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 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 slavery an issue of the past.
In 1851, Benton lost his place in the Senate, but he later returned to the House of Representatives as St. Louis’ congressman. Realizing that this was his last opportunity to make a difference, he delivered a speech denouncing the Kansas-Nebraska Bill (which permitted slavery in the new territories of Kansas and Nebraska as a concession to the South and which was sponsored by Benton’s own Democratic Party). Despite his political failures, his efforts on behalf of the Union prevented Missouri from joining other southern states seeking secession.
Sam Houston also took an unpopular stand against the Kansas-Nebraska Bill. Houston’s stance came as an unpleasant surprise to his constituents. He opposed it because it reversed the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which Houston believed to be a ‘‘solemn and sacred compact between the North and South.’’
When Sam Houston first became a U.S. senator, he shared the beliefs and concerns...
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