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Baptism by Fire: Eight Presidents Who Took Office in Times of Crisis

Baptism by Fire: Eight Presidents Who Took Office in Times of Crisis

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by Mark K. Updegrove

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Americans have long been defined by how they face adversity. This is perhaps nowhere more evident than in how the nation's chief executive has tackled myriad issues upon entering the White House. The ways that U.S. presidents handle the vast responsibilities of the Oval Office determine the fate of the nation---and, in many cases, the fate of the world.



Americans have long been defined by how they face adversity. This is perhaps nowhere more evident than in how the nation's chief executive has tackled myriad issues upon entering the White House. The ways that U.S. presidents handle the vast responsibilities of the Oval Office determine the fate of the nation---and, in many cases, the fate of the world.

In this fascinating narrative, presidential historian Mark Updegrove looks at eight U.S. presidents who inherited unprecedented crises immediately upon assuming the reigns of power. George Washington led a fragile and fledgling nation while defining the very role of the presidency. When Thomas Jefferson entered the White House, he faced a nation bitterly divided by a two-party schism far more severe than anything encountered today. John Tyler stepped into the office of the presidency during the constitutional crisis left by the first death of a sitting president. Abraham Lincoln inherited a divided nation on the brink of war. Franklin D. Roosevelt sought to quell America's fears during the depths of the Great Depression. His successor, Harry S. Truman, was sworn in as commander in chief at the close of World War II, and John F. Kennedy stepped into the increasingly heated atmosphere of the cold war. In the wake of Watergate, the first unelected president, Gerald R. Ford, aimed to end America's "long national nightmare."

As the forty-fourth president takes office, Updegrove presents a timely look at these chief executives and the challenges they faced. In examining the ways in which presidents have addressed crises, Baptism by Fire illustrates the importance of character in leadership—and in the resilience of America itself.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The newest presidential history from former Newsweek editor Updegrove (Second Acts: Presidential Lives and Legacies After the White House) looks at eight presidents who took office at critical moments in U.S. history and shaped American notions of presidential authority and purview: Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, Tyler, Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy and Ford. Updegrove drafts short accounts of each administration, succinctly examining how each helped define and refine the office. By calling upon little known trivia and providing useful context, he weaves an engaging narrative; however, it isn't without its flaws. Updegrove can't seem to resist contrasting the decisions of these time-honored presidents with current President George W. Bush, and his liberal eye glosses over some of the uglier aspects of these Commanders-in-Chiefs-ironically deifying men who, by Updegrove's own account, wanted desperately to be viewed as men, not legends. Ultimately, this is a satisfying read for armchair historians with sympathetic politics, particularly in the attention it calls to aspects of the office (the assumption of power by the vice-president, term limits, etc.) now largely taken for granted.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Updegrove's (former publisher, Newsweek; Second Acts: Presidential Lives and Legacies After the White House) latest book is a pertinent work as we welcome our 44th President. Eight chapters examine the turmoil surrounding eight American Presidents as they take office-Washington, Jefferson, Tyler, Lincoln, FDR, Truman, Kennedy, and Ford-and the leadership that ultimately helped them prevail over the unprecedented crises they faced. The author stresses the importance of rhetoric to set the tone of the incoming administration, as exemplified by each of these Presidents' inaugural speeches, such as "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself," or "Our long national nightmare is over." Updegrove offers insightful lessons for our incoming President who will have his share of burdens to face, many inherited from President George W. Bush. At the very least, this book could offer President Obama hope that, as our history shows, endurance and hardship can be overcome, making us more resilient than ever before. Recommended for public and academic libraries.
—Rebecca Blakeley

From the Publisher
"Once again Mark Updegrove has written an incisive slice of U.S. presidential history. Fire ratchets up harrowing memories of our leaders from George Washington to Gerald Ford. A wonderful read."—Douglas Brinkley is Professor of History at Rice University

"Mark Updegrove's Baptism by Fire is a splendid companion to John F. Kennedy's Profiles in Courage.” —Patricia O'Toole, author of When Trumpets Call: Theodore Roosevelt after the White House and The Five of Hearts: An Intimate Portrait of Henry Adams and His Friends.

"At a moment of surpreme peril, Lincoln told us, 'The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion.' As Mark Updegrove vividly demonstrates in this superbly written volume, Lincoln was hardly unique in meeting the test he set out. . . .I can't imagine a more timely or original way of seeing ourselves."—Richard Norton Smith, Scholar in Residence, George Mason University

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Baptism by Fire

Eight Presidents Who Took Office in Times of Crisis

By Mark K. Updegrove

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2008 Mark K. Updegrove
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-3391-9



The First

The moment was bound to be awkward. As the delegates at Philadelphia's State House debated the role and responsibilities of president of the United States for the Constitution they were creating, several questions arose: Should the country's chief magistrate be one man or a council consisting of several, perhaps from different regions of the union? They had, after all, broken away from a monarchical government in which one man reigned supreme. What if the president was imprudent in his ambitions or died before his term? Wouldn't a plural executive allow for moderation and render moot the question of succession? And what about remuneration? Should the chief executive — or executives — be salaried, or by the very nature of money, would it lead to greed and corruption?

"The first man put at the helm will be a good one," Benjamin Franklin, the oldest delegate, told his fellow delegates. "Nobody knows what sort will come afterwards." He had scribbled his thoughts on the subject on paper, and, being of thin voice, had them read to the delegation by his fellow Pennsylvanian James Wilson. Franklin was inclined toward a plural executive and believed that no compensation should be offered. "There are two passions which have a powerful influence on the affairs of men," he had reasoned. "These are ambition and avarice, the love of power and the love of money."

The matter required delicacy. The entire room knew that the first man to assume the role as head of the government in any form was the very man who was presiding over the convention: George Washington. James Madison, who sat with Washington at a table for the Virginia delegation, would later write to his friend Thomas Jefferson, in far-off Paris serving as America's minister to France, that the moment was "peculiarly embarrassing." Washington himself, he of renowned dignity and glacial reserve, simply let the moment pass.

After deliberations, the state delegations voted seven to three for a single president, with Delaware, Maryland, and New York opposed. "Gen. W., ay," wrote Madison in his notes, signifying that if the Constitution were ratified, General Washington alone would be the nation's first president.

Several months earlier, when Jefferson had read the names of the men who would compose the constitutional delegation — among them Madison, Alexander Hamilton, George Mason, Gouverneur Morris, Roger Sherman, Elbridge Gerry, and Charles Pinckney — he proclaimed them "an assembly of demigods." But neither Jefferson nor any of the other delegates had any doubts that George Washington — by his sheer stature and indispensability — stood above all others. Washington, after all, had served as commander in chief of the Continental army in the war against the British for six long years, which, at times, seemed mere folly. His natural facility as a leader and his bold military strategy drove the revolutionary troops to victory despite the dreadful hardships they faced. Well before there was a United States of America, General Washington had been referred to as the Father of the Country, a sobriquet that first appeared in 1776. After the fighting was over, when the Articles of Confederation proved flawed in guiding the federal government, it was Washington's support of a Constitution for the new republic that, more than anything, served as a catalyst for the convention — and inevitably it was Washington who oversaw it.

Seventeen months after the Constitutional Convention disbanded, in February 1789, the Electoral College confirmed what the members of the delegation — and perhaps the entire nation — already knew. By unanimous vote, Washington was elected to be the nation's first president.

Washington at the helm as the country's first chief executive may have given almost universal comfort to Americans, but not to the fifty-seven-year-old Washington, who ostensibly wanted nothing more than to live out his years as a gentleman farmer at his beloved Mount Vernon. "I fear I must bid adieu to happiness," he confided to his former aide-de-camp, Colonel David Humphreys, shortly before taking up the office, "for I see nothing but clouds and darkness before me; and I call God to witness that the day which shall carry me again into public life will be a more distressing one than any I have ever yet known." But the duty-bound Washington had always seen his way through the hardships his country served up due to his unyielding belief in the "glorious cause" of America and the magnificence of its future.

Still, the "clouds and darkness" Washington saw in the task ahead were not an illusion. The mammoth debt accrued during the revolution threatened to cripple the American economy, and antagonisms with the British had not vanished with the war's end. Those troubles and others would require the attention of a skilled and steady hand, one who could handle the enormous burdens of the job. The crowned heads of Europe would look with keen interest upon the experiment America was conducting. Like the American people, they knew that the success or failure of the new republic and its untested, academic Constitution — indeed, the audacious notion of egalitarian liberty itself — rested largely on the president's shoulders. It was up to him more than any other to keep the country united despite the differences — regional, economic, and ideological — that threatened to tear at the country's newly sewn and fragile seams and divide its citizenry. What's more, each step he made in a march toward a stable government would set the standard for those who succeeded him. No one knew this more than Washington. "I walk on untrodden ground," he observed soon into his first term. "There is scarcely any part of my conduct which may not hereafter be drawn into precedent." However, as he wrote to Madison, he "devoutly wished" that "these precedents be fixed on true principles."

That Washington would establish the principles on which the presidency would rest was America's good fortune. Above all else, integrity was seared into his character. As Jefferson put it in a letter to Dr. Walter Jones well after Washington's death, Washington's "integrity was most pure. His justice was the most inflexible I have ever known, no motives of interest or consanguinity, of friendship or hatred, being able to bias his decision." Tench Tilghman, one of Washington's lieutenants during the revolution, called him "the most honestest of men that I believe ever adorned human nature." The grade school tale of a young Washington chopping down the cherry tree and fessing up to the act is an allegory capturing the essence of his greatest strength as a leader; the nation needed a president who could be trusted not to exploit the ambiguities of the powers granted to him in the Constitution and to do what was best for the country.

But there was more than integrity to Washington's legend, which Americans embraced as a point of pride to rally around. There also were his feats of bravery. In a skirmish that marked the beginning of the French and Indian War when Washington was a twenty-three-year-old aide-de-camp, he averted death when four bullets penetrated his coat, while two horses were shot from underneath him before his retreat. (Later Washington logged a report detailing the foray. After reviewing it in London, King George II was rumored to have speculated that the entire incident came from the active imagination of a glory-seeking young man.) Those battlefield heroics and others — Washington was that rare man who was oblivious to the peril of warfare — gave him the air of invincibility, adding to his myth.

Then there was his physical prowess. Washington personified the image of a strong leader. He was considered the best Horseman in his home state — the equivalent in Virginia aristocracy to being a football hero at Notre Dame — giving him an advantage on the battlefield, where he was fearless, or on a leisurely country fox hunt, which he relished. His strength was such that he could crack nuts between his outsized fingers, and David Humphreys heard the general boast that he never came across a man who could throw a stone farther than he could. In almost every case, Washington literally stood above all others, ramrod straight. In a day when most of his contemporaries were between five and six feet tall, Washington, at six two and just over two hundred pounds, was an imposing presence, albeit one seemingly constructed of spare parts. His nose was big and broad, his complexion deeply pockmarked, and his lips thin. Decaying teeth meant dentures, ill fitting and painful in his case, made up of the teeth of horses and donkeys and, it is believed, human slaves. His hips were heavy, while his chest was sunken owing to a childhood pulmonary illness. Marquis de Lafayette, the young French general who fought under Washington during the revolution, claimed Washington's hands were the biggest he had ever seen. Still, the assemblage resulted in physical grandeur. As Lafayette put it, "General Washington seemed to arrest fortune with one glance."

Many of his countrymen had the opportunity to capture a glance of their soon-to-be president as he journeyed to New York to be inaugurated into his new role. After borrowing $50 for expenses, currency being in short supply, Washington set out on the fortnight's journey from Mount Vernon in a coach-and-four, accompanied by two aides. (Martha Washington, who shared her husband's despair over reentering public life, would join him in New York after he was settled.) Venturing through six of the country's thirteen states, mostly along the Old Post Road, he was received like a conquering hero with an unprecedented series of receptions en route. Wreaths were bestowed upon his brow, feasts prepared, and toasts and speeches made in his honor. Veterans who fought alongside him in the revolutionary cause came out to reminisce about their struggles and ultimate triumph, and to wish him well in his new battle.

It was the kind of outpouring that might have been accorded an emperor in ancient Rome. But Washington was not — and refused to be — Caesar. Rather, he emulated Cincinnatus, the Roman general who humbly went back to his farm after leading his country to military victory when it was under siege by barbarians. These were celebrations of hope and gestures of good faith; Washington could be trusted to lead an American government, a decided departure from the European imperialism that had characterized Western regimes to that point in history.

On April 30, 1789, at the corner of Wall and Broad streets in lower Manhattan, Washington was sworn into office on the colonnaded balcony of Federal Hall, which would temporarily house Congress. He was escorted to the dais by the man who would become his vice president, John Adams of Massachusetts, who had secured the position by receiving the second-greatest number of electoral votes — thirty-four to Washington's sixty-nine. The presidential oath was administered by Robert Livingston, chancellor of New York. Washington, purposely dressed in a plain brown broadcloth Hartford suit and white silk stockings with a dress sword at his side, recited as designated in the Constitution, his right hand on a Bible, left hand on his heart, then, unscripted, kissed the Bible. "It is done," Livingston said before shouting to the masses gathered to witness the inauguration, "Long live George Washington, President of the United States!" as church bells pealed.

The ceremony was followed by Washington's address in which "virtue was personified," in the words of one observer, then a Service at St. Paul's Chapel of Trinity Church and, by early evening, a display of fireworks and illuminations. When it was all over, braving a crowd of thirty thousand or more, the greatest the city had ever witnessed, preventing his transport by carriage, Washington walked downtown to the quarters at 39 Broadway that would serve as his home and office for seven months before Philadelphia became the nation's capital. The first president's tenure, and the fruition of the Constitution, had begun promisingly. But the daunting challenges of the office remained.

It was by no means a certainty that Washington would rise to exalted heights. He was born in Tidewater, Virginia, on February 22, 1732, to the well-to-do tobacco planter Augustine Washington and his Mary Ball Washington. Augustine died when George was eleven. The young Washington honed his leadership skills early on, acting as a surrogate father to his younger siblings, three brothers and two sisters, under the reproachful gaze of his mother. Washington would forever remain self-conscious about his lack of formal education — seven or eight years of private tutoring at best. He was "not a scholar to be certain," claimed John Adams, an observation that may have arisen out of petty jealousy. "That he was too illiterate, unread, unlearned for his station and reputation is equally past dispute."

In 1752, at age nineteen, Washington embarked on a career in the military, joining the militia as major after his mother forbade him to enlist in the Royal Navy as he had hoped. The ambitious and able Washington rose steadily through the ranks to become commander in chief of Virginia Militia just three years later. In 1759, he resigned his commission and stepped back into civilian life upon his marriage to Martha Dandridge Custis. Mrs. Custis, the wealthiest woman in Virginia by the estimation of many, brought assets that included six thousand acres of Virginia farmland and 150 slaves to work it, adding to the five thousand acres and 49 slaves he already owned, some of which was inherited from his older half-brother Lawrence. Washington happily adopted the life of a wealthy farmer, overseeing the harvest of tobacco, corn, and wheat crops. Agriculture became his lifelong passion, albeit an unrequited love at least financially and one that would be interrupted for years at a time when the duty of his country called.

The first call came in 1774. Like many Virginians, Washington had become increasingly resentful of the burdensome economic policies of the British and was selected to represent Virginia as a delegate in the first Continental Congress in Philadelphia. He was chosen again the following year, beginning his term in May 1775, a month after the death of eight colonial minutemen at the hands of British troops in Lexington, Massachusetts, led to a call for revolution. When the Congress proposed a Continental army to go up against the British, Washington was elected unanimously to the post of commander in chief. In a letter to his wife sent after he received his commission, he wrote, "Far from seeking this appointment, I have used every endeavour in my power to avoid it, not only from my unwillingness to part with you and the Family, but from a consciousness of its being a trust too great for my Capacity ... it has been a kind of destiny that has thrown me upon this Service." Perhaps his reluctance was sincere, but the old military uniform he wore to congressional sessions may well have suggested otherwise to his fellow delegates.

That Washington did much with very little as commander in chief is a vast understatement. His army — small in number and even smaller with frequent desertions, short on training and supplies and often morale — was ill suited to go up against the British. Although he made early tactical mistakes and lost more battles than he won, he chalked up significant victories, among them defeating a battalion of British troops in a surprise attack after crossing the icy Delaware River on Christmas night in 1776, a win that buoyed spirits throughout the colonies. But the war would drag on for five more years, ending in 1781 with a victory over the British general Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia. Unable to bring himself to surrender his sword to Washington, Cornwallis delegated the task to his second in command.

The key to success had less to do with military victories, however, than simply keeping the army united. As long as they remained together, wearing down British patience and resolve, the flame of the revolution flickered. Without it, the Declaration of Independence would have been nothing but a bold decree and lofty ideals on parchment. Washing-ton's leadership, tenacity, and devotion to the cause kept the army intact and sustained the revolution over six bleak years. As one historian put it, Washington's "moral fortitude surmounted problems of misery and want seldom equaled in military history." He would face similar challenges — and offer the same overriding virtues — as president.


Excerpted from Baptism by Fire by Mark K. Updegrove. Copyright © 2008 Mark K. Updegrove. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Mark K. Updegrove is the author of Second Acts: Presidential Lives and Legacies After the White House, which won ForeWord Magazine's Silver "Book of the Year" Award for Political Science. He served as publisher of Newsweek, Los Angeles manager of Time, and president of Time Canada, and has written for American Heritage, The Nation, Time, and Worth. Currently, he is an advertising executive and lives outside Charleston, South Carolina.

Mark K. Updegrove is the author of Second Acts: Presidential Lives and Legacies After the White House, which won ForeWord Magazine’s Silver “Book of the Year” Award for Political Science. He served as publisher of Newsweek, Los Angeles manager of Time, and president of Time Canada, and has written for American Heritage, The Nation, Time, and Worth. Currently, he is an advertising executive and lives outside Charleston, South Carolina.

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Baptism by Fire: Eight Presidents Who Took Office in Times of Crisis 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book ought to be required reading for high school history.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago