Last week, I finished Michael Beschloss' Presidential Courage. One recurring theme I found among the leaders he chose was that these men often defied the recommendations of their advisors, sometimes defied their political parties and at times even went against public sentiment to make bold decisions that they thought best for the nation in both the short-term and in the long-term success and/or security of the republic. This is truly the mark of a good leader and exactly what the founders intended when they made the courageous decision to invest strong executive powers into one elected official. This decision was in deed courageous and remarkable given the past experience the founders had with executive authority. That topic is the subject of my next book, Ray Raphael's Mr. President: How and Why the Founders Created a Chief Executive.
As for Presidential Courage, here is a brief synopsis of the courageous presidential acts performed by the leaders that Beschloss featured:
George Washington - Washington signed Jay's Treaty with Britain to avoid a future and un-winnable war. Washington stood his ground despite a groundswell of vicious public opposition and even threats of assassination. Despite the outcry, this action preserved the young republic and helped open the west to settlement.
John Adams - Defying his own Federalist supporters who wished for war with France, Adams pursued peace. Though this decision and the notorious Alien and Sedition Acts certainly contributed to his defeat in 1800, seeking peace prevented the young republic from a costly conflict that could easily have divided the nation.
Andrew Jackson - Jackson is probably the most decisive and at times, the most stubborn president in history. Jackson personified his distrust of the Bank of the United States and despite warnings of political and economic consequences, he vetoed the re-charter bill, withdrew federal deposits and effectively destroyed the national bank. Though a financial panic did ensue, Jackson held firm that a national bank controlled by private interests was dangerous to the long term economic security of the nation. Jackson also strengthened presidential power and was the first to effectively use the power of veto. In his view, the role of the President was to represent the interests of all Americans as opposed to members of Congress who represented only a district or a state.
Abraham Lincoln - Lincoln is an easy pick for "presidential courage." Clearly, Lincoln faced the most daunting challenge of any president - holding the nation together despite a bitter and costly civil war. As the Election of 1864 approached, it seemed to many - including Lincoln himself - that he would lose to his former general, George McClellan. Despite the political wisdom of the time which suggested that Lincoln find some compromise with the South, Lincoln held firm to his position that peace could only be achieved when the South renounced secession and accepted the emancipation of slaves. Fortunately, victories in the South helped end a potential third party threat by Radical Republicans and secured Lincoln's re-election.
Theodore Roosevelt - After decades of "forgettable" presidents, Theodore Roosevelt charged on to the national stage after the assassination of William McKinley. Unlike his recent predecessors, Roosevelt saw the presidency as a vehicle for needed reform. Despite being labeled as "mad" and despite the political backlash, Roosevelt successfully mediated the Anthracite Coal Mine Strike of 1902 and used his Justice Department to enforce the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890.
Franklin D. Roosevelt - Though FDR gained the presidency by promising to end the depression with his New Deal, the depression did not end and by 1938, Roosevelt lost a considerable amount of popularity and support in Congress. However, by the time he ran for an unprecedented third term in 1940, Americans were concerned about another world war raging across the Atlantic. Though public sentiment supported neutrality, Roosevelt pushed the nation towards support of Britain, the "defenders of democracy." The climax of this support was the Lend Lease Act of 1941 which pledged the United States as the "arsenal of democracy" while the people of Great Britain persevered the aerial blitz of Nazi Germany. FDR was a masterful politician and at times, vicious and deceiving, yet he was able to lead the nation towards "all aid short of war" recognizing the very real threat that Hitler posed to security and freedom.
Harry S. Truman - Truman never expected that he would gain the presidency, nor did many in Washington. However, with Roosevelt's death, Truman gained the presidency at a pivotal moment in American History - the closing months of World War II. While Truman is famous for his actions in the early years of the Cold War and his "buck stops here" attitude, Beschloss chronicles Truman's support for the creation of Israel as a nation-state. Despite opposition in his own cabinet and the risks of a geopolitical backfire, Truman eventually came to support the creation of a homeland in Palestine for eastern European Jews.
John F. Kennedy - Though JFK had supported civil rights earlier in his political career, as a candidate and early president, Kennedy chose to be very cautious in his actions. As a Democrat, he needed support from southern white Democrats to gain national office and achieve some of his other domestic goals. Kennedy expected that he could deal more effectively with civil rights after re-election in 1964. However, events like James Meredith's enrollment at Ole Miss and the violence in Birmingham, Alabama pushed Kennedy to more boldly support civil rights. In a televised speech in 1963, Kennedy declared the struggle for civil rights a "moral issue" which helped strengthen the movement. After Martin Luther King's march on Washington, which Kennedy asked King to postpone, Kennedy began work on major civil rights legislation. Even though he was unable to push this bill through Congress before his assassination in November 1963, Lyndon Johnson did sign the Civil Rights Act into law in 1964.
Ronald Reagan - The last president featured by Beschloss is Ronald Reagan. When Reagan entered office, the official Cold War stance had been a policy of detente. However, Reagan took the bold stance that detente would never end the Cold War, only prolong the conflict between freedom and tyranny. Despite political advice, Reagan held firm in his negotiations with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev - even walking out of a meeting at Reykjavik, Iceland. With Reagan's strong stance, his support of a missile shield in Europe and his famous "tear down this wall" speech in Berlin, Reagan helped bring about the end of the Cold War.