Memory  /  Book Review

How John F. Kennedy Fell for the Lost Cause

And the grandmother who wouldn’t let him get away with it.

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.