The Price of Courage

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2243

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. Personally he was against slavery, but when he saw the potential of a civil war that might arise over the issue of slavery, he decided, for the best of the Union to back Henry Clay’s Great Compromise. Webster’s backing of the Compromise came as a great surprise to both Northerners and Southerners. As a matter of fact, it must have even surprised Webster himself who wrote shortly before committing himself to the Compromise: ‘‘I have regarded slavery as a great moral and political evil. . . . You need not fear that I shall vote for any compromise or do anything inconsistent with the past.’’

Fearing that the Union was about to split apart, Webster, ‘‘after months of insomnia’’ decided that the only way to avert civil war was to sign the Compromise. He did, but only after using his ‘‘spellbinding oratorical ability’’ to deliver a speech in the Senate that lasted three hours and eleven minutes. Webster’s health was not good at the time, and he stimulated himself so he would have the strength to deliver the speech by taking ‘‘oxide of arsenic and other drugs.’’ Webster was a politically ambitious man, and in giving his support to Clay by voting in favor of the Great Compromise, he committed political suicide. Although his action helped prevent or at least forestall the imminent danger of ‘‘immediate secession and bloodshed,’’ Webster would lose all support for his bid for the presidency—a lifelong ambition.

Another courageous spirit, a contemporary of Webster’s, Thomas Hart Benton was a burly man who liked to throw his weight around. He reportedly said at the beginning of one of his speeches in the Senate: ‘‘I never quarrel, sir. But sometimes I fight, sir; and whenever I fight, sir, a funeral follows.’’ Benton had actually once killed a man, a U.S. district attorney who unfortunately challenged Benton to a duel. So when he spoke, people were used to listening to him although they did not always like what he said. Benton was from Missouri, a state that was leaning toward the Southern states in terms of being pro-slavery. Benton leaned toward slavery, but he feared, like Webster, that the issue would split the Union. He decided to neither support the South nor the Northern Abolitionist. He refused to support Clay’s Great Compromise and ‘‘steered an extraordinarily independent course.’’ Because of his position, Benton knew that he had no chance of ever being re-elected and returning to the Senate.

Feeding upon the anger of the people who had turned against Benton, a Southern Senator by the name of Henry Foote, taunted Benton one day in the Senate by calling Benton a coward. When Benton made an aggressive move toward Foote, Foote pulled out a gun. At this, Benton threw open his coat and made his chest more available. Both Foote and Benton calmed down but not without further verbal assaults slung at one another. A footnote to this story is that Foote declared that he would write a ‘‘small book in which . . . Benton would play a leading role.’’ Benton retorted that he would write a ‘‘very large book in which he (Foote) will not figure at all!’’ Foote’s threat never materialized. But Benton did eventually write a book, never mentioning Foote at all.

A year later, as he had feared, Benton was recalled home and replaced by another senator. He did, however, win a seat in the House of Representatives, but he quickly lost all support for his outspoken views and never was re-elected. He continued to campaign, even trying to regain his seat in the Senate at the age of seventy-four. But by this time, he was suffering from throat cancer, and despite the fact that his throat bled when he spoke, he continued to deliver his notoriously ferocious speeches. ‘‘But even in death and defeat,’’ says Kennedy, Thomas Hart Benton was victorious. By making his true feelings about the need to save the Union known, he eventually persuaded his state of Missouri to keep from joining the South when it seceded from the Union.

Robert Taft was another senator whose lifelong political goal was the White House. He, too, like John Quincy Adams, was the son of a former president. Taft was the most likely of all Republican presidential candidates in 1946, but he failed to receive his party’s nomination both in 1948 and 1952. Whether he lost the nomination because of his courage to speak his conscience is not known, however, the fact remains that he never attained his goal. Taft’s popular and political downfall, his stumbling block, was the War Crimes Trials, known as the Nuremberg Trials.

In theory, the Nuremberg Trials, at which Nazis involved in World War II were being tried, had little affect on the United States. There was neither a threat of secession by any states, nor of any civil war in America dependent on the outcome of the trials. Neither was there any political position from either the Republican or the Democratic Parties in regards to the trials. ‘‘But Senator Taft was disturbed—and when he was disturbed it was his habit to speak out.’’ And so he did.

Taft took the opportunity of a speech he gave at a college in Ohio to tell the world what was bothering him. ‘‘The trial of the vanquished by the victors,’’ he said in reference to the war crimes' trial, ‘‘cannot be impartial no matter how it is hedged about with the forms of justice.’’ Because of the horrendous crimes of the Nazis, the sensitivity to these trials cannot be overstated. Emotions prevailed, and the message that Taft had meant to send was obscured and misinterpreted. He was not stating in any way that he thought the Nazis were innocent, or that they should be allowed to go free. Rather his sentiments reflected the same principles upon which be believed the American legal system was based—the principles of justice. ‘‘About this whole judgment there is the spirit of vengeance, and vengeance is seldom justice,’’ he said.

Taft was dismayed by the reaction that followed his speech. His thoughts and his convictions were so clear to him that he was totally caught off guard by the ridicule that he experienced. Some of the most disappointing responses came from the American legal system, including the president of the American Bar Association and the chairman of its Executive Committee who ‘‘defended the trials as being in accordance with international law.’’ Whether he knew it at the time or not, Taft’s political career may have been ruined by his making known his beliefs.

Kennedy ends the chapter on Taft with a quote from Taft on his definition of liberty: ‘‘When I say liberty, I mean liberty of the individual to think his own thoughts and live his own life as he desires to think and live.’’ This quote sums up all the sentiments of the previous chapters and possibly all the motives behind the courage as displayed by every senator’s story in this book. Kennedy states in the closing pages of Profiles in Courage that he wrote this book to instill hope, and his hope was that these stories would provide inspiration. Then he states: ‘‘But they cannot supply courage itself. For this each man must look into his own soul.’’ Kennedy also points out that the men in his stories were given the opportunity to make their courage apparent on a public stage. This does not diminish the role of the normal citizen, according to Kennedy, to also take advantage of every opportunity to exhibit their own courage in making hard decisions. It is the moral integrity of a nation’s citizens upon which the courage of the nation flows.

Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on Profiles in Courage, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2001. Hart is a published writer with a background in literature and creative writing.

A Possible Explanation for JFK's Inclusion of the Men he Wrote about in Profiles in Courage

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1540

Although most readers associate John F. Kennedy with the 1960s, Profiles in Courage was written while he was recovering from spinal operations in 1954. At the time, Kennedy was a U.S. senator from Massachusetts, not yet aware of the political future that awaited him. While most readers can readily identify the dominant social and political forces of the latter part of Kennedy’s career, many Americans have a distorted view of what life was like in the 1950s. Contrary to popular belief, it was not merely a carefree time of sock hops, meatloaf dinners, and dates at the malt shop. This is the image Orator and politician Daniel Webster of the 1950s perpetuated by television and media, but there were also frightening and troubling elements of the time.

In the early 1950s, America was in the grip of the Cold War. Citizens and politicians alike feared the spread of communism, and it was common knowledge that communist countries were stockpiling nuclear weapons. Many Americans built fallout shelters, and children were taught how to take cover in the event of an attack while they were at school. The panic associated with communism fueled McCarthyism, a movement in which people in government, entertainment, and virtually every other industry were accused of having communist leanings with devastating consequences to their careers and lives.

Great strides in science were bringing both optimism and fear. While Americans wanted to stay ahead of the Soviets, they also recognized that science had created the atomic bomb. Much scientific research was focused on weapons development, but there was also hope that science would conquer polio, a crippling disease that struck children more often than adults. Polio was such a dreaded disease that a 1954 Gallup poll found that more people knew about vaccine tests than knew the name of the president. The following year, Jonas Salk’s vaccine was administered on a widespread basis, paid for by the government.

Socially, America was entering a troubled time, as African Americans began to demand equal treatment and opportunity. Progress was slow in the beginning, and often violent, but the 1950s paved the way for the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

In light of these turbulent forces, why was Kennedy compelled to write Profiles in Courage, and why did he include the individuals he did? As a young senator, he was certainly aware of the challenges facing public officials and also of the hopes and fears of the public. Perhaps he found wisdom and comfort in the stories and hoped that by compiling them, he could offer hope to his fellow politicians and to the public as a whole. It seems that Kennedy was drawing on the unique American tradition for insight into how to handle these concerns while at the same time looking for some assurance that America had overcome equally trying times in the past.

Each profile offers a lesson that could be applied to the tumultuous times in which Kennedy wrote the book. In the example of John Quincy Adams, the author portrays a strong man who (despite his nagging self-doubt) takes a nonpartisan stance. Adams approached his seat in the Senate with a sense of responsibility to his own morality, and even though he was new in the Senate, he did not display freshman hesitance when it came time to take a stand. He was not intimidated because his priority was pursuing the good of the country, not the good of his state or party. This example offered hope at a time when McCarthyism had shown how destructive extreme conformity could be. If more people had displayed courage against McCarthy in the initial stages of his ‘‘red scare,’’ perhaps he would have been stopped before so many politicians were too intimidated to do anything but go along and so many people’s careers were destroyed.

Daniel Webster used his ability as a stirring public speaker to support an unexpected cause, Henry Clay’s Compromise of 1850. In the process, he managed to garner enough support for the compromise to see it passed, but he sacrificed his political ambition to become president along the way. His commitment was to the Union, not to his party or even to himself. Although he hated slavery, he agreed with Clay that this compromise was the only way to keep the Union intact. This idea could be applied to the civil rights struggle in which the two sides were adamant about their positions. White citizens wanted to maintain separation, while African Americans were ready to claim their rightful entrance into mainstream society. Because neither side was willing to budge, conflict became heated and violent, and the more the struggle continued, the more difficult it was for the two sides to have a meaningful dialogue about the issues. Perhaps Kennedy wished there were a Daniel Webster for his time.

The example of Thomas Hart Benton offers lessons in many areas. His political career was characterized by his refusal to give up his fight to preserve the Union. At heart, he only wanted to see America stay together through seemingly insurmountable struggles. When he lost his seat in the Senate, he returned to Congress as a representative in the House. He never tired of fighting for his beliefs, and as a result, his state of Missouri did not join the secessionist states. Benton’s story reminds politicians and citizens alike of the importance of perseverance, whether in seeking a cure for polio or in fighting the spread of communism. His story also demonstrates that even when it seems that the battle has been lost, there is often a single meaningful victory to show for all the hard work.

Sam Houston’s story is about a man who loved his state and his country so much that he sacrificed his reputation in an effort to keep the two united. When Texans eventually chose to secede, Houston refused to serve as the leader in a situation that broke his heart. He was not a man who sought power at any cost; he valued unity above personal glory. This lesson seems to relate to McCarthyism because if politicians had refused to take part in the bogus communist investigations, McCarthyism would have lost momentum. Instead, many people clung to their positions of power, even when it meant getting caught up in the destructive tide of McCarthyism. The ‘‘red scare,’’ like secession, was a deeply divisive event that damaged unity and the strength in numbers that accompanies it.

The last man profiled is Robert A. Taft, whose example represented what Kennedy seemed to think was best about the American system of government. A respected Republican, Taft was known for speaking his mind without regard for what was popular at the time. On the brink of a great election year (1946) for Republicans, Taft gave a surprising speech in which he condemned the Nuremberg trials and the death sentences they handed out. While he in no way agreed with the extreme and inhumane measures taken by the Nazis during World War II he questioned the validity of bringing the war criminals to trial after the fact. His reasoning was that at the time they committed the acts, there was no legal standard by which they were breaking the law; much less would they have been aware that they would face a death sentence if found guilty.

Needless to say, Taft’s speech was not met with praise and admiration. In his home state of Ohio, people harshly criticized him, and on Capitol Hill, his party leaders reprimanded him for endangering the upcoming elections. The Democrats were delighted because they thought this speech would enhance their chances of claiming more victories. Eventually, however, the frenzy died down and the Republicans enjoyed the victories they had expected.

Kennedy presents Taft’s story as an example of courage because Taft risked his own political ambitions (he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and become president) for the sake of voicing what he knew would be an unpopular idea. Because he felt it needed to be said and because he lived in a country where people are free to speak openly, he did so. His courage was, according to Kennedy, in taking a stand against public opinion regardless of the personal consequences. This is ultimately what each of the nine stories teaches. While it is important to align oneself with organizations that represent a set of shared beliefs and values, it is more important to think for oneself. That is the gift that America gives its people—the right to think, act, and speak independently. It is strength of character, however, that determines whether an individual will seize that right. In a time of both hope and uncertainty, Kennedy must have hoped that Americans would see in Profiles in Courage examples of statesmen they could not only admire but also emulate; statesmen who showed a kind of courage that was as much needed in the 1950s as it had been in history.

Source: Jennifer Bussey, Critical Essay on Profiles in Courage, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2001. Bussey holds a master’s degree in interdisciplinary studies and a bachelor’s degree in English literature. She is an independent writer specializing in literature.

The Politics of Courage: Kennedy’s Profiles as Political Thought

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2951

Published in 1955 during John F. Kennedy’s tenure as a senator, Profiles in Courage was an instant best-seller, receiving the Pulitzer prize that same year. Yet, for being such a widely acclaimed work, scholars and reviewers have been reluctant to engage the argument of the book. What has focused scholarly attention, instead, is intrigue: who really wrote the book, whose political goals were served by writing the book, and how might Kennedy have secured the Pulitzer prize? When scholars have addressed issues in the book, it is by way of synopses, a generic praise of courage, comments on style, or suggestions that Kennedy never actually lived up to these words.

Part of the difficulty with interpreting Profiles is that we approach the work from within a framework grounded in a twentieth-century conception of politics as a process of interest articulation and aggregation. From this perspective, Profiles appears as little more than a series of ‘‘anecdotes’’ that say nothing substantive about politics but serve to advance the political interests of Kennedy. This framework, though, is particularly unsuitable for interpreting Profiles precisely because the book is engaged in a challenge to this framework. We will argue that Profiles introduces a different conception of politics, one suggested by the two key words in the title: ‘‘profile’’ and ‘‘courage.’’ Both the language and arguments in Profiles in Courage seem foreign to us now, but they recall a Roman conception of profiling and its relationship to courage and politics. Understanding this conception requires that we look at some examples of Roman profiling to develop a vocabulary for interpreting this relationship between courage and politics. What emerges is a notion of courage that is not only necessary for, but made possible by, the public nature of politics. The very notion of profiling, with the emphasis on the individual actor in politics and the performance of courageous deeds, appears as a fundamental departure from the prevailing, twentieth-century instrumental conception of politics as ‘‘who gets what, when, how.’’ In making this argument, Profiles seeks to rehumanize the political space to make politics a realm of human action rather than impersonal processes.

Roman Profiling as Politics
It is one of the distinctive features of Roman thought that there are few statements of a political theory. A Roman conception of politics emerges, instead, through a cumulation of profiles. In describing the task of the Roman historian in writing of the ‘‘kinds of lives our ancestors live,’’ Livy suggests, ‘‘in history you have a record of the infinite variety of human experience plainly set out for all to see; and in that record you can find for yourself and your country both examples and warnings; fine things to take as models, base things, rotten through and through, to avoid.’’ The history that Livy is referring to is a history of individuals rather than of political processes and institutions. These are not biographies, in the modern sense of the term, but profiles meant to capture particular moments in a life. Though the perspectives of the likes of Cicero, Plutarch, Suetonius, and Tacitus vary widely, what they share in their emphasis on profiles is a conception of politics in which individual virtue and public life are inextricably tied to each other. Where Plutarch, for example, focuses on the character of those entering public life, Cicero makes clear how politics not only demands ‘‘great’’ individuals but also makes these individuals ‘‘great.’’ The qualities of character necessary for political greatness are many, but foremost among them is courage. The reason for this is because there is an extraordinary risk that one assumes in entering a public realm that was notable, most of all, for its unpredictability. The value of profiles was that they served to recall these public deeds. Through these recollections, as Hannah Arendt suggests, courageous action was made distinctive and the actor was given glory.

Plutarch is, perhaps, the most famous of Roman profilers. Born in 40–45, Plutarch lived during the height of the Roman empire. Much of his writing, however, tells us about the men of the republic who displayed courage, wisdom, self-discipline, moderation, and a love for Rome. In his profiles, Plutarch does not lay out a formal theory of politics or principles of proper political behavior; rather, he uses exemplars to make clear the importance of having individuals of character and virtue in politics.

What is striking in reading Plutarch is that despite his moralistic tone at times, there is a complexity to the profiles he composes. There are no models of perfection, nor are there simple formulas for what counts as greatness. Certainly, Plutarch admires those who exhibit both a virtuous private and public life. But the real test of character, for Plutarch, seems to be public: in the swirl of political conflict and intrigue, ‘‘true’’ character is revealed in our public deeds.

Camillus, for example, is a citizen of humility and piety who was called back from exile to restore Rome. Cato the Censor, on the other hand, is portrayed as sometimes immodest, abusive, and even ungenerous in his private life. But the public life revealed a man of temperance and wisdom who displayed ‘‘gravity and severity.’’ Cato the Censor’s greatness does not derive from a life of perfection. What seems to warrant Plutarch’s accolade of greatness lies in the honor Cato received upon his retirement. A temple inscription commissioned in Cato’s honor read: ‘‘In honour of Cato the Censor who, when the Roman republic was degenerating into licentiousness, by good discipline and wise institutions restored it.’’ And of Cicero, Plutarch would write that though he perhaps loved glory too much, he managed to maintain a philosophic temperament without ‘‘imbibing the passions that are the common consequence’’ of political office.

Cicero comes to us as both profiled and profiler. Like Plutarch, Cicero is interested in studies of character, especially of men in politics and public life. For example, in On the Commonwealth, Cicero lays out notions of the ideal statesman within the ideal state. For Cicero, an ideal statesman is one who is wise, just, self controlled, and eloquent. Moreover, a ‘‘great’’ politician continually strives to improve himself and ‘‘possesses at once the active courage of Marcellus and the wise hesitancy of Maximus.’’ And ‘‘at all times he aims to be the model which his subjects may imitate, and the mirror in which they may behold the image of a perfect life and character.’’

To pilot the state, leaders must possess certain virtues. Cicero maintains, ‘‘we should be permitted to seek the character of a great man in excellence, activity, and energy.’’ Moreover, this man exhibits discipline, exercises restraint, and practices moderation. What is needed most of all, though, is the virtue of ‘‘courage,’’ which ‘‘includes the quality of high-mindedness and a lofty scorn of death and pain.’’ This is no small issue for Cicero, who would himself be executed for his activities as a political leader, because entering politics entails ‘‘grave risks.’’ The risk arises in two ways: first, the political leader cannot control the passionate impulses in others that may follow from words or actions; and second, the actor must ultimately bear the judgment of the citizens. Notes Cicero, in reflecting on his leadership, ‘‘Yet even if the result of all I had done to preserve my country had not met with the universal applause which it, in fact, evoked,’’ still, continues Cicero, ‘‘I should have borne what had to be borne.’’ The courage to enter politics, to endure the passions of the people, springs from a ‘‘love for noble actions’’ that is ‘‘so compelling’’ that individuals ‘‘overcome all the enticements of pleasure and ease.’’ Cicero recalls at one point a letter from Brutes in which Brutes suggested that Cicero should take ‘‘courage’’ because, writes Cicero, ‘‘I had performed deeds which, even if I remain silent, will speak for me, and will live on after I am dead.’’

Cicero would see in others these same qualities of courage. Marcus Cato, for example, ‘‘serves as the model of an active and virtuous life for all of us whose interests, like his, are political.’’ Certainly, Marcus Cato could ‘‘have enjoyed himself in quiet repose at Tusculum,’’ but he ‘‘chose to ride the storms and tempests of public life until advanced age.’’ Some philosophers would say Marcus Cato was a ‘‘fool’’; however, Cicero believes he was a ‘‘great’’ man who possessed a deep ‘‘sense of public duty’’ and a love for Rome. So, too, Brutus showed ‘‘calmness and self effacement in the face of evil’’ who, through his actions, ‘‘restored legality to the government.’’

At first glance, such testaments to virtue seem obvious and unremarkable. But what emerges in Roman accounts is the suggestion that the political realm is, itself, both constituted by and sustaining of acts of courage. On the one hand, the political realm is sustaining of acts of courage because, for Cicero, ‘‘virtue depends entirely on its use.’’ And, for Cicero, there is no higher use of virtue than the ‘‘government of a state,’’ which requires the ‘‘actual performance, not the mere discussion, of those deeds which your philosophers rehearse in their secluded retreats.’’ The ‘‘art’’ of politics, Cicero states, ‘‘when added to great natural abilities, produces . . . a type of character extraordinary and divine.’’ Cicero makes clear that ‘‘there is, indeed, nothing in which human excellence can more nearly approximate the divine than in the foundation of new states or in the preservation of states already founded.’’ Ultimately, what shines through in acts of courage is an individual’s ‘‘significance’’ measured not by the ‘‘uses’’ of the work but by ‘‘how valuable he is in himself."

On the other hand, the realm of politics is, itself, sustained by acts of courage. Cicero, for example, recalls the ‘‘distinguished men’’ of the past who endowed, through their actions, the commonwealth with health and vigor. He now laments, though, that ‘‘our own generation, after inheriting the commonwealth as if it were a painting, of unique excellence but fading with age, has not only failed to restore its original hues, but had not even troubled to preserve its outlines and the last vestiges of its features.’’ This lack of distinguished men causes the civic and moral rules of living ‘‘to perish.’’ For, concludes Cicero, ‘‘it is by our defects of character and not by accident that we long since lost the substance of the commonwealth, though we still retain its name.’’

Kennedy’s Profiles of Political Courage
From the perspective of the Romans, Kennedy’s Profiles begins to appear not as a series of unrelated anecdotes but as an argument about the nature of politics. The problem of contemporary politics, Profiles seems to suggest, is that both the citizens and political leaders have come to understand it in terms of procedure, self interest, ambition, bureaucracy, and groups. Kennedy writes: Our political life is becoming so expensive, so mechanized and so dominated by professional politicians and public relations men that the idealist who dreams of independent statesmanship is rudely awakened by the necessities of election and accomplishment.

The danger is that what lies at the heart of politics—human action—becomes devalued, if not completely lost, in a political system that has become mechanized and institutionalized. Profiles, thus, appears as a response to this institutionalization, both through its ‘‘profiles,’’ which place individuals at the center of politics, and through its celebration of ‘‘courage’’ as ‘‘the most admirable of human virtues.’’ It is a quality of character that is uniquely disclosed in the public performance of words and deeds. Profiles, thus, is not only a ‘‘book about courage and politics’’; it is a book about their inextricable relationship. For, in an age of politics as interest articulation, the demand for and ‘‘challenge of political courage looms larger than ever before.’’

Profiles proceeds through stories of eight senators who, through their courage, were able to leave their distinctive marks on politics, not necessarily in a set of changes in policy, but by imbuing politics with meaning and value. Like the task of the Roman historian, so Profiles offers exemplars so that we might also practice courage ourselves. ‘‘These stories of past courage can define that ingredient-they can teach, they can offer hope, they can provide inspiration. But they cannot supply courage itself. For this each man must look into his soul.’’

The political concept that emerges cannot be stated in a theoretical guise, precisely because of the variety of expressions of political courage. Of John Quincy Adams, for example, Kennedy writes that ‘‘there is a fascination and nobility in this picture of a man unbending, narrow and intractable, judging himself more severely than his most bitter enemies judged him, possessing an integrity unsurpassed among major political figures of our history, and constantly driven onward by his conscience and his deeply felt obligation to be worthy of his parents, their example and their precepts.’’ Writing in a language much like Plutarch, Kennedy suggests that Sam Houston was a man characterized by contradictions. He was a senator in the years leading up to the Civil War, years which brought great crises and demanded political courage. ‘‘Great crises produce great men, and great deeds of courage.’’ And Sam Houston’s actions were certainly courageous. His courageous act was his vote against the Kansas-Nebraska bill in favor of maintaining the Missouri Compromise.

Courage can take the form of a single act, such as Edmund G. Ross’s refusal to vote for impeachment, or can appear through years of service, as with Robert A. Taft. ‘‘Whatever their differences, the American politicians whose stories are here retold shared that one heroic quality-courage.’’ Kennedy, like Plutarch and Cicero, tells us that these men displayed certain virtues and attributes of character in the practice of politics: ‘‘Most of them, despite their differences, held much in common-the breathtaking talents of the orator, the brilliance of the scholar, the breadth of the man above party and section, and, above all, a deep seated belief in themselves, their integrity and the rightness of their cause.’’ It is the courage to act in politics that we should esteem.

Given a twentieth-century political vocabulary of groups, process, interest, outputs, and power, we are able to understand Profiles in Courage only with great difficulty. But given a Roman vocabulary of political courage, art, exemplars of virtue, and the ennobling nature of politics, we see Profiles in Courage as a work of political thought, as articulating a ‘‘new’’ notion of politics. For both the Romans and Kennedy, individuals of courage and virtue practice and engage in politics as an art. Kennedy writes, in words similar to Cicero, that these men of courage ‘‘are simply engaged in the fine art of conciliating, balancing and interpreting the forces and factions of public opinion, an art essential to keeping our nation united and enabling our Government to function.’’ Indeed, the courageous, distinctive acts of individuals constitute politics as it should be practiced and bring a sense of meaning and value to political life.

Profiles asserts that the political arena in the Senate provides men with tests of political courage. It is in politics that men are given the most public opportunity to act courageously, with integrity, and in accordance with their principles and consciences. Concurrently, in their courageous actions, men are able to redeem politics, giving it meaning and value, and thus preventing, or, as is the case in the twentieth century, rescuing, political life from a certain baseness, instrumentality, and meaninglessness. Ultimately, Kennedy seems to be saying that it is men of courage, in the past and in the future, who both bring a certain nobility to politics and renew our faith in the political system. He writes: ‘‘For the continued political success of those who withstood the pressures of public opinion, and the ultimate vindication of the rest, enables us to maintain our faith in the long-run judgment of the people.’’

This notion of the redemptive value of politics recalls the ennobling nature of politics that infuses the language of the Romans. As Cicero comments, ‘‘For praise and glory are the only rewards which merit of this calibre looks for; although, even if no such rewards materialized, merit of such a kind would rest content enough with what it had itself achieved, which could not fail, even without formal recognition, to be lodged in the memories of his grateful fellow citizens; and they would make sure it saw the light of day.’’ In a similar vein, Kennedy notes it is only as we have men acting courageously, practicing the art of politics, that we remain a democracy, for the men of courage about which he writes are ‘‘men who showed . . . a real faith in democracy.’’ He writes: ‘‘A democracy’’ that has ‘‘no monument of individual conscience in a sea of popular rule is not worthy to bear the name.’’ For a true democracy is one which ‘‘puts its faith in the people . . . faith that the people will not condemn those whose devotion to principle leads them to unpopular courses, but will reward courage, respect honor and ultimately recognize right.’’ These profiles are about such a democracy, a nation which values courage. Thus, Profiles in Courage seeks to renew our faith in democratic politics by portraying it not as a ‘‘robotic’’ process but as a realm defined by the courageous deeds of individuals. These are moments in which politics ceases to be merely a set of procedures, a game, and an outcome and becomes an ennobling art, a practice of individual character and distinction, and a realm that both allows for and endows greatness.

Source: Dean Hammer and Adelaide Maudsley, ‘‘The Politics of Courage: Kennedy’s Profiles as Political Thought,’’ in Journal of American Culture, Vol. 22, No. 2, Summer 1999, pp. 65–69.

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Critical Overview