It is a genuine pleasure to be with you today in Philadelphia, the city where the Constitution and the Congress were created, and the city where the Congress of the United States sat for several years before establishment of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. All Senate historians are indebted to Pennsylvania’s first Senator, William Maclay – for it is his diary that provides the best description of those early Senate sessions about which we would otherwise know very little. Take for example, the vivid picture of that early Senate we are able to draw from Maclay’s diary entry for April 3, 1790: "Went to the Hall. The minutes were read. A message was received from the President of the United States. A report was handed to the Chair. We looked and laughed at each other for half an hour, and adjourned." (I might add that my own description of the meeting of the Senate last Thursday would be nearly identical with this – except we looked and laughed at each other, with a few speeches thrown in, for 5½ hours instead of half an hour, and then we adjourned.)
It was here in Pennsylvania that the Senate first decided in 1794 to open its sessions to the public by providing galleries for spectators. "Some of the younger members," Vice President Adams warned, "may descend from their dignity so far, perhaps, as to court popularity at the expense of justice, truth and wisdom, by flattering the prejudices of the audience; but I think they will lose more esteem than they will acquire by such means."
There is no denying the fact that the Senate since that day in Philadelphia has contained members – not all of them young – who courted popularity at the expense of justice, truth, and wisdom. But it is also true that such Senators have in the end enjoyed less esteem than those who chose, in Webster’s words, to push their "skiff from the shore alone" into a hostile and turbulent sea.
One such courageous Senator was a little-known man from Pennsylvania, Edgar Cowan. Senator Cowan was one of those whose conscience led him to break with his party and state in the bitter days that followed the outbreak of the Civil War. A very able lawyer from Westmoreland County in the western part of your state, he was elected to the Senate in 1861 at the age of 45 as one of Pennsylvania’s most prominent Republicans. But he could not agree with the more radical leaders of his party that the purpose of the war was the conquest of the southern states – instead of the suppression of a rebellion. He refused to support his party’s confiscation act, legal tender act, national bank act and attempted expulsion of Senator Bright of Indiana. As a result, he was bitterly denounced by his state and party. Senate Republican leader Ben Wade called Cowan the "watchdog of slavery." The Republicans of Allegheny County officially censured him at their annual convention. But Edgar Cowan stood firm in his adherence to the Constitution and his own ideals – and, in the turbulent reconstruction period that followed the end of hostilities, he refused to follow those Senate Republican leaders who wanted Andrew Johnson to administer the downtrodden southern states as conquered provinces which had forfeited their rights under the Constitution. Believing instead that a charitable and Constitutional approach to reconstruction had been desired by his idol Abraham Lincoln – for whom he had been an elector in 1860 – Edgar Cowan attended a national unity convention here in Philadelphia in 1866 and served as chairman of its committee on resolutions. The convention – known as the "arm-in-arm convention" because that was the way northern and southern leaders walked down the aisle together – was bitterly denounced by Republicans in Pennsylvania and in Congress. As the reward for his courage, Pennsylvania denied Edgar Cowan re-election to the Senate; and when Andrew Johnson nominated him to be Minister to Austria, his own former colleagues in Washington – caught up in the maelstrom of what Claude Bowers aptly termed an age of hate – refused to confirm his nomination. But before Edgar Cowan died in 1885, both the wisdom and the courage of his course were recognized in Washington and Pennsylvania alike.
Today, we live in an era where we are desperately in need of the Cowans and others like them. For we live in an age of competitive struggle for world leadership, a struggle which in various phases may well last for a generation or more, a struggle which will require sacrifices, burdens, and perseverance.
For in this seemingly unending war to which we have given the curious epithet "cold," we face an enemy whose leaders need an attitude of neither courage in opposing the voters nor compliance in bowing to them. The masters of the Soviet Union are little concerned with the popularity of their decisions. They pay little tribute to the public opinion which they themselves manipulate. And they may force, without fear of retaliation at the polls, their "constituents" to sacrifice present laughter for future glory.
Thus, in the days ahead, our nation will be in dire need of men willing to take the hard and unpopular decisions necessary for the survival of our way of life – men like John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts, who was willing to sacrifice the commercial and shipping interests of his state – and his own seat in the Senate – in order to support Thomas Jefferson’s trade embargo in the 1808 "cold war" against the British. And we will need men like Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar – a bitter secessionist, who drafted Mississippi’s ordinance of secession – a Confederate officer who lost both of his brothers in the struggle – and yet, at the end of the war, a Senator who continuously risked his future in order to point out the path of unity to a nation torn by dissension.
Will we have such men? Since the publication of my book, I have received many letters complaining about the lack of courageous statesmen in the Senate today. I am not so sure that I can agree with this conclusion – for modern acts of political courage involve more complicated issues and are less generally recognized than in days of old when the issues of slavery, free silver, and tariffs dominated the political struggle for more than a century. But whatever dissatisfaction may exist among those who feel that politicians have replaced statesman in the Senate, the responsibility for that condition rests less upon the Senate than upon the people themselves. For in a democracy, we the people are the boss; and we will get the kind of political leadership that we demand and deserve, be it good or bad, conscientious or compliant, courageous or cowardly.
It is interesting to note that, shortly after the Constitution was amended in 1913 to provide for popular election of Senators and thus to replace the political bosses with real statesmen, Senator Boies Penrose, the boss of Pennsylvania whom many of you will recall, said to a reformer friend: "Give me the People, every time! Look at me! No legislature would ever have dared to elect me in the Senate, not even at Harrisburg. But the People, the dear People, elected me by a bigger majority than my opponent’s total vote by over half a million. You and your 'reformer' friends thought direct election would turn men like me out of the Senate! Give me the People, every time!"
I think it is clear that the kind of government we are going to get in this country depends on the way we fulfill our responsibility as citizens, and upon the kind of society from which our Senators will be chosen. In the days when our nation was characterized by easy money and selfish exploitation, we had greedy and corrupt men in the Senate. In those times when the American people were bitter in their animosities toward one another, we saw a Senate characterized by heated dissension. When the nation was a fighting nation, it was represented by fighting men – and when the people vacillated on crucial issues, so did their Senators.
Now we face a time for courage, courage in the country and courage in the Capital. If the people of the United States are able and willing to meet the challenge of courage, then so will the Senate reflect accurately the temper and conditions of life in the country. If the people have fortitude, if the people have devotion to the public interest, they will be represented by men that can speak as courageously as Senator John Calhoun of South Carolina, when he said:
"I never know what 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."
Speech source: Papers of John F. Kennedy. Pre-Presidential Papers. Senate Papers. Series 12. Speeches and the Press. Box 894, Folder: "Philadelphia Inquirer book and author luncheon, 10 January 1956".