadership if we are successful, and I can promise you this country will start to move again. Thank you. (Applause.)
Citation: John F. Kennedy: “Speech of Senator John F. Kennedy, State House, Columbia, SC,” October 10, 1960.