J.F.K.’s “Profiles in Courage” Has a Racism Problem. What Should We Do About It?Roundup
tags: racism, Reconstruction, John F. Kennedy
Nicholas Lemann is a staff writer at The New Yorker and a professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. His most recent book is Transaction Man: The Rise of the Deal and the Decline of the American Dream.
Every so often I hear from the descendants of Adelbert Ames, a Union general during the Civil War and then the governor of Mississippi during Reconstruction, objecting to a paragraph about him in John F. Kennedy’s book “Profiles in Courage,” from 1956. “No state suffered more from carpetbag rule than Mississippi,” Kennedy wrote, about Ames’s governorship. Corruption was rampant. Taxes rose by a factor of fourteen. “Vast areas of northern Mississippi lay in ruins.” None of this is true, and the Ames family has been lobbying the Kennedy family to change the offending paragraph pretty much continuously for more than sixty years—including an in-person discussion with J.F.K., in 1963, conducted in the White House by Ames’s great-grandson George Plimpton, the writer and editor of The Paris Review. Nothing has worked. But maybe now, at this moment of a great national reconsideration of our history and our monuments, especially on racial grounds, it might be different?
I’m getting these entreaties, most recently a couple of weeks ago, because I wrote a book about the bloody overthrow of Reconstruction by white terrorists in Mississippi in 1875. Ames is a leading character, presented far more positively than he is in “Profiles in Courage.” Since what happened during the Reconstruction period has never been very firmly fixed in American memory, some explanation is probably required. What was Ames doing in “Profiles in Courage” in the first place, and why was he—a white politician elected by an overwhelmingly Black constituency—offered up by Kennedy as a villain?
“Profiles in Courage” was published when Kennedy was thirty-eight years old. He was the junior senator from Massachusetts, in the early stages of planning his campaign for President in 1960. The main body of the book is eight profiles of United States senators whom Kennedy considered to have been extraordinarily courageous, starting chronologically with John Quincy Adams, in the early nineteenth century, and ending with Robert A. Taft, in the mid-twentieth century. It’s irresistible to think about the book in the light of Kennedy’s political ambitions. Thanks to his heroic and well-publicized exploits as a Navy officer in the South Pacific during the Second World War, courage was already identified as one of Kennedy’s salient qualities, and the framing device for the book underscored that. The courageous subjects were distributed pragmatically, considering that Kennedy was a regional politician preparing to go national. Two were from the Northeast, two from the South, and four from the Midwest. Three were Republicans. They stood for a broad range of political causes.
For many years, “Profiles in Courage” has been controversial for one reason: it isn’t clear that Kennedy wrote it himself, even though he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for biography for it, in 1957, and the book continues to be an important part of his reputation. (For the past thirty years, the Kennedy family has conferred an annual John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award on a prominent politician or group.) At least among historians, the consensus is that his aide Theodore Sorensen was the principal author, acting at Kennedy’s direction. What’s amazing, though, is that there hasn’t been more controversy, aside from the Ames family’s crusade against that one paragraph, about the content of “Profiles in Courage.” It must be one of those books that everybody has heard of but not many people have read lately.
Three of Kennedy’s eight Senate heroes were slaveholders. None won inclusion in the pantheon for having taken what we’d now think of as a lonely liberal stand. Taft’s courageous act was opposing the Nuremberg trials for the members of the Nazi high command, because they had not broken any German law; he preferred that they be put in a Napoleon-like exile in some remote place. “These conclusions are shared, I believe, by a substantial number of American citizens today,” Kennedy asserted. Daniel Webster’s was breaking with anti-slavery opinion in his home state of Massachusetts to support the Compromise of 1850, which included the Fugitive Slave Act, making it a federal crime for Northerners to give shelter to escaped slaves. For Webster, Kennedy noted admiringly, “the preservation of the Union was far dearer to his heart than his opposition to slavery.” John C. Calhoun, the most influential pro-slavery politician of the nineteenth century, didn’t get a full-dress profile, but Kennedy included him in a chapter devoted to senators who almost made the cut, and mentioned him throughout the book, always with the greatest respect, as, for example, “that revered sage of the South.” Not long after “Profiles in Courage” was published, Kennedy chaired a committee charged with choosing five outstanding senators in American history. Calhoun, Taft, and Webster were all on the list. One can guess from this sentence where the Kennedy of that moment would have stood on the question of the South’s continuing to honor the Confederate flag: “Surely in the United States of America, where brother once fought against brother, we did not judge a man’s bravery under fire by examining the banner under which he fought.”
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