Study Guide

Profiles in Courage

by John Fitzgerald Kennedy

Profiles in Courage Summary


Preface and Part One

In the preface to Profiles in Courage, Kennedy discusses his interest in the ‘‘problems of political courage in the face of constituent pressures, and the light shed on those problems by the lives of past statesmen.’’ He describes the three types of pressure faced by senators: pressure to be liked, pressure to be re-elected, and pressure of the constituency and interest groups.

Kennedy provides a brief history of the U.S. Senate and moves on to his discussion of John Quincy Adams. In office, Adams supported measures he thought were best for the country, with little regard for his party’s stances on various issues. Further, he would not back away from legislation— such as Jefferson’s proposed embargo against the British in 1807—that would have negative consequences for his state of Massachusetts. It was this embargo, in fact, that ultimately led to Adams’ status as an outcast in his own party and state.

Faced with certain replacement, Adams resigned his Senate seat. Years later, he would be elected President, a term he would serve as an independent, rather than as a member of the Federalist Party. After his White House years, Adams was asked to run for Congress, which he did under two conditions. First, he would not campaign, and second, he would serve as an independent, free of party and constituent pressures. He won by a landslide, and served in Congress until his death.

(The entire section is 236 words.)

Part 2 Summary

The three men discussed in part two demonstrated courage during the years leading up to the Civil War. Kennedy commends the men who, despite constituent demands, protected the nation’s unity.

Daniel Webster had always been an outspoken critic of slavery. In 1850, Henry Clay, a pro-slavery southerner, had a plan for a compromise that would keep the Union intact, but he needed Webster’s support. Webster knew that everyone would be shocked at his support for a plan that negotiated with slave-holding states. Still, his top priority was to hold the Union together, so he agreed.

Webster was well known as an orator, and people came from everywhere to hear his speech favoring Clay’s Compromise of 1850. Webster held everyone’s attention for over three hours, and although many denounced his stance, enough people were persuaded to accept the compromise. This success cost Webster his dream of becoming president; his position on that day would forever keep him from garnering enough support.

Thomas Hart Benton was a U.S. senator from Missouri, a slave-holding state, yet he valued the Union above all. The people of Missouri began to feel that they should take sides with the southern states that wanted to secede, but Benton disagreed and never slowed his efforts to preserve the Union. He also refused to acknowledge slavery as a major issue because he believed that the Missouri Compromise of 1820 (which brought Missouri into the Union) made...

(The entire section is 532 words.)

Part 3 Summary

Edmund G. Ross was a little-known senator who single-handedly prevented the conviction of President Andrew Johnson after Johnson was impeached. When Ross was elected to the Senate, a battle was raging between Congress and the president. The Radical Republicans (a faction of the Republican Party) planned to get rid of Johnson, but they needed a two-thirds majority to convict him after his impeachment. They never questioned Ross’ intentions, but when it came time to vote, seven Republicans voted against conviction, and Ross was among them. His vote was important because the Radical Republicans had counted on it, so they lacked the number of votes needed for conviction. Ross might have enjoyed a long career in politics, but this single decision brought the end of his career in public office. Twenty years later, his reputation was restored and his act of courage was acknowledged.

Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar made quite an impression in 1874 when he addressed the U.S. House of Representatives in a moving speech lamenting the death of Charles Sumner. Lamar was from Mississippi, a state plagued by the Reconstruction efforts of Sumner. Lamar’s speech demonstrated his commitment to bringing peace between the North and the South despite his own background as a passionate southerner. The speech also raised Lamar’s status among his colleagues, although his constituents were divided in their reactions. Lamar was harshly criticized by the people of...

(The entire section is 399 words.)

Part 4 Summary

Kennedy discusses three instances of outstanding courage displayed by George Norris of Nebraska. First, Norris managed to secure the resignation of the powerful Speaker of the House, Joe Cannon, a move that released the House from a conservative Republican stronghold. Second, in 1917, he staged a filibuster in an effort to stop President Wilson from arming American merchant ships, which Norris believed would only increase the chances of the United States entering World War I. The filibuster proved unpopular among Norris’ constituents, and he worked hard to regain their trust. The filibuster ultimately failed when Wilson discovered that he did not need congressional approval to arm the ships. Third, Norris campaigned for a presidential candidate, Al Smith, who was unpopular with the people of Nebraska. Hoover won the election by a landslide, a victory that included almost every county in Nebraska. Despite his political failures, Norris expressed satisfaction that he always stood for what he believed, which is what was most important to him.

Robert A. Taft was known for voicing his opinions, but when he made an unprompted speech criticizing the Nuremberg trials and their death sentences, he earned harsh reprimands from his party. Going into the election of 1946, the Republicans expected great success. When Taft (a Republican) delivered his speech, they feared that it would cost them valuable seats in Congress. Taft felt that the injustice done during the...

(The entire section is 356 words.)