The Journal of The DuPage County Bar Association

Back Issues > Vol. 11 (1998-99)

The Meaning of Courage
By Senator John F. Kennedy

Senator William Pitt Fessenden of Maine, in a eulogy delivered upon the death of Senator Foot of Vermont in 1966, two years before Senator Fessenden’s vote to acquit Andrew Johnson brought about fulfillment of his own prophecy.This has been a book about courage and politics. Politics furnished the situations, courage provided the theme. Courage, the universal virtue, is comprehended by us all-but these portraits of courage do not dispel the mysteries of politics.

For not a single one of the men whose stories appear in the preceding pages offers a simple, clear-cut picture of motivation and accomplishment. In each of them complexities, inconsistencies and doubts arise to plague us. However detailed may have been our study of his life, each man remains something of an enigma. However clear the effect of his courage, the cause is shadowed by a veil which cannot be torn away. We may confidently state the reasons why-yet something always seems to elude us. We think we hold the answer in our hands-yet somehow it slips through our fingers.

Motivation, as any psychiatrist will tell us, is always difficult to access. It is particularly difficult to trace in the murky sea of politics. Those who abandoned their state and section for the national interest-men like Daniel Webster and Sam Houston, whose ambitions for higher office could not be hidden-laid themselves open to the charge that they sought only to satisfy their ambition for the Presidency. Those who broke with their party to fight for broader principles-men like John Qunicy Adams and Edmund Ross-faced the accusation that they accepted office under one banner and yet deserted it in a moment of crisis for another.

But in the particular events set forth in the preceding chapters, I am persuaded after long study of the record that the national interest, rather than private or political gain, furnished the basic motivation for the actions of those whose deeds are therein described. This does not mean that many of them did not seek, though rarely with success, to wring advantage out of the difficult course they had adopted. For as politicians-and it is surely no disparagement to term all of them politicians-they were clearly justified in doing so.

Of course, the acts of courage described in this book would be more inspiring and would shine more with the traditional luster of hero-worship if we assumed that each man forgot wholly about himself in his dedication to higher principles. But it may be that President John Adams, surely as disinterested as well as wise a public servant as we have had, came much nearer to the truth when he wrote in his Defense of the Constitutions of the United States: "It is not true, in fact, that any people ever existed who love public better than themselves."

If this be true, what then caused the statesmen mentioned in the preceding pages to act as they did? It was not because they "loved the public better than themselves." On the contrary it was precisely because they did love themselves-because each one’s need to maintain his own respect for himself was more important to him than his popularity with others-because his desire to win or maintain a reputation for integrity and courage was stronger than his desire to maintain his office-because his conscience, his personal standard of ethics, his integrity or morality, call it what you will-was stronger than the pressures of public disapproval-because his faith that his course was the best one, and would ultimately be vindicated, outweighed his fear of public reprisal.

Although the public good was the indirect beneficiary of this sacrifice, itwas not the vague and general concept, but one or a combination of these pressures of self-love that pushed him along the course of action that resulted in the slings and arrows previously described. It is when the politician loves neither the public good nor himself, or when his love for himself is limited and is satisfied by the trappings of office, that the public interest is badly served. And it is when his regard for himself is so high that his own self-respect demands he follow the path of courage and conscience that all benefit. It is then that his belief in the rightness of his own course enables him to say with John C. Calhoun:

I never know that South Carolina thinks of a measure. I never consult her. I act to the best of my judgment and according to my conscience. If she approves, well and good. If she does not and wishes anyone to take my place, I am ready to vacate. We are even.

This is not to say that courageous politicians and the principles for which they speak out are always right. John Quincy Adams, it is said, should have realized that the Embargo would ruin New England but hardly irritate the British. Daniel Webster, according to his critics, fruitlessly appeased the slavery forces, Thomas Hart Benton was an unyielding and pompous egocentric, Sam Houston was cunning, changeable and unreliable. Edmund Ross, in the eyes of some, voted to uphold a man who had defied the Constitution and defied the Congress. Lucius Lamar failed to understand why the evils planned inflation are sometimes preferable to the tragedies of uncontrolled depression. Norris and Taft, it is argued, were motivated more by blind isolationism than Constitutional principles.

All of this has been said, and more. Each of us can decide for himself the merits of the course for which these men fought.

But is it necessary to decide this question in order to admire their courage? Must men conscientiously risk their careers only for principles which hindsight declares valor? I think not. 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.

I make no claim that all of those who staked their careers to speak their minds were right. Indeed, it is clear that Webster, Benton and Houston could not all have been right on the Compromise of 1850, for each of them, in pursuit of the same objective of preserving the Union, held wholly different views on that one omnibus measure. Lucius Lamar, in refusing to resign his seat when he had violated the instructions of his Legislature, demonstrated courage in totally opposite fashion from John Tyler, who ended his career in the Senate because he believed such instructions binding. Tyler, on the other hand, despised Adams; and Adams was disgusted with "the envious temper, the ravenous ambition and the rotten heart of Daniel Webster." Republicans Norris and Taft could not see eye to eye; and neither could Democrats Calhoun and Benton.

These men were not all one side. They were not all right or all conservatives or all liberals. Some of them may have been representing the actual sentiments of the silent majority of their constituents in opposition to the screams of a vocal minority; but most of them were not. Some of them may have been actually advancing the long range interests of their states in opposition to the shortsighted and narrow prejudices of their constituents; but some of them were not. Some of them may have been pure and generous and kind and noble throughout their careers, in the best traditions of the of the American hero; but some of them were not. Norris the unyielding bitter-ender; Adams, the irritating upstart; Webster, the businessmen’s beneficiary; Benton, the bombastic bully-of such stuff our real-life political heroes made.

Some demonstrated courage through their unyielding devotion to absolute principle. Others demonstrated courage through their acceptance of compromise, through their advocacy of conciliation, through their willingness to replace conflict with co-operation. Surely their courage was of equal quality, though of different caliber. For the American system of Government could not function if every man in a position of responsibility approached each problem, as John Quincy Adams did, as a problem in higher mathematics, with but a limited regard for sectional needs and human shortcomings.

Most of them, despite their differences, held much in common–the breath-taking 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.

* * * * *

The meaning of courage, like political motivations, is frequently misunderstood. Some enjoy the excitement of its battles, but fail to note the implications of its consequences. Some admire its virtues in other men and other times, but fail to comprehend its current potentialities. Perhaps, to make clearer the significance of these stories of political courage, it would be well to say what this book is not.

It is not intended to justify independence for the sake of independence, obstinacy to all compromise or excessively proud and stubborn adherence to one’s own personal convictions. It is not intended to suggest that there is, on every issue, one right side and one wrong side, and that all Senators except those who are knaves or fools will find the right side and stick to it. On the contrary, I share the feelings expressed by Prime Minister Melbourne, who, when irritates by the criticism of the then youthful historian T. B. Macaulay, remarked that he would like to be as sure of anything. And nine years in Congress have taught me the wisdom of Lincoln’s words: "There are few things wholly evil or wholly good. Almost everything, especially of Government policy, is an inseparable compound of the two, so that our best judgment of the preponderance between them is continually demanded."

This book is not intended to suggest that party regularity and party responsibility are necessary evils which should at no time influence our decisions. It is not intended to suggest that the local interests of one’s state or region have no legitimate right to consideration any time. On the contrary, the loyalties of every Senator are distributed among his party, his state and section, his country and his conscience. On party issues, his party loyalties are normally controlling. In regional disputes, his regional responsibilities will likely guide his course. It is on national issues, on matters of conscience which challenge party and regional loyalties, that the test of courage is presented.

It may take courage to battle one’s President, one’s party or the overwhelming sentiment of one’s nation; but these do not compare, it seems to me, to the courage required of the Senator defying the angry power of the very constituents who control his future. It is for this reason that I have not included in this work the stories of this nation’s most famous "insurgents"-John Randolph, Thaddeus Stevens, Robert La Follette and all the rest-men of courage and integrity, but men whose battles were fought with the knowledge that they enjoyed the support of the voters back home.

Finally, this book is not intended to disparage democratic government and popular rule. The examples of constituent passions unfairly condemning a man of principle are not unanswerable arguments against permitting the widest participation in the electoral process. The stories of men who accomplished good in the face of cruel calumnies from the public are not final proof that we should at all times ignore the feelings of the voters on national issues. For, as Winston Churchill has said, "Democracy is the worst form of government, except all those other forms that have tried from time to time." We can improve our democratic processes, we can enlighten our misunderstanding of its problems, and we can increase our respect for those men of integrity who find it necessary, from time to time, to act contrary to public opinion. But we cannot solve the problems of legislative independence and responsibility by abolishing or curtailing democracy.

For 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. The true democracy, living and growing and inspiring, puts its faith in the people-faith that the people will not simply elect men who will represent their views ably and faithfully, but also elect men who will exercise their conscientious judgment-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 stories are the stories of such democracy. Indeed, there would be no such stories had this nation not maintained its heritage of free speech and dissent, had it not fostered honest conflicts of opinion, had it not encouraged tolerance for unpopular views. Cynics may point to our inability to provide a happy ending for each chapter. But I am certain that these stories will not be looked upon as warnings to beware of being courageous. For the continued political success of many of those who withstood the pressure of public opinion, and the ultimate vindication of the rest, enables us to maintain our faith in the long-run judgment of the people.

And thus neither the demonstrations for past courage nor the need for future courage are confined to the Senate alone. Not only do the problems of courage and conscience concern every officeholder in our land, however humble or mighty, and to whomever he may be responsible-voters, a legislature, a political machine or a party organization. They concern as well every voter in our land-and they concern those who do not vote, those who take no interest in Government, those who have only disdain for the politician and his profession. They concern everyone who has ever complained about corruption in high places, and everyone who has ever insisted that his representative abide by his wishes. For, in democracy, every citizen, regardless of his interest in politics, "holds office"; every one of us is in a position of responsibility; and, in the final analysis, the kind of government we get depends upon how we fulfill those responsibilities. We, the people, are the boss, and we will get the kind of political leadership, be it good or bad, that we demand and deserve.

These problems do not even concern politics alone-for the same basic choice of courage or compliance continually faces us all, whether we fear the anger of constituents, friends, a board of directors or our union, whenever we stand against the flow of opinion on strongly contested issues. For without belittling the courage with which men have died, we should not forget those acts of courage with which men have died, we should not forget those acts of courage with which men-such as the subjects of these book-have lived. The courage of a life is often less dramatic spectacle then the courage of a final moment; but it is no less a magnificent mixture of triumph and tragedy. A man does what he must-in spite of personal consequence, in spite of obstacles and dangers and pressures-and that is the basis of all human morality.

To be courageous, these stories make clear, requires no exceptional qualifications, no magic formula, no special combination of time, place and circumstance. It is an opportunity that sooner or later is presented to us all. Politics merely furnishes one arena which imposes special tests of courage. In whatever arena of life one may meet the challenge of courage, whatever may be the sacrifices he faces if he follows his conscience-the loss of friends, his fortune, his contentment, even the esteem of his fellow men-each man must decide for himself the course he will follow. The 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 own soul.

* * * * *

When, Mr. President, a man becomes a member of this body he cannot even dream of the ordeal to which he cannot fail to be exposed;

of how much courage he must posses to resist the temptations which daily beset him; of that sensitive shrinking from undeserved censure which he must learn to control; of the ever-recurring contest between a natural desire for public approbation and a sense of public duty; of the load of injustice he must be content to bear, even from those who should be his friends; the imputations of his motives; the sneers and sarcasms of ignorance and malice; all the manifold injuries which partisan or private malignity,disappointed of its objects, may shower upon his unprotected head.

All this, Mr. President, if he would retain his integrity, he must learn to bear unmoved, and walk steadily onward in the path of duty, sustained only by the reflection that time may do him justice, or if not, that after all his individual hopes and aspirations, and even his name among men, should be a little account to him when weighed in the balance against the welfare of a people of whose destiny he is a constituted guardian and defender.

Senator William Pitt Fessenden of Maine, in a eulogy delivered upon the death of Senator Foot of Vermont in 1966, two years before Senator Fessenden’s vote to acquit Andrew Johnson brought about fulfillment of his own prophecy.

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