Essays and Criticism

The Price of Courage

John F. Kennedy ends his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Profiles in Courage with his definition of courage. Or at least he tries to define it. He can’t quite put his finger on a specific definition, but he does know what courage requires, what it may cost an individual, and finally what courage means to democracy. He concludes that courage—this abstract concept that he can only allude to through stories about people who have displayed it through the resolution of conflict—is the ‘‘basis of all human morality.’’ The conflicts that the people in his stories faced, although set in the political arena, affected more than just their political careers. And maybe that was the most compelling reason to choose these particular men to use as models for his definition of courage. The conflicts they faced affected their health, their families, and their finances, in other words, every aspect of their lives.

It is through the telling of their struggles that Kennedy hopes to inspire every citizen to become ‘‘monuments of individual conscience,’’ despite the cost, ‘‘in spite of personal consequences, in spite of obstacles, dangers and pressures.’’ He points out that although most of the stories he has written in this book seem to end unhappily, he believes that in the long run, each one of the senators involved was a hero. And it is to the hero in each citizen that Kennedy appeals. Each person has a responsibility both to his own conscience and to the conscience of the nation of which they are a part. He reminds everyone that they are the government. ‘‘For, in a democracy, every citizen . . . is in a position of responsibility . . . the kind of government we get depends upon how we fulfill those responsibilities.’’ Toward this end, toward the task of inspiring courage, Kennedy retells portions of the lives of men he admired. The conclusions of each of his stories, the points that contain the most inspiration are the details that convey the price that these courageous men had to pay.

One of the main conflicts that several of these stories discuss is the struggle that many of the senators had to suffer in choosing between what their constituents wanted them to do and what their conscience dictated as the correct path to follow for the sake of the nation. The price that each paid for eventually following the dictates of their conscience varied for each man. For instance, Kennedy begins his book with a story about John Quincy Adams. Adams held more offices in the U.S. government and ‘‘participated in more important events than anyone in the history of our nation,’’ states Kennedy. Among the offices he held were emissary to England, state and U.S. senator, member of the House of Representatives, secretary of State, and, like his father, he also became the president of the United States. But Adams had trouble fitting into the party system of American politics. He had, as Kennedy calls it, an ‘‘audacious disdain for narrow partisanship.’’ Adams was the type of politician that many modern day voters might admire: an independent nonpartisan thinker.

Adams was elected as a Federalist, but he voted his conscience, no matter which party was backing a bill. And in 1807, with his constituents calling him a heretic, and his party leaders on the verge of completely denouncing him, Adams struck a fatal blow to his association with his party. The Federalist party, on the whole, believed in appeasing the British, no matter how aggressive their actions were against the Americans. The Republicans, on the other hand, believed it was time to fight back. So, Adams helped the Republicans write a resolution that pledged their support to the president in whatever steps he would take to confront the British navy. The Federalist Party, in reply to Adams actions, wrote that he should ‘‘have his head taken off.’’

Although the cost to Adams for his acting on what he believed to be morally correct did not include the loss of his head, he lost the support of his Federalist Party and his seat in the Senate. Adams was from Massachusetts, the major shipping port in the nation at that time. It was Massachusetts that would be hurt the most from the impending embargo of British goods that Adams helped to write and would eventually sign. When the embargo was put in place, the pressure on Massachusetts was so great that the people of New England began talking of secession from the union. In retaliation for Adams having put New England in such dire straits, the Federalist Party convened nine months prior to the expiration of Adam’s Senate term and elected his successor. At this maneuver, Adams felt he had nothing left to do but resign. Although he would be later elected president and even later than that returned to Washington with a seat in the House of Representatives, Adams never again associated himself with any political party. He specifically ran for office only under the condition that he would not be required to give in to any party pressure. Because of his gift of intellect, which was much admired, Adams enjoyed a long, but interrupted political career.

‘‘Great crises produce great men, and great deeds of courage,’’ begins part two of Kennedy’s book. He is making reference to the ‘‘fratricidal war between North and South in 1861.’’ And one of the great deeds of courage comes from Daniel Webster, another senator from Massachusetts.

Webster’s conflict revolved around the issue of slavery....

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