Profiles in Character: Hubris and Heroism in the U.S. Senate, 1789-1990

Profiles in Character: Hubris and Heroism in the U.S. Senate, 1789-1990

Profiles in Character: Hubris and Heroism in the U.S. Senate, 1789-1990

Profiles in Character: Hubris and Heroism in the U.S. Senate, 1789-1990

Synopsis

Hernon's title is a deliberate take-off of Kennedy's Profiles in Courage. Unlike Kennedy's patriotic portrayal of various Senators, Hernon takes the position that the best-known U.S. Senators throughout history don't deserve their renown as much as some lesser-known (or completely unknown) ones who served at the same time. Each chapter of his book pairs a famous Senator with his lesser-known counterpart.

Excerpt

In 1956, Senator John F. Kennedy published a much-heralded book about "that most admirable of human virtues--courage," which he defined in a phrase of Ernest Hemingway's, "grace under pressure." The book's dust jacket headlined "Decisive Moments in the Lives of Celebrated Americans," who happened to be members of the United States Senate. Although I have also written about the lives of senators, I have done so in a considerably different way.

First of all, my heroes will be evaluated according to the Greco-Roman concept of "Virtue." It includes not only courage but also prudence, temper- ance, and justice, in our Founding Fathers' conception of their Greek and Roman heroes. This kind of courage is defined as the fortitude of a lifetime, which makes "grace under pressure" possible.

The young Thomas Jefferson wrote to a friend that "everything is useful which contributes to fix us in the principles and practice of virtue," and he recommended reading authors such as Jonathan Swift and Voltaire who would inspire an emotional, commonsense kind of virtue. In a letter to John Adams in old age, Jefferson wondered what a Julius Caesar, who "had been as virtuous as he was daring and sagacious," might "have done to lead his fellow citizens into good government." Very little, the Monticello sage concluded, because Rome's only concept of government was the "degenerate Senate" and the people were not "informed, by education" or encouraged "in habits of virtue."

Pierce Butler of South Carolina, a member of the Constitutional Convention and the first Senate, noted that the very concept of the office of president was shaped during the Philadelphia deliberations by a consensus about the "Virtue" of the expected first incumbent. George Washington's perceived virtue determined the powers given to the presidency itself.

Like the members of the first Senate, the young Washington was conscious of being taught "to put on the character and not just the clothes of a gentleman." Virtue and courage are part of character, but the historian must . . .

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