Profiles in Courage
John F. Kennedy
Winner of The Pulitzer Prize
This book is not just the stories of the past but a book of hope and
confidence for the future. What happens to the country, to the world, depends on what we
do with what others have left us.
Robert F. Kennedy
Before John F. Kennedy became the thirty-fifth President of the United States, he was a
Senator from Massachusetts. It was shortly after his ninth year in that distinguished office,
that he began to realize the courage and commitment which preceded us all and had
existed in the annals of american history since the very beginning. In his studies of such
bold actions, he decided to write about eight Senators who had come before him and were
representative of the "most admirable of human virtues," courage. A term that Ernest
Hemingway described as "grace under pressure." And we've all been there; when we tried
to stand upon our personal convictions, our innermost beliefs, against all odds. Whether it
was as a child when arguing against our parent's wishes, at school resisting pressure from our peers, or in an open and public forum, we've each had a
chance to courageously defend our beliefs. And so have these eight Senators, each in their
own time, often in the face of "overwhelming opposition", according to Kennedy, each
serves as a model of courage under pressure. Below, I attempt to briefly profile each
Senator selected, and in no way is this an attempt to accurately portray their deeds of
courage. That can only be done in its entirety in the book itself, which I highly recommend
John Quincy Adams- Like George W. Bush today, John Quincy Adams was the son of
a president and became president himself. Also like the president of today,
Adams faced scrutiny and pressure at his every move and decision. But obviously, Kennedy
doesn't write of this and nor shall I. Kennedy begins with the young returning diplomat
from his father's presidency and his election as a Federalist to the Massachusetts
legislature where he first demonstrated his "disdain for narrow partisanship." His proposal
that the Republican Party be given proportional representation on the Governor's council
was an action predicated on a principle by which his whole public life had been, and would
always be, governed. On to the Senate, Quincy would remain wrapped in principles of "
firmness, perseverance, coolness and forbearance." Hostilities would follow his entire
career and are chronicled well in this chapter, beginning with his initial three-
hour debate in the Senate by objecting to a resolution calling for Senators to wear crepe
in honor of three recently deceased patriots. It was just the beginning.
Daniel Webster-As a Senator from Massachusetts, in 1828, Webster battled with
South Carolina Senators John C. Calhoun and Robert Hayne over a proposed high-tariff
bill that he supported. Defending the Union, Webster declared, "Liberty and Union, now and
forever, one and inseperable." Opposing the expansion of slavery but fearing even more,
the dissolution of the Union, Webster supported the Compromise of 1850, which
divided antislavery proponents and the Whig Party but in the end, strenghtened the
preservation of the Union.
Thomas Hart Benton-A Senator from Missouri from 1821 until 1851, Benton was an
advocate of much problematic legislation, like the development of the west and proposals
that would aid settlers, including removal of Native Americans. Benton later went against
the wishes of his own constituents when he engineered the defeat of a treaty for the
annexation of Texas. He also went against his party and Missouri in opposing the Oregon
expansion issue. But, the "beginning of Benton's end" were his resolutions which stated
that Congress had "no right to interfere with the development of slavery in the territories."
He believed that the Missouri Compromise of 1820 had taken the issue of slavery out of
politics and he refused to argue it on the Senate floor. An indication of the depth of his
convictions is carried in his declaration that, "I cannot degrade the Senate by engaging in
slavery and disunion discussions. Silence such debate is my prayer; and if that cannot be
done, I silence myself."
Sam Houston- An early background worth one's time, Houston was reputed to be a
man of reckless abandon, but nevertheless became the first President of the independent
Republic of Texas in 1836. After statehood, Houston became its Senator and his antics in
Washington only added to his already large legend. Although a slaveholder, Houston voted
against slavery's expansion and was an opponent of Texas' secession from the Union.
Elected governor in1859, Houston continued his campaign against sucession and when
Texas voted for it, Houston refused to swear allegiance to the Confederacy and was
removed from office.
Edmund G. Ross - On February 24, 1868, a resolution passed the House of
Representatives favoring the impeachment of then President Andrew Johnson. In order to
pass the Senate, the bill needed thirty-six votes. Thirty-six republicans was all it would
take, but six of those Senators gave no indication as to the nature of their vote. One of
these was Edmund Ross, Senator from Kansas. As the other six expressed willingness to go
along, only Ross stood fast and "The full brunt of the struggle turned at last on the one
remaining doubtful Senator, Edmund G. Ross." Although fellow Senators were in mass for a
swift and unfair declaration of guilt, Ross proclaimed, "He shall have as fair a trial as an
accused man ever had on this earth." He and his fellow hold-outs were scrutinized,
pestered, warned, bribed, and threatened with political ostracism and assassination. But in
the end, on May 16, 1868, it came down to only Ross's vote needed to convict the president
and in a clear and unhesitating voice, Ross declared, "Not guilty." As Ross, later described it,
"I almost literally looked down into my open grave. Freindships, position, fortune,
everything...swept away." Courage indeed.
Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar- First a Congressman from Mississippi, then a
brilliant career as an officer in the Civil War, an Ambassador to Russia, and then a
Congressman again, Lamar campaigned for amnesty for former Confederates, elevating his
popularity to such a peak that he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1877. Lamar then
became the Secretary of the Interior under Grover Cleveland and in 1888 was appointed
to the Supreme Court. It was here that he courageously fought against the enlargement of
the governments political power, particularly when it came to civil rights. Lamar's legacy however rests with his efforts to restore friendly relations between the North and the South after the war with obvious opposition from loyal proponents of both sides. He believed the South had to develop "normal" Federal-state relations and withdraw military rule. Likewise the North had to understand the South no longer desired to be the "agitator" and the constitutional guarantees of the South affected the liberty of the people of the North as well. His courage to vote against the Bland Silver Bill brought him both commendation and assault, as true convictions against popular consensus usually does.
George Norris- First a Representative (1903-13), and then a Senator (1913-1943)
from the state of Nebraska, Norris was a courageous Congressman always willing to battle
the Party's "well-entrenched" leaders, as he did against House Speaker Joe Cannon in
1910. Norris also had first hand knowledge of poverty, having lost his father when he was
only four, he was the source of strength and livelihood for his mother and ten sisters
growing up in the farm lands of Ohio. This experience was the inspiration for his long
crusade for public power (TVA), which he knew would bring low cost electricity to the
people of the Tennessee Valley. Norris also fought tirelessly against the Armed Ship Bill
which was a precursor to WW I, and Norris was against all wars, having lost his older
brother in the Civil War. From his desire to avoid the "twin tragedies of poverty and war",
came courageous legislation and a dying conviction that, "I would rather go down to my
political grave with a clear conscience, than ride in the chariot of victory."
Robert A. Taft- U.S. Senator from Ohio from 1939-1953; Taft sought the presidential
nomination three times and came close in 1952, but was defeated by Dwight Eisenhower.
Taft fought vigorously against Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, which he believed was an
assault on the Constitution. In WW II, Taft opposed foreign aid to Britain and was lalbeled
an "isolationist" and an "obstructionist." After the war, Taft was an early critic of the Truman
Administration and its "overseas commitments." Almost considered a traitor by many, Taft
continued to oppose many "Cold War" measures and it was until after his death that he was
finally "vindicated" and his policies seen as ways to "defend the country without destroying
it, a way to be part of the world without running it." A policy that could use some
In the end, Kennedy extols the virtues of courage which are frequently misunderstood.
Those who enjoy the excitement of the battle, while "not realizing the implications or its
consequences," are equally admired along with men as virtuous as Lincoln who believed,
There are few things wholly evil or wholly good. Almost everything, especially of
Government policy, is an inseperable compound of the two, so that our best judgement of
the preponderance between them is continually demanded. As is Courage.
Profiles in Courage, John F. Kennedy; Harper and Brothers,