Profiles in Courage

Profiles in Courage is a 1956 volume of short biographies describing acts of bravery and integrity by eight United States Senators, written by then-Senator John F. Kennedy, who won the Pulitzer Prize for the work. The book profiles senators who defied the opinions of their party and constituents to do what they felt was right and suffered severe criticism and losses in popularity because of their actions. It begins with a quote from Edmund Burke on the courage of the English statesman Charles James Fox, in his 1783 attack upon the tyranny of the East India Company in the House of Commons.[2]

Profiles in Courage
First edition
AuthorJohn F. Kennedy
Ted Sorensen (ghostwriter)
SubjectUnited States Senators
PublisherHarper & Brothers
Publication date
January 1, 1956[1]
Preceded byWhy England Slept 
Followed byA Nation of Immigrants 

The book focuses intensely on mid-19th-century antebellum America and the efforts of senators to delay the American Civil War. Profiles was widely celebrated and became a bestseller. It includes a foreword by Allan Nevins.

Kennedy is credited as the sole author though some contemporaries insisted others did much of the work.

In 1990, Kennedy's family created the Profile in Courage Award to honor individuals who have acted with courage in the same vein as those profiled in the book.

History and background

Kennedy was elected to the House of Representatives in 1946, 1948, and 1950 for the state of Massachusetts. In 1952 and 1958, he was elected a senator from Massachusetts, and served in the Senate until resigning after he was elected president in 1960. It was a passage from Herbert Agar's book The Price of Union about an act of courage by an earlier senator from Massachusetts, John Quincy Adams, that gave Kennedy the idea of writing about senatorial courage. He showed the passage to Ted Sorensen and asked him to see if he could find some more examples. This Sorensen did, and eventually they had enough not just for an article, as Kennedy had originally envisaged, but a book.[3] With help from research assistants and the Library of Congress, Kennedy wrote the book while bedridden during 1954 and 1955, recovering from back surgery.

Interaction between the White House and broadcast television was expanded considerably by the Kennedy administration. The television adaptation of his book Profiles in Courage is a significant example of Kennedy's noted use of television to promote himself and his political positions as part of what was called the New Frontier.[4]

Summary of senators profiled


After its release on January 1, 1956, Profiles in Courage became a best seller. The book won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 1957, even though it was not one of the finalists forwarded to the Pulitzer Prize board from the selection committee. Kennedy's father Joseph asked columnist Arthur Krock, his political adviser and a longtime member of the prize board, to persuade others to vote for it.[5]

The book returned to the bestseller lists in 1961 after Kennedy became president and 1963 after he was assassinated.[6]

Profiles in Courage was made into a television series of the same name that aired on the NBC network during the 1964–1965 television season.


Questions have been raised about how much of the book was truly written by Kennedy and how much by his research assistants. On December 7, 1957,[7] journalist Drew Pearson appeared as a guest on The Mike Wallace Interview and made the following claim live on air: "John F. Kennedy is the only man in history that I know who won a Pulitzer Prize for a book that was ghostwritten for him."[8] Wallace replied: "You know for a fact, Drew, that the book Profiles in Courage was written for Senator Kennedy ... by someone else?" Pearson responded that he did and that Kennedy speechwriter Ted Sorensen wrote the book. Wallace responded: "And Kennedy accepted a Pulitzer Prize for it? And he never acknowledged the fact?" Pearson replied: "No, he has not. You know, there's a little wisecrack around the Senate about Jack ... some of his colleagues say, 'Jack, I wish you had a little less profile and more courage.'"[8]

It was later reported that the statement "I wish that Kennedy had a little less profile and more courage" was actually made by former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.[9]

Joseph P. Kennedy saw the broadcast, then called his lawyer, Clark Clifford, yelling: "Sue the bastards for fifty million dollars!"[8] Soon Clifford and Robert Kennedy showed up at ABC and told executives that the Kennedys would sue unless the network issued a full retraction and apology. Mike Wallace and Drew Pearson insisted that the story was true and refused to back off. Nevertheless, ABC made the retraction and apology, which made Wallace furious.[8]

According to "The Straight Dope", Herbert Parmet later analyzed the text of Profiles in Courage and wrote in his book Jack: The Struggles of John F. Kennedy (1980) that although Kennedy did oversee the production and provided for the direction and message of the book, it was clearly Sorensen who provided most of the work that went into the end product.[10] The thematic essays that comprise the first and last chapters "may be viewed largely as [Kennedy's] own work", however.[5]:401

In addition to Kennedy’s speechwriter Sorensen, Jacqueline Kennedy recruited her history instructor from Georgetown University, Jules Davids, to work on the project. Davids told a Kennedy biographer that he and Sorensen had researched and written drafts of most of the book. Kennedy's handwritten notes, which Senator Kennedy showed to reporters to prove his authorship, are now in the Kennedy Library, but are mostly preliminary notes about John Quincy Adams, a particular interest of Kennedy's, and are not a readable draft of the chapter on Adams. During the six-month period when the book was being written, Sorensen worked full-time on the project, sometimes twelve-hour days; Kennedy spent most of the same period travelling, campaigning, or hospitalized. Kennedy’s preserved notes show that he kept up with the book’s progress, but historian Garry Wills remarked that Kennedy’s notes contain no draft of any stage of the manuscript, or of any substantial part of it.[11]

In Sorensen's autobiography, Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History, he said he wrote "a first draft of most of the chapters" of Profiles in Courage and "helped choose the words of many of its sentences".[12][13] Sorensen also wrote: "While in Washington, I received from Florida almost daily instructions and requests by letter and telephone – books to send, memoranda to draft, sources to check, materials to assemble, and Dictaphone drafts or revisions of early chapters." (Sorensen, p. 146) Sorensen wrote that Kennedy "worked particularly hard and long on the first and last chapters, setting the tone and philosophy of the book". Kennedy "publicly acknowledged in his introduction to the book my extensive role in its composition". (p. 147) Sorensen claimed that in May 1957, Kennedy "unexpectedly and generously offered, and I happily accepted, a sum to be spread over several years, that I regarded as more than fair" for his work on the book. Indeed, this supported a long-standing recognition of the collaborative effort that Kennedy and Sorensen had developed since 1953.


Author David O. Stewart has questioned the accuracy of the book's chapter on the impeachment of Andrew Johnson. Of Johnson's defenders in the Senate, Profiles in Courage stated that "Not a single one of them escaped the terrible torture of vicious criticism engendered by their vote to acquit." However, Stewart wrote of the supposed suffering: "It is a myth" and "None was a victim of postimpeachment retribution. Indeed, their careers were not wildly different from those of the thirty-five senators who voted to convict Andrew Johnson."[14] However, Ross lost his bid for re-election two years after casting a vote acquitting Johnson. There is also evidence that Edmund Ross was bribed to vote for Johnson's acquittal,[15] which is not mentioned in Profiles in Courage.

Kennedy also praised Lucius Lamar, who, while working in the public eye towards reconciliation, privately was an instigator, according to the claim of author Lemann, of growing racial agitation.[16] In the profile of Lamar, Kennedy had also included a single paragraph condemning Adelbert Ames, the Maine-born governor of Mississippi from 1873 to 1876, as an opportunistic carpetbagger whose administration was "sustained and nourished by Federal bayonets." Ames' daughter, Blanche Ames Ames, was outraged, and regularly wrote to Kennedy for years afterward in protest, demanding a retraction of the "defamatory insinuations" and accused him of pandering to Southern readers.[17] The letter-writing continued even after Kennedy had been elected to the presidency. This prompted Kennedy to turn to George Plimpton, Ames' grandson and a classmate of Robert F. Kennedy at Harvard, asking him if he could get his grandmother to cease, claiming her letters were interfering with government business. Blanche Ames Ames would eventually publish her own biography of her father in 1964.[18]

In the 1985 Infocom interactive fiction game A Mind Forever Voyaging, Profiles in Courage is on the list of banned books, tapes, and programs, issued by the Morality Bureau of the government in Rockville's Main Library in the 2071 simulation.

In Ian Fleming's book The Man with the Golden Gun, fictional hero James Bond reads the book and the section on Edmund Ross.

See also


  1. Harris, John (December 26, 1955). "Globe Will Publish 'Profiles in Courage'". The Boston Globe: 1. The book will go on sale this coming New Year's Day, and on the same day, next Sunday, the Boston Globe, exclusively in this area, will begin publishing the book in serial form.
  2. "Frontpiece: Item 3 – Edmund Burke quotation, typescript". Retrieved 28 December 2014.
  3. Sorensen, Ted; Myers, Joanne J., (May 21, 2008). Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History (Private Lunch) Archived 2009-10-13 at the Wayback Machine, Carnegie Cuncil for Ethics in International Affairs.
  4. Anderson, Steve (2001). Television Histories: Shaping Collective Memory in the Media Age. University Press of Kentucky.
  5. Leamer, Laurence (2001). The Kennedy Men: 1901–1963. HarperCollins. ISBN 0-688-16315-7.:402–403
  6. Nichols, Lewis (December 15, 1963). "In and Out of Books; 'Profiles' East Europe Mr. Caldwell James Bond Publishers' Row". The New York Times.
  7. "Drew Pearson". Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, School of Information, University of Texas. Retrieved 28 December 2014.
  8. Walls, p. 34
  9. Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years, David Talbot, New York: Free Press (2007), p36.
  10. Adams, Cecil (November 7, 2003). "Did John F. Kennedy really write "Profiles in Courage?"". The Straight Dope. Retrieved 19 December 2009.
  11. Garry Wills, The Kennedy Imprisonment (Boston: Little, Brown, 1982) 135–137, ISBN 0-316-94385-1
  12. "Her Story, Their Words: Behind the Scenes of the Best-Sellers". 11 June 2014.
  13. Farhi, Paul (9 June 2014). "Who wrote that political memoir? No, who wrote it?". The Washington Post. Retrieved 11 June 2014.
  14. Stewart, David O., (2009). Impeached: the Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln's Legacy. Simon & Schuster. New York, N.Y. ISBN 978-1-4165-4749-5. Page 308.
  15. Stewart, David O. Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln's Legacy. Simon & Schuster, 2009, pp.185, 186, 188, 189, 242, 269, 278, 279, 280, 282, 285, 292, 297–99, 309.
  16. Nicholas Lemann, Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War by Nicholas Lemann. Farrar, Straus &Giroux. New York, NY. ISBN 978-0-374-53069-3. Pages 205–209.
  17. Turkel, Stanley, (2005). Heroes of the American Reconstruction: Profiles of Sixteen Educators, Politicians, and Activists. McFarland & Company. Jefferson, N.C. ISBN 978-0-7864-1943-2. Pages 17–19.
  18. Ames' daughter dogged JFK over characterization in 'Profiles' – The Lowell Sun, July 2, 2008


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