Presidential Courage: A book review by Bob Morris

Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America 1789-1989
Michael Beschloss
Simon & Schuster (2008)

A crucible unlike any other

Not all U.S. Presidents were courageous and not all courageous U.S. Presidents are discussed in this volume. According to Michael Beschloss, this book “shows how several of them have, “at crucial moments, made courageous decisions for the national interest although they knew they might be jeopardizing their careers…Each tried to escape having to walk through the fire. But that is why their tales are so especially gripping. While agonizing over what was right — like most of us, but on a vast, historical stage — they took strength from family, friends, private convictions and, sometimes, religious faith.”

Indeed “like most of us,” Washington, John Adams, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, FDR, Truman, Kennedy, and Reagan  “are not saints, but anxious, self-protective politicians [who] struggled to make vital decisions that ultimately proved to be both wise and courageous [that] should inspire us always to expect more” from our leaders as well as from ourselves.

These are among the passages that caught my eye, focusing on the courage of a new nation’s first two Presidents, shared in order to suggest the thrust and flavor of Beschloss’s approach:

* * *

“By fighting for Jay’s Treaty, Washington gave his country a gift that was almost as important as his victorious Revolutionary command — the gift of peace. No other leader could have pushed the treaty through Congress. Even the great Washington almost fell short.”

But after “twenty years peace, with such an increase of population and resources as we have a right to expect,” Americans would be ready “in a just cause, to bid defiance to any power on earth.”

“Under Jay’s Treaty, the British evacuated their posts in the Northwest Territory, allowing Americans to discover the rich possibilities of the new West. As Washington had dreamt, the country could seize ‘command of its own fortunes.’

“And just as he predicted, by the time Americans fought England in the War of 1812, they were powerful enough to win.”

* * *

In a similar vein, “Adams’s treaty with France spared his tender ytoung country a confrontation that might have threatened its survival. In that sense, it gave him the right to expect that history would link his name to Washington’s.

“The cordial relationship that Adams begat with Napoleon led, under President Jefferson, to the Louisiana Purchase, which made America a truly continental nation.

“None of this would have happened had Adams been too timid to defy his own party. As Adams insisted, he had indeed brought the American ship ‘into a peacable and safe port,’ with ‘its coffers full’ and ‘all the world smiling in its face.’ He would defend ‘my missions to France as long as I have an eye to direct my hand, or a finger to hold my pen.'”

Without courageous leadership by the new nation’s first two Presidents, there probably would not have been a third, or even an independent nation for anyone to lead.

* * *

Michael Beschloss takes a similar approach to each of the eight other Presidents. Dante reserved the last and worst ring in hell for those who, in a moral crisis, preserved their neutrality. This book suggests that “throughout our history, at times of crisis and urgent national need, it has been important for Presidents to summon the courage to dismiss what is merely popular — and the wisdom to do that for causes that Americans will come to admire.”


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