Profiles in Courage

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“Democracy means much more than popular government and majority rule, much more than a system of political techniques to flatter or deceive powerful blocs of voters. A democracy that has no George Norris to point to–no monument of individual conscience in a sea of popular rule–is not worthy to bear the name.”

In his book Profiles in Courage, John F. Kennedy records eight senators’ acts of political courage. Each senator, in his own way, defied the will of his constituents to follow his conscience. Due to their courageous acts, many of them lost popularity–stopped winning elections, made enemies among their constituents, or were even kicked out of their political party. Kennedy argues that although the will of the people is important, in order for democracy to function properly we need to trust elected officials to make decisions for the country. There needs to be a compromise between what the people think is right and what the politician thinks is right.

One example comes from Daniel Webster, the greatest orator of his time, who chose to back the Compromise of 1850 even though it cost him his popularity among his constituency. He and his party were firmly against the extension of slavery, but even more important to Webster was the safety of the Union. He decided that preventing civil war came before party platforms. He delivered the “Seventh of March” speech, the most famous of his career, and defended the words he had spoken in his debate against Robert Y. Hayne in 1830: “Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!”

Edmund G. Ross, much less famous than Webster, showed his courage in voting instead of in speeches. He served in the Senate during Reconstruction, when Andrew Johnson was president. Republicans, such as Ross, were tired of having to force bills past the president’s veto, and were angered by Johnson’s sympathetic approach to the South. They passed Tenure of Office Act–one Johnson would almost certainly violate–and then impeached him when he did not follow it. The Republicans had all the votes needed to oust the president. But Ross was having second thoughts. Ross did not like Johnson, but he did believe in the right to a fair trial, and he did not believe this impeachment was fair. In spite of threats and pressure from his party and constituents, he voted not guilty, and Johnson remained in office because of that one vote.

Kennedy’s book is interesting and well-written, and could be enjoyed by anyone. (I would, however, suggest a basic knowledge of United States history pre-1956. If I were not enrolled in AP U.S. History right now, I would not have known half of the names Kennedy mentions.) It is also interesting to think about how Kennedy’s ideas are applicable today; in an age of instant communication, it is much harder for politicians to be courageous and move apart from the will of their constituency.

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