Millionaire. Scoundrel. Public Servant. Bootlegger. Philanthropist. Swindler. Family man. Philanderer. As one of the nation’s wealthiest businessmen, a World War I development executive, a controversial diplomat, and father to one of America’s most memorable and influential families, Joseph Kennedy certainly lived a full life and created an incredible legacy for the generations of Americans following him. “Had Joseph P. Kennedy not been the patriarch of America’s first family, his story would still be worth telling. That he was only adds to its historical drama and significance. His primary goal, as a younger man, was to make so much money that his children would not have to make any and could devote their lives to public service” (Nasaw, xxii). Few people in history have had the effect Joseph P. Kennedy left on American history, politics and culture. This first generation American was able to accomplish so much in a time of relatively primitive technology, when so many American immigrants were just scraping by and the world was in turmoil. Kennedy’s remarkable rise to immense power, wealth, and fame was the product of his ambitious and industrious youth and education in segregated East Boston, his myriad business ventures, and the political presence of himself and his family.
Kennedy, born in East Boston in 1888, was the son of prominent politician and Irish-Catholic immigrant Patrick Joseph “P.J.” Kennedy, a well-known and respected ward boss among fellow Irish immigrants in the city. P.J. began his life in America as a lowly dock-worker, but slowly made his way up the political and economic ladder in the city. “Through a boyhood of improving family fortunes, young Joe had before him an example of a determined man’s ability to take the world as he found it, and turn it to his own ends” (Whalen). And turn it he did.
Kennedy’s early life was comfortable and unremarkable. His father made the decision early in Joe’s life to remove him from the situation of his fellow Irish immigrants. Joe was raised among Protestant children in Boston’s public school system (Whalen). Educated in one of the city’s most challenging high schools, Boston Latin, Kennedy was preparing for a life of success from the beginning. “A near failure in the classroom, Joe was a star outside it” (Nasaw, 19). A talented athlete and charismatic student, Kennedy won tournaments and class elections all throughout high school and college. “Despite his father’s wealth and influence, Kennedy was not shielded from discrimination. He described Boston as ‘a bigoted place’” (Tamny).
As was customary for Boston Latin students, Joe continued on to Harvard College, where he studied history and economics, with passable grades. It was during his time at Harvard that Kennedy caught his first glimpse of his future in business and industry by making over $5,000 (nearly $118,000 in 2013 purchasing power) operating tour busses with a friend (Whalen). In college, Joe would make friends and form...