The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Awe-inspiring’: Listen to Sen. John F. Kennedy read the Declaration of Independence

On July 4, 1957, at approximately 9:05 a.m., a voice beamed out of transistor radios across New York City. The speaker — a young senator with a Boston accent — began reading the Declaration of Independence.

It was John F. Kennedy.

In a few years, Kennedy’s voice would become unmistakable around the world — that of a president capable of oratory magic looking upward to the moon and inward to racial injustice.

JFK was tested by white supremacists. Here’s what he finally did about it.

But that morning, he was a freshman senator from Massachusetts. He was recovering from two spinal surgeries. In a few months, his daughter, Caroline, would be born.

And to honor America’s birthday, Kennedy agreed to read the country’s founding document in its entirety.

It took him 10 minutes and 40 seconds.

For a man remembered for his soaring rhetoric, surprisingly little is known about his reading of the Declaration. The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum was given a copy of the recording in 1964 but didn’t release it until 2004. It had apparently been overlooked.

“Given the thousands of audio recordings and miles of film footage held at the Kennedy Library, any one item — no matter how marvelous — does not always come to the forefront,” the library’s director said at the time. “It is awe-inspiring to listen to John F. Kennedy read in full the nation’s founding document, which was always meant to be spoken.”

The New York Times thought similarly back in the 1950s.

It was a July Fourth tradition for the paper reprint a facsimile of the Declaration of Independence, according to a press release from back then. In conjunction with the publication, the paper’s classical music station — WQXR — invited someone well known to recite the document on air.

In 1957, it was Kennedy.

It is an extraordinary recording, nearly impossible to listen to without finishing. Kennedy’s voice is firm, forceful, climatic. “Kennedy’s reading,” the station said, “was followed by a performance of Randall Thomson’s Testament of Freedom (1942), a series of choral settings from the writings of Thomas Jefferson.”

What did Kennedy make of reading the document in its entirety? The answer seems lost to history.

But the world did later learn what he felt about its importance.

Five years after the radio broadcast, when Kennedy was president, he boarded a helicopter at the White House and traveled to Philadelphia for a major July Fourth speech at Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence had been debated and signed.

JFK’s last birthday: Gifts, champagne and wandering hands on the presidential yacht

President John F. Kennedy discusses the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1962, calling it a "revolutionary document." (Video: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum)

Kennedy told the audience of more than 90,000 people that a week earlier he had visited the National Archives to look at the document:

To read it today is to hear a trumpet call. For that Declaration unleashed not merely a revolution against the British, but a revolution in human affairs. Its authors were highly conscious of its worldwide implications. And George Washington declared that liberty and self-government everywhere were, in his words, “finally staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.”

Kennedy linked the document to policies he was pursuing both at home and abroad:

For 186 years this doctrine of national independence has shaken the globe — and it remains the most powerful force anywhere in the world today. There are those struggling to eke out a bare existence in a barren land who have never heard of free enterprise, but who cherish the idea of independence. There are those who are grappling with overpowering problems of illiteracy and ill health and who are ill-equipped to hold free elections. But they are determined to hold fast to their national independence. Even those unwilling or unable to take part in any struggle between East and West are strongly on the side of their own national independence.

After his speech, Kennedy flew by helicopter to Camp David.

The chopper took an unexpected path at Kennedy’s request — over the battlefields in Gettysburg.

Read more Retropolis:

Jefferson’s powerful last public letter reminds us what Independence Day is all about

Discovered: Philadelphia’s high-tech, totally natural plumbing of 1812

Zapruder captured JFK’s assassination in riveting detail, fueling decades of conspiracy theories

Poland once sent the U.S. a birthday card. With 5 million signatures.