Courage

Herbert Sebastian Agar was a journalist and historian who served as editor of the Louisville Courier Journal. He won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1934 for his book, The People’s Choice, which was a critical look at the American presidency. It was his 1950 book, The Price of Union, that inspired John F. Kennedy to take a look at the concept of courage, especially political courage. A passage from that book about an act of courage by John Quincy Adams is said to be the inspiration for Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Profiles in Courage.

John Quincy Adams is one of the heroes of the story of the United Church of Christ. We tell the story of the slave ship, La Amistad and especially the 1839 trip with 49 adults and four children who had been taken from Mendiland, now known as Sierra Leone and illegally transported from Africa to Havana to be sold into slavery in Cuba. The United States and Britain had at the time banned the Atlantic slave trade, Spain still allowed slavery in its colonies. The slaves successfully revolted and gained control of the ship. The slaves demanded that the ship take them back to Africa, but the navigator deceived them about their corse and it ended up on the eastern tip of Long Island, New York. The ship was discovered and a lawsuit followed over salvage rights to the ship and its cargo. More famous was the court case over the status of the Mende captives. If convicted of mutiny they faced execution. Their case finally reached the US Supreme Court, which finally ordered the captives to be freed. The court cases were supported by funds raised by the United Missionary Society, which has its roots in the Congregational Church. The attorney selected to argue the case before the Supreme Court was another congregationalist, none other than former president John Quincy Adams. The story of the Amistad and its freedom-seeking Mende captives inspired the building of the replica ship, Freedom Schooner Amistad, which was launched in 2000. That ship is dedicated to educating the public about the story of the Amistad.

It was a series of events that happened before the Amistad, however, that inspired Kennedy’s book. Elected as a Federalist in 1803, John Quincy Adams was the only Federalist to vote in favor of the Louisiana Purchase. That vote began a split between Adams and his political party. in 1807, Thomas Jefferson called on Congress to enact an embargo against Great Britain to retaliate for British aggression towards American merchant ships. The embargo would have a disastrous effect on the economy of Massachusetts. The Federalists opposed the embargo. Adams, however, was persuaded by Jefferson to go against his party and steer the bill into law. Protest followed and Adams resigned his seat in 1808.

John F. Kennedy was so inspired by Agar’s telling of the story of Adams that he wrote an essay on Adams. He then asked Ted Sorensen to help him find other stories of US senators who had displayed uncommon courage. The result was the eight biographical essays in the book Profiles in Courage.

Profiles in Courage is not a big book. Up to 1956, when Kennedy wrote the book there were only eight instances of US Senators standing up to their party on critical votes enough to be reported as courageous. One of the conclusions one can draw from reading the book today is that we probably shouldn’t be surprised at the intense partisanship that is present in the US Senate today. Senators with the courage to stand up to their party are rare and, it seems particularly rare in our time of history. One wonders if Kennedy were writing today how he might have interpreted Senator Romney’s vote to convict President Trump. Will that story go down in history as another profile in courage.

Courage seems to be a rare commodity in all generations and ours is no exception.

The Australian writer Baz Luhrmann wrote, “A life lived in fear is a life half lived.” While fear isn’t exactly the opposite of courage, the quote seems especially poignant in today’s world. Fear seems to dominate much of US politics. In the United States House of Representatives and the US Senate where elected officials spend as much time raising funds as they do engaging in the business of legislation, fear of not being reelected seems to color every activity. Multi-million war chests are deemed necessary for all members of both houses, even in cases where reelection is assured. Not long ago here in South Dakota, an incumbent US Senator flooded the television stations with election ads when he was unopposed in the general election. The addiction to money and the fear of not having enough drives many decisions made by US Senators and members of the House of Representatives. It is so intense that many elected officials forget who they represent and have become so beholden to large donors that they act against the best interests of those they were elected to serve.

Political courage is indeed a rare commodity.

Not only do our elected officials live in fear and pursue half lived lives, they seem to only be capable of doing half of the job to which they were elected. It is not at all uncommon for legislators to average more than four hours each day in modern call center rooms raising funds. There are official scripts to follow and leader board posted with the same kinds of technology and approaches of major fund-raising organizations. With the average legislator spending 2 hours or less per day in actual committee meetings and on the floor of congress, you can easily see where their priorities lie. It is no wonder the average approval rating for a member of congress is 14% while 90% are reelected. They conform and they act out of fear, but they lack the courage we expect of them.

An institution of those who act in fear based on a distinct lack of political courage is unlikely to provide leadership in a national crisis that demands clear thinking and courageous action. Don’t look to the federal legislature for solutions to the corona virus epidemic. Real courage is being displayed on the county level where public health officials are making difficult decisions. Real courage is being displayed in hospitals and care centers where nurses and doctors are using the best science to treat those who are ill.

A life lived by Washington DC standards is a life half lived. The reality of today’s world demands courage, but don’t look to our senators or representative for that courage.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!