Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr.

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Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. aka Bootlegger Joe (September 6, 1888 – November 18, 1969) was an illegal bootlegger during Prohibition who became a wealthy businessman, powerful politician and energetic founder of the most famous family in American politics, the Kennedy Family. Joe, the leader of the Irish wing of the Democratic Party, built a national network of Irish Catholics, which became the base for the political aspirations of his sons John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy and Ted Kennedy—they all became senators and ran for president; John became president in 1960 thanks to Joe's funding in the days before campaign finance laws and organizational prowess. Joe dominated the family until his stroke in 1961, masterminding and funding the 1960 presidential campaign. After breaking with Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940 he became the leader of the pro-business, anti-communist wing of the Democratic Party, and was a major supporter of Joe McCarthy through thick and thin. Joe was noted for his fierce devotion to promoting his children, his notorious love affairs, his ruthless business dealings, and his major roles in the New Deal.


Joe was the Harvard-educated son of wealthy Boston liquor dealer. Joe was a hale-fellow-well-met who the life of the party, but he always resented snobbish Yankees when he could not get into some elite Harvard clubs. In 1914 he married Rose Kennedy (1890-1995), daughter of a prominent Boston banker. Joe built the Kennedy Family fortune with brilliant forays into banking, shipbuilding, motion pictures, Wall Street, real estate and (just as prohibition ended in 1933), a heavy investment in upscale imported liquor. Rumors about bootlegging were false, but his scandalous social behavior in Hollywood made him a pariah in both Yankee and Irish society in Boston. He therefore relocated the family base from Boston to New York in 1927, where it remained until his son John F. Kennedy (1917–63) returned to Boston in 1946. Joe then relocated to Palm Beach, Florida, with a summer place at Hyannis Port, on Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

New Deal

He was a strong supporter of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who named him in 1934 to head the new Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and turn it into a powerful watchdog of Wall Street.

Conservatives applauded his work and supported the SEC because it increased transparency, fought securities fraud, and gave confidence to investors to put their money in Wall Street.

Liberals always distrusted Kennedy, and he fought against their proposals to raise taxes or punish business. President Roosevelt, although a liberal, needed the support of the Democratic city machines, mostly controlled by Catholic Irish with large Catholic voting blocs, so he wanted a few high visibility Catholics in his administration. (The only other Catholic was Jim Farley, the Postmaster General.)


Kennedy reached the pinnacle of esteem as Ambassador to the Court of St. James (ambassador to Britain) in 1938–40, cruising elegantly in the highest circles of London society, in contrast to his maligned reputation in American high society. Daughter Kathleen Kennedy (1920–48), became Marchioness of Hartington when she married the heir to a dukedom; she died in a plane crash.

Kennedy came under heavy attack from the left, and especially from Jews, because of his pro-business views and especially his isolationism and support for Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Germany. Roosevelt removed him in late 1940, but Kennedy nevertheless endorsed FDR in the critical 1940 election, helping to swing the powerful Catholic vote. Unlike Al Smith and other prominent Catholics, Joe refused to attack Roosevelt and thereby preserved presidential options for his sons. Joe was increasingly isolated after 1941, keeping his distance from the clubhouse Irish politicians who clustered around ex-mayor Honey Fitz, as well as the Yankee businessmen he thought had denied him entry into the most elite Harvard circles.


Joe's business enterprises flourished, and he established daughter Eunice Kennedy Schriver (1921-2009) in Chicago, where her husband Sargent Shriver (1915- ) operated the family’s giant office building, the Merchandise Mart. The Chicago ties paid off handsomely when Mayor Richard J. Daley, boss of the city’s powerful Democratic machine, enthusiastically supported the Kennedys’ national political campaigns, especially the presidential campaign of John F. Kennedy in 1960. Realizing his leadership status as one of the half dozen most powerful Irishmen in America, Joe played up his ties with Francis Cardinal Spellman of New York, and with the nation's most prominent Irish Republican, Senator Joe McCarthy, even encouraging the bachelor senator to date his daughters.

Joe supervised and funded JFK's campaign for Congress (1946-48-50), the Senate (1952-58), and the White House (1960). He suffered an incapacitating stroke in 1961 and could no longer speak; by the late 1960s his surviving sons Robert and Edward Kennedy (1932-2009) Ted were moving to the left.


  • Michael R. Beschloss. Kennedy and Roosevelt: The Uneasy Alliance (1980)
  • Thomas Maier, The Kennedys: America's Emerald Kings (2003)
  • Michael O’Brien. John F. Kennedy: A Biography (2005)
  • Doris Kearns Goodwin. The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys: An American Saga (1987)

Primary sources

  • Amanda Smith, ed. Hostage of Fortune: The Letters of Joseph P. Kennedy (2001), the major primary source