Profiles in Courage Summary

John F. Kennedy

Profiles in Courage

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Profiles in Courage Summary

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Winner of the 1957 Pulitzer Prize and numerous other awards, Profiles in Courage, by John F. Kennedy is of interest both as a work of scholarship and as a historical curiosity of its own.

Its interest as a historical curiosity is due to the questions that have been raised concerning its authorship. It was initially believed at the time the book came out that it had been written by Senator John F. Kennedy, the same JFK who would go on to be elected 35th president of the United States six years later. Around the time Kennedy was awarded the Pulitzer, accusations started to fly that Kennedy was not the true author of the book, and thus that Kennedy was undeserving of the award bestowed upon him. Kennedy’s accusers, including journalist Mike Wallace, maintained that Kennedy was taking credit for the work of his speechwriter, Ted Sorensen. Kennedy fiercely fought against such allegations, threatening litigation against media entities disseminating those accusations. Although Kennedy’s threats were enough to make media outlets retract the accusations, subsequent probing by historians has made it clear that the bulk of Profiles in Courage was written by Sorensen. However, it is also now generally accepted that the central ideas of the book were based on notes that were Kennedy’s and that the introduction and conclusion probably contains some of Kennedy’s original writing.

Its scholarly value consists in the contribution it makes in helping us understand what courage is. Think of a bunch of different examples of courage. What do they all have in common? What makes an action a courageous one? What must one do to earn him or herself the honorific of being identified as a courageous man or woman? The underlying answer to these questions running throughout Profiles is this: courageous actions involve actions done in spite of pressure or resistance to do otherwise, or in other words,  a courageous person is someone who goes against the grain in order to do what’s right.

While this thesis about courage could be explored in even broader contexts, e.g. military courage, all of the examples discussed in the book are instances courage in the realm of politics, or even more narrowly, instances of courageous actions performed by U.S. senators. For politicians, such as senators, the book reminds us, job security rests on whether one is well liked by voters and, in an indirect way, by whether one is liked by other politicians. Every politician thus faces pressure to use his or her office in a way that meets the approval of these constituents. Thus the bulk of the chapters in the book is devoted to discussion of cases where Senators  performed actions, such as voting in favor of or against certain proposals or bills, which they knew would both promote the interests of the country and would make them unpopular among man of their colleagues and supporters.

Examples of political courage discussed include John Quincy Adams support of the Louisiana Purchase, which was being widely opposed by Adams Federalist colleagues at the time. Adams alienated his Federalist friends even further in supporting an embargo with Britain – the embargo had been proposed by Jefferson but was not popular among Federalists because of the economic impact it would have in Massachusetts.

Several more examples of acts of political courage – those of Daniel Webster, Thomas Hart Benton, and Sam Houston – involve these Senators taking unpopular positions related to the status of slavery in the United States. Interestingly, the cases described are similar not only in being unpopular at the time, but they also seem to be done for a common purpose: to avert the dissolution of the Union. Each Senator was driven by the idea that supporting a particular proposal would be vital for the preservation of the nation. Thus each was putting the good of the country above the good of any one group within the country. Thus the courageous not only act in ways that are unpopular, but they do so out of love of country.

The examples discussed in the latter half of the book flesh out this notion of love of country and of what it means for an American. Each provides an illustration of a political action that would preserve fundamentals upon which the nation was founded. Among the fundamentals defended in the examples include those of separation of powers and of the autonomy of those holding office from being controlled by outside influence.

Another aspect of love of country is commitment to its founding documents, e.g. on what’s written in the U.S. Constitution. It demonstrates political courage, Profiles leads us to believe, when on stands up to defend the Constitution even when one’s colleagues are in favor of measures that one sees as standing in violation of the principles set forth in the Constitution. The example we find in the book of this sort of courage is Robert Taft. Taft demonstrated courage by opposing the Nuremberg Trials – which were trials to determine whether those that participated in Nazi activities should be penalized criminally. Although many then, as now, would feel the intuition that Nazis should be punished for their crimes, many also overlook the fact that what the Nazis did was not a crime when they did it. According to the U.S. Constitution, you cannot commit a crime before it is recognized and established to be a crime within the legal system. Since the Nuremberg trials were accusing Nazis of doing things that violated only the subsequent law, the Nazis could not be guilty of committing crimes.

Profiles in Courage examines many interesting examples of unpopular political actions throughout history. The examples discussed in the book concern things that are perhaps just as controversial today as they were when they arose.