How John F. Kennedy Fell for the Lost Cause

John F. Kennedy took George Plimpton by surprise after a dinner party one evening when he pulled his friend aside for a word in the Oval Office. The president had Reconstruction on his mind—really, though, he wanted to discuss Plimpton’s grandmother.

Plimpton was lanky and lordly, famous for his patrician accent and his forays into professional sports. The Paris Review founder did everything and knew everyone. He might edit literary criticism one day and try his hand at football or boxing the next. Plimpton had known Jackie Kennedy for years, and he had been friends with Robert F. Kennedy since their Harvard days.

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He also had another, and very different, Kennedy connection. Plimpton’s great-grandfather Adelbert Ames, a New Englander, had been a Civil War general and Mississippi governor during Reconstruction. He was an ardent supporter of Black suffrage. Kennedy had soiled Ames’s reputation in his best-selling 1956 book, Profiles in Courage, which had won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography the following year. The book ushered the junior senator from Massachusetts onto the national stage, effectively launching his bid for the presidency.

Kennedy’s book presented a pantheon of past U.S. senators as models of courageous compromise and political pragmatism. One such man, Kennedy claimed, was Ames’s racist Democratic rival, Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar II. A slaveholder, drafter of the Mississippi Ordinance of Secession, and Confederate colonel, Lamar later became the first ex-Confederate appointed to the Supreme Court after the Civil War.

Lamar and Ames were the preeminent politicians of Mississippi Reconstruction. They hated each other. (At one point, Lamar threatened to lynch Ames.) Profiles in Courage had relied heavily on the work of influential Dunning School historians—disciples of the Columbia University professor William A. Dunning, who scorned Black suffrage and promoted the mythology of the Lost Cause. Kennedy may have been genuinely misled by these historians, but he also aspired to higher office and needed to appeal to white southern voters. His book denounced Reconstruction, casting Ames as a corrupt, carpetbagging villain and Lamar as a heroic southern statesman.

Ames’s daughter Blanche—Plimpton’s grandmother—was incensed. She sent meticulously researched letters to Kennedy, demanding that he correct his book. Some of the letters had footnotes. Some had appendixes. Blanche would not let up, chasing Kennedy from the Senate to the presidency.

In Plimpton’s telling, as Kennedy took his guests on an informal tour of the White House that evening, he motioned to Plimpton for a word. “George,” he said, as Plimpton would recall, “I’d like to talk to you about your grandmother.” Kennedy begged him to persuade Blanche Ames to stop writing, complaining that her correspondence “was cutting into the work of government.”

Plimpton promised to try, but he knew it would be no use. “My grandmother was a Massachusetts woman,” he later explained, and when Kennedy refused to amend Profiles, Blanche “did what any sensible Massachusetts woman would do: she sat down and wrote her own book.”

Blanche Ames was born in Massachusetts in 1878, the year after Reconstruction ended in a political deal that awarded Rutherford B. Hayes, a Republican, the disputed presidential election in exchange for withdrawing federal troops from the South. Blanche had the Civil War in her blood. Benjamin F. Butler, a Union general, was her maternal grandfather; he had commanded Fort Monroe, in Virginia, and had designated fugitive slaves as “contraband of war,” using a legal loophole that allowed refugees to seek protection behind Union lines. He later became governor of Massachusetts. Adelbert Ames, her father, won the Medal of Honor at First Bull Run and fought at Antietam and Gettysburg. After serving as the military governor of Mississippi, Ames became the state’s senator and then its civilian governor. He was a champion of racial rights, embracing a personal “Mission with a large M ” to support Black citizens.

Blanche, too, was a principled fighter, willing to risk her social privilege for the causes that she championed. Adelbert encouraged his daughters to attend college. Blanche went to Smith, where she became class president. At commencement, she delivered a forceful address promoting women’s suffrage, with President William McKinley in the audience. Blanche helped spearhead the Massachusetts women’s-suffrage movement, working as a political cartoonist for Woman’s Journal. She founded the Massachusetts Birth Control League. Once, Blanche sauntered onto Boston’s Commonwealth Avenue carrying a hand-carved wooden penis to demonstrate proper condom use; she was arrested, but police released her after realizing she was the daughter of one governor and the granddaughter of another. “If she was a man,” one historian has observed, “there would be five books” about her already.

Blanche Ames Ames acquired her distinctive, double-barreled name upon marrying the prominent Harvard botanist Oakes Ames, who came from an unrelated dynastic strand of Ameses. A talented painter, Blanche illustrated some of Oakes’s books about orchids. The Ames mansion at Borderland, their 1,200-acre estate outside Boston, was built entirely of stone to ensure that the library—the filming location for the 2019 movie Knives Out—would be fireproof. Adelbert Ames’s and Benjamin Butler’s Civil War–era swords can still be seen in the foyer. George Plimpton once used one to cut a cake at an anniversary party.

Profiles in Courage roused Blanche from her Borderland retirement. Eight decades had elapsed since the end of Reconstruction. The modern civil-rights movement was gaining momentum, with its promise of a second Reconstruction. Kennedy was not only taking the wrong side, but he was doing so by maligning Blanche’s father:

No state suffered more from carpetbag rule than Mississippi. Adelbert Ames, first Senator and then Governor … [admitted] that only his election to the Senate prompted him to take up his residence in Mississippi. He was chosen Governor by a majority composed of freed slaves and radical Republicans, sustained and nourished by Federal bayonets … Taxes increased to a level fourteen times as high as normal in order to support the extravagances of the reconstruction government.

Lamar, meanwhile, was cast as a “statesman” for whom “no partisan, personal or sectional considerations could outweigh his devotion to the national interest and to the truth”—a selfless patriot who had helped reconcile the nation.

The truth of the matter was very different. Reconstruction-era Mississippi under Ames’s leadership arguably held more political promise for newly enfranchised Black people than any other southern state. Before the Civil War, Mississippi had contained some of the richest counties in the nation, but most Mississippians—some 55 percent—were enslaved. After the war, Mississippi was the poorest state in the Union. But the new state constitution worked to overturn the Black Codes—laws designed to limit the rights of newly freed African Americans—and Mississippi’s Hiram Revels and Blanche K. Bruce became the country’s first Black senators. Ames himself shared his gubernatorial ticket with three Black candidates.

Democrats swept the 1874 national midterm elections in what the historian Eric Foner has called a “repudiation of Reconstruction.” Mississippi Democrats saw an opportunity: By seizing control of the legislature in upcoming state elections, they could pass measures that would essentially end Black suffrage. The year 1875 became a struggle between Ames, the elected governor, and Lamar, who was then in Congress. Ames’s administration had the support of Black voters. Lamar, meanwhile, embraced the so-called Mississippi Plan, which aimed to disrupt a legitimate election, by force if necessary. Lamar insisted that the Democrats had to win control of the state legislature to ensure the “supremacy of the unconquered and unconquerable Saxon race.” On Election Day, paramilitary terrorists called White Liners obstructed polling places, destroyed ballot boxes, and threatened to kill Black citizens who voted, as the journalist Nicholas Lemann has written in Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War. Counties that were once overwhelmingly Republican saw the Republican vote drop to single digits. “A revolution has taken place,” Ames wrote to his wife, prophesying a bleak future for Mississippi. “A race are disenfranchised—they are to be returned to … an era of second slavery.”

Democrats, elected by terrorism and led by Lamar, now threatened Ames with impeachment. They accused him of financial impropriety—including the high taxes that Profiles decried—despite his administration’s relative frugality. To avoid impeachment, Ames resigned and fled the state. A U.S. Senate committee investigated the Mississippi elections and produced a 2,000-page document known as the “Boutwell Report.” It concluded that Ames was blameless and that his resignation had been forced “by measures unauthorized by law.” No matter: Ames’s reputation lay in tatters.

The following year, during the presidential deadlock, Lamar helped broker the Compromise of 1877, which gave Hayes the presidency over Samuel Tilden in exchange for the return of “home rule”—rule by white-supremacist Democrats—to the South, effectively destroying national Reconstruction.

Profiles in Courage evades easy categorization. It is a historical work, written by a political team, heavily assisted by historians, and published for political gain. The book features eight senators, strategically distributed across time, space, and party. Five of the profiles focus on questions of slavery, the Civil War, or Reconstruction, and none of the featured senators took a progressive approach to Black rights. Three, including Lamar, were slaveholders. Questions about authorship arose early: Kennedy’s speechwriter Theodore Sorensen was rumored to be the true author. (He did, in fact, write most of the book.) Archival drafts reveal that the Georgetown University history professor Jules Davids helped overhaul the Mississippi chapter. The book’s historical vision, though, came from Kennedy.

Historians in recent years have acknowledged that the real problem with Profiles is not authorship but substance. As a critic, Blanche Ames got there first. Her personal copy of the book, a first edition, overflows with annotations. She drew arrows and corkscrew question marks around the paragraph about her father, her anger visible on the page. When Kennedy insisted that Lamar had written Mississippi’s Ordinance of Secession only after losing hope that “the South could obtain justice in the Federal Union,” Blanche thundered in the margins: “Lamar had sown the seed in 1861. He was sowing it again in 1874.”

In June 1956, Blanche sent a nine-page letter to Senator Kennedy, introducing herself as his friend Plimpton’s grandmother and urging “corrections of errata for your own sake as well as mine.” She recognized diplomatically that, “in a work as ambitious as ‘Profiles in Courage’ … there are bound to be some viewpoints to arouse controversy.” Nevertheless, she argued, ambition did not excuse historical inaccuracy.

Kennedy replied the next month. He was cordial, admitting that Reconstruction was “one of the most difficult sections” to write, not because of lack of material, but because of an abundance of “emotion-packed and strongly partisan” readings. It was a politician’s apology, suffused with qualifiers. He insisted that he had relied on “reputable authorities,” but granted that “it is possible, of course, that in so doing a particular individual or incident is slighted or inadequately or inaccurately described.” He added, “If such is the case in connection with my mention of your father … I am indeed sorry.” He assured Blanche that her message “succeeded in stimulating me to further research,” but warned that he did not expect Profiles to be reprinted, so there would be no correction.

Kennedy did, in fact, do further research. According to Plimpton, during that Oval Office conversation after the dinner party, Kennedy asked Plimpton what he knew about his great-grandfather, apparently eager to demonstrate his own knowledge. He reenacted how Ames would inspect his Civil War soldiers and shout “For God’s sake, draw up your bowels!,” causing White House personnel to burst in, worried by the uproar. The president had found this obscure detail in an equally obscure book, The Twentieth Maine, which was published a year after Profiles.

But between 1956 and 1963, Profiles was reprinted more than 30 times. Kennedy did not change his account of Adelbert Ames and L. Q. C. Lamar.

Kennedy’s intransigence only fueled Blanche’s campaign. She forwarded her letters to Harper & Brothers, giving the publisher “the first opportunity” to rectify where Profiles in Courage “falls short of the Code of Historians.” The publisher declined, claiming that too much time had elapsed for readers to be able to understand any corrections. Blanche combed through Kennedy’s acknowledgments and wrote to the professors who assisted with drafting or editing Profiles, hoping that the historians might put pressure on him.

They did not. There is no evidence that Davids, architect of the Lamar chapter, ever bothered to reply. Allan Nevins, at Columbia, backpedaled, claiming that the introduction he had written for Profiles “carried no endorsement of all details … I am sure the Senator will make correction where correction is proper.” Arthur Holcombe, at Harvard, patronizingly suggested that Blanche had “misunderstood Senator Kennedy’s meaning.” Some of these academic historians may simply not have taken Blanche seriously: She was old, she was a woman, and she lacked scholarly credentials.

Blanche contacted a second circle of scholars, seeking a historian “free from bias” who might serve as an impartial biographer of Adelbert Ames. She steeped herself in the historiography of Reconstruction, coming to understand how closely Profiles followed the neo-Confederate historians Wirt Armistead Cate and Edward Mayes. “Cate copies Mayes and Kennedy copies Cate,” she wrote to the eminent Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison. “Now, unless corrected, modern and future historians may copy Kennedy! This method of writing history leads around in circles of quotations of half-truths. It is a false method.”

Morison suggested a few military scholars as potential Ames biographers, but mainly recommended “Negro historians” such as John Hope Franklin, Rayford Logan, and Alrutheus Ambush Taylor. “Adelbert Ames’ career as Governor was, I believe, more important than his military career,” Morison reasoned, “and he was the champion of the Negroes.” Blanche contacted a host of prominent academics, including C. Vann Woodward, whose books had criticized the Dunning School and challenged the myth that Reconstruction governments with Black elected officials were simply incompetent or ignorant. The Profiles team had paid no attention to this scholarship. Despite her efforts, no historian would commit to the project. So Blanche resolved to write a biography of Adelbert Ames herself.

Borderland became Blanche’s archive and fortress while she spent six years—1957 to 1963—researching and writing. When her granddaughter Olivia Hoblitzelle visited Borderland, she marveled at the piles of Civil War maps and books in the library. On one trip, Hoblitzelle recalled, her father asked, “How long is it now?” “Five hundred pages,” Blanche replied. When Hoblitzelle’s father asked, “Isn’t that enough?,” Blanche “looked him straight in the eye, and said, ‘Well, if Tolstoy could do it, so can I.’ ” When she finished, she was 86 years old.

Blanche’s research drew significantly on the work of Black historians, who had been publishing trenchant studies of Reconstruction for decades. White historians had largely ignored this work, dismissing it as second-class scholarship. Blanche thought otherwise. Her bibliography cited W. E. B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in America, Franklin’s The Militant South, John Lynch’s The Facts of Reconstruction, Merl Eppse’s The Negro, Too, in American History, and George Washington Williams’s History of the Negro Race in America. Kennedy, meanwhile, had not cited a single Black author on Mississippi Reconstruction.

The stakes, Blanche believed, included not only her father’s reputation but the very meaning of Reconstruction. Her final chapter, “Integrity and History,” is a scathing condemnation of the traditional Reconstruction historiography Kennedy had parroted. Throughout the book, she linked Adelbert Ames’s promotion of racial rights in the 1870s with the modern civil-rights movement—the second Reconstruction:

In this fateful year of 1963, our Congress has a unique opportunity with its overwhelming Democratic majorities … Congress seems to hold the practical power to do away with the disgraceful suppression of Negro suffrage rights … A hundred years has been too long to wait for application of these long-standing laws of equity.

Blanche Ames’s book was published at the worst possible moment. In September 1963, she finished correcting page proofs for Adelbert Ames, 1835–1933: General, Senator, Governor. The book was lovingly bound in Sundour cloth and stamped in gold. It sold for $12.50, about $120 today—an old-fashioned, costly volume. Kennedy’s mass-produced paperback, meanwhile, sold for less than a dollar. On November 22, 1963, as Blanche’s book was going to press, Lee Harvey Oswald shot and killed Kennedy in Dallas.

With the president’s tragic death, Profiles in Courage got a second life, landing back on the New York Times best-seller list. As Americans evaluated Kennedy’s legacy, his prizewinning book seemed a natural place to start. A televised adaptation of Profiles had been in production at NBC before Kennedy’s death. At that time, Blanche had urged Kennedy to use television as an opportunity to “bring your views into accord with the trend of modern historical interpretation of the Reconstruction Period.” After the assassination, the network pressed ahead, framing the series as “one of the finest living memorials to President Kennedy.” But Blanche may have gotten through to Kennedy’s team in the end, at least as far as the television series: When it premiered, a year after Kennedy’s death, the planned segment on Lamar had been quietly dropped. It was the only original profile not to be featured on television.

But there was still the book. Blanche wrote to Sorensen in early 1964, trying to strike a tone of mutual interest: “Must we not find a way of correcting these obvious misstatements inadvertently restated by President Kennedy? Otherwise they will be perpetuated with greater force than ever, and I do not believe that he would have wished this. Do you?” There is no record that Sorensen replied.

Blanche lived to see the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Born a year after the end of the first Reconstruction, she was able to witness the start of the second. But when she died at Borderland, in 1969, a belittling New York Times headline read: “MRS. OAKES AMES, BOTANIST’S WIDOW; Illustrator of Her Husband’s Works on Orchids Dies.” Despite Blanche’s best efforts, her book sold only a few thousand copies.

In 2010, a few years before efforts to remove Confederate monuments gained traction across the country, a life-size statue of Lamar was erected outside his former home in Oxford, Mississippi. The L. Q. C. Lamar House Museum’s public-outreach efforts generally commemorate Lamar not as a white supremacist or an architect of the Mississippi Plan, but as the embodiment of Kennedy’s redemptive arc: “Southern secessionist to American statesman,” as the museum describes it. Ames is not mentioned at all; Profiles is highlighted throughout the museum.

In 1980, George Plimpton donated a copy of Blanche’s book to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, in Boston. “President Kennedy would know,” he said, “that a Massachusetts woman will eventually have her way.” But Blanche Ames Ames has not had her way quite yet. At the library’s gift shop, visitors can buy a 50th-anniversary edition of Profiles in Courage, published in 2006, with an introduction by Caroline Kennedy. The book has never been corrected.

This article appears in the December 2023 print edition with the headline “Kennedy and the Lost Cause.” When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.

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