Michael Beschloss is a famed presidential historian, but this is the first book of his that I’ve read. Halfway through reading it, I was so impressed I bought a second copy to loan out to friends. This turned out to be good for the author, because the second half of the presidents weren’t nearly as good. I suppose that’s the presidents’ fault, and not the historian’s, but I’ll get into that shortly.
The book’s goal is to demonstrate times that Presidents have set aside partisanship and risked their careers to do what was right for the country. It was both inspiring and heartening to read, in a time when a political campaign consists of smears and defamation, when sentiment towards politicians is so negative, and when trust in the government is so low.
A few things about history and this book jumped out at me. First, many early presidents took incredible risks, both politically and sometimes personally. For example, Lincoln risked everything on his re-election while sticking to his principles:
“Had the War Democrats and Copperheads elected McClellan as President, they would have demanded that he shut down the war, which would probably have meant the end of the eighty-eight-year-old United States of America.
Lincoln would have gone back to Illinois one of the greatest losers in history, a President who had spent untold American lives to restore the Union, then destroyed it by transforming the Union cause into a hopeless crusade against slavery.
As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a friend in Europe, ‘Seldom in history was so much staked on a popular vote–I suppose never in history.'”
Secondly, the risks taken and courage displayed seemed to diminish the closer we get to present-day presidents, although that may be due to more thorough documentation. After reading about how Lincoln risked almost everything on an election that the had no way of knowing whether he would win was intimidating and impressive. Reading about how Kennedy hemmed and hawed before finally grabbing hold of history was… less impressive.
Compare this from the chapters about Andrew Jackson:
“He saw Biddle’s Bank, largely owned by foreign ‘Lords, Dukes and Ladies,’ as an ugly emblem of the corruption he had been elected to stop. He was repelled by the Congressmen and Senators who shamelessly took cash from corporations and people like Biddle: ‘I weep for the liberty of my country.'”
Kennedy wrote a book along similar themes to Beschloss’, called Profiles in Courage, but history tells a slightly different story of a president dragged into doing the right thing:
“Robert Kennedy was disappointed by his brother’s terse statement. He had asked Jack to declare equality was ‘one of the great moral issues of our time’– and that ‘all of us have a moral obligation’ to correct it. But the President told him not yet.”
Thirdly, it is worthy to note that many of our minor heroes were on the wrong side of history after they had made their mark. Charles Lindbergh was sympathetic to Hitler’s regime, and General and Secretary of State George Marshall was vehemently opposed to a jewish state in Palestine. Joe Kennedy was a racist, William Clark (from the Lewis & Clark expedition) was good friends with Biddle, who wanted to start a powerful central bank during Jackson’s administration. Reading history as inter-personal conflict makes it memorable, and Beschloss has given me more memories in this book, than I have from my high school classes.
Beschloss’ handling of the material was great, I will remember key themes of history and not just the dates because his stories breathed life onto the data. His central theme was somewhat less convincing, because of the diminished courage displayed by recent past presidents. The case that presidents risking political loss is good for America stands untainted though, as the direction of our country has seemingly followed the actions of our leaders. It is one of many good history lessons, not to be taken alone, but definitely a great read.
I recommend this book, it is refreshing, informational, non-partisan and life-affirming. I hope and pray for more presidential courage displayed in the future.