2 October 2005 | theowinthrop
A View of Political Courage
In 1957 Senator John F. Kennedy published a book, PROFILES IN COURAGE, dealing with seven U.S. Senators (John Quincy Adams, Thomas Hart Benton, Daniel Webster, Sam Houston, Edmund Ross, Lucius Quintus Cincinattus Lamar, George Norris, and Robert Taft). The thesis of the book was that these men displayed that conscience rather than political consideration has a way of running at critical moments in our history, and that (in retrospect) the negative reaction directed at these men was unfair and undeserved. But what would have been generally worse would have been if these men had flowed with the crowd's views - which frequently were not great views.
Adams sacrificed a career as Senator from Massachusetts by supporting the embargo policy of President Jefferson, which was not working against England and France, but hurt New England's sea trade. Daniel Webster, the darling of northern Whigs, supported Henry Clay's Compromise of 1850, which prevented the Civil War by ten years. But the abolitionists pilloried Webster as a result (he died two years later). Thomas Hart Benton and Sam Houston came from two slavery states, and both refused to abandon the United States as the slavery issue expanded. Both lost their seats in the Senate, and Houston (elected Governor of Texas) lost that seat when he would not support Texas as part of the Confederacy. Edmumd Ross, Senator of Kansas, sacrificed his political life by being the decisive vote (in 1868) in saving President Andrew Johnson from removal from office. L.Q.C. Lamar of Mississippi was the model of the "New South" in the 1870s, who was able to regain Northern confidence (most of the time), although his stand on "free and unlimited mintage of silver" for small businessmen and farmers angered Northern business interests. George Norris of Nebraska was a model of political integrity from his days in the House of Representatives through his Senate career - but his stand against our entry in World War I brought him condemnation as a traitor. And Robert Taft of Ohio, known and respected as "Mr. Republican" to the whole nation, was criticized for his so-called anti-labor viewpoint (he authored the "Taft-Hartley Act") and his skepticism for the Nuremburg Trials (he felt that it set a dangerous precedent in the future for American leaders if their war efforts failed).
The book won the Pulitzer Prize for best history book of the year. It became part of the Kennedy legend we still hear of today (making us forget that he also wrote other works, such as his study of England's appeasement policy, WHY ENGLAND SLEPT, in 1940). It went through many editions, including a memorial edition after Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 (while President). It is still in print.
Is the book correct? Well, yes and no. Ross lost his career saving Johnson (as did his six fellow Republican senators), and only got a territorial governorship years later. Houston was finished for refusing to become a Confederate, but he died two years later (by which time many Texans were wondering if old Sam was right, and whether the state should secede from the Confederacy). Webster was viciously pilloried by self-righteous (and frequently hypocritical) abolitionists. But President Millard Fillmore appointed Webster his Secretary of State - within a year of his vote. He served in the office until his death. Benton was voted out of the Senate in 1852, but returned to the House of Representatives as a Congressman in 1854 (he died in 1857 - a year after his son-in-law, John Fremont ran as the first Republican Candidate for the Presidency). Lamar was to become Secretary of the Interior under Grover Cleveland, and end his career as an associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. Norris survived the treason smear to create the TVA in the 1930s, support FDR's New Deal, and to remain in the House of Representatives after his Senate career ended (he died in 1946). Taft never (unfortunately) became President (he deserved the nomination at least). But he nearly beat out Eisenhower in 1952, and he was Senate Majority Leader at the time of his death in 1953.
This series (made in the post-assassination period) dramatized the eight stories from the original book, but also looked at other stories (some mentioned by Kennedy in the last chapter, like John Peter Altgeld of Illinois). The performers were quite good - Brian Keith as Benton, Tom Bosley as Norris, Lee Tracy as Taft, Wendy Hiller as Anne Hutchinson (who fought the male oligarchy of Massachusetts Bay Colony), Burgess Meredith as Altgeld, Walter Matthau as then Senator Andrew Johnson of Tennessee (who decided to stay with the U.S. rather than the Confederacy, and remained the only southern senator in the U.S. Senate during the Civil War), and Carroll O'Connor as President Cleveland (who kept vetoing private pension bills of Northern Civil War Veterans in his first term).
But the series only lasted one year. Like it's near contemporary, THE GREAT ADVENTURE, it never got the audience it deserved. Perhaps it may one day get released again with THE GREAT ADVENTURE on cable - perhaps on the History network or Discovery.