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The Postwar United States
The Presidential Election of 1960
Overview Documents

White House, District of Columbia.
Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey

John F. Kennedy, a wealthy Democratic senator from Massachusetts, was elected president in 1960, defeating Vice President Richard Nixon. Though he clearly won the electoral vote, Kennedy's received only 118,000 more votes than Nixon in this close election.

In his inaugural address, Kennedy said, "Let the word go forth . . . that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans-born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage." Kennedy also challenged Americans to think of ways they could serve, saying "Ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country." This statement and Kennedy's enthusiasm appealed to many young idealists. But Kennedy also had won the votes of many traditional Democratic voters-members of labor unions, African Americans, and members of other ethnic groups.

Some analysts see the 1960 election as a turning point in American politics. Following the election, some aspects of the political process seemed to have changed forever. As you examine the documents listed to the right, look for factors that made the 1960 election different from preceding elections. What helped account for John Kennedy's appeal? What set him apart from Richard Nixon and from previous presidential candidates? In what ways was he like other candidates?
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