Written with a great deal of assistance from his wife Jacqueline (who was the actual author, some historians believe), Profiles in Courage is a group of essays focusing on eight who Kennedy believed to be "men whose abiding loyalty to their nation triumphed over all personal and political considerations", as they acted with remarkable courage in the face of great political pressure at some point in their careers. Kennedy articulated what he felt were three main human weaknesses or tendencies that sometimes cause politicans to act unwisely: a wish to be liked, a wish to be re-elected and/or a wish to please special interest groups, lobbyists, and/or the general constituency. Of course, Kennedy points out that it is human nature to wish to be liked, and in terms of being an effective politican and/or leader, issues such as dealing with one's constituents, interest groups, and/or re-election are unavoidable in this particular line of work.
Kennedy focused his attention first on the United States Senate, of which he was a member, representing Massachusetts. In this election year where political mudslinging and party politics are at the forefront of many local and national "discussions", it is most interesting to consider the essay about Senator John Quincy Adams, son of John Adams, second president of the United States. John Donne may have said, "No man is an island", but John Quincy Adams wasn't afraid to operate on his own island for a time in the Senate, refusing to defer to either his party or his state when it went against what he thought was the best decision. He wound up resigning his Senate seat before he could be replaced, but far from ending his political career, he would some years later be elected president of the country.
There are other essays, of course, describing different people in different circumstances making different decisions, but the theme of exercising one's conscience and integrity in the messy, raucous, mudslinging world that is politics remains. In the Foreword, Allan Nevine writes that the men Kennedy profiled were:
. . .intelligent, farsighted, reasonable men anxious to hold the ship of state to its true course. John Quincy Adams broke with his party and State to sustain the nation's honor. . . .Daniel Webster knew that half of his party and nearly all of New England. . .would spurn him if he espoused Clay's great Compromise. . . .Benton faced utter political ruin in . . .denouncing the Kansas-Nebraska bill; he chose ruin with honor.
Each year, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Dorchester near Boston presents what is called a Profiles in Courage award to someone who exercised great moral and political leadership. The award is only bestowed after a great deal of rigorous and thoughtful committee debate about the individuals who have been nominated. In 2002, Kennedy's daughter, Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, published a sequel to her father's book entitled Profiles in Courage for Our Time articulating in essay form the stories of the Profiles in Courage award winners.