Critical Context

Distinguished United States senators provide the focus of Profiles in Courage because, in 1955 when this book was being written, Kennedy was in the midst of his own senatorial career. Elected to the House of Representatives in 1946 and to the United States Senate in 1952, Kennedy regarded his biography as a personal tribute to those senators who had inspired him in politics.

Moreover, Kennedy’s approach in this book resulted from a particular way of reading history. Always interested in historical events—especially those occurring in American politics—Kennedy was fond of drawing parallels between current crises and similar incidents from the past. Turning to history both for advice and for consolation, Kennedy saw the great leaders of the past as his models, and he regarded the lessons learned from their lives as an important source of guidance. Thus, this biography was written to summarize some of those lessons in a form that would be easily accessible to others.

Profiles in Courage was written for a general audience and not specifically intended for young adult readers. Nevertheless, the clarity and directness of Kennedy’s style, as well as the author’s hope that young Americans would bring their natural idealism to the political arena, quickly made Profiles in Courage popular reading in schools all across the United State’s. Especially after Kennedy’s campaign proposal that the Peace Corps be established and his declaration, made at his inauguration in 1961, that “the torch has been passed to a new generation,” the book was viewed by many young Americans as a testament to the values of their age.

Moreover, as a collective biography with a strong moral flavor, Profiles in Courage falls into a long-standing literary tradition beginning with the biographical works of Plutarch and, to a lesser extent, the histories of Sallust and Livy. The purpose of the moral biography is not to produce a detailed summary covering every aspect of its subject’s life but to teach an ethical lesson based upon carefully selected incidents from the past. Like Plutarch, Kennedy did not regard himself as a historian in the strictest sense: He wrote about the past not to record events, but to convey the character of great individuals who are worthy of emulation by others.