Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America, 1789-1989


From the acclaimed bestselling author of The Conquerors

Michael Beschloss's dramatic and inspiring saga explores crucial times when a courageous President changed the history of the United States. With surprising new sources and a dazzling command of history and human character, Beschloss brings these flawed, complex men -- and their wives, families, friends and foes -- to life as if in a gripping novel. Never have we had a more intimate, ...

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Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America, 1789-1989

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From the acclaimed bestselling author of The Conquerors

Michael Beschloss's dramatic and inspiring saga explores crucial times when a courageous President changed the history of the United States. With surprising new sources and a dazzling command of history and human character, Beschloss brings these flawed, complex men -- and their wives, families, friends and foes -- to life as if in a gripping novel. Never have we had a more intimate, behind-the-scenes view of Presidents coping with the supreme dilemmas of their lives.

In Presidential Courage you will witness George Washington braving threats of impeachment and assassination to make peace with England; John Adams, incurring his party's "unrelenting hatred" by refusing to fight France and warning, "Great is the guilt of an unnecessary war;" Andrew Jackson, in a death struggle against the corrupt Bank of the United States; Abraham Lincoln, risking his Presidency to insist that slaves be freed, as well as the crushing ordeals faced by Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan.

As Beschloss shows, none of these Presidents was eager to incur ridicule, vilification or threats of political destruction and even assassination. But in the end, each ultimately proved himself to be, in Andrew Jackson's words, "born for the storm."

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
With books like The Conquerors and Taking Charge, NBC presidential historian Michael Beschloss has established himself as one of the premier authorities on Oval Office leadership. This major study focuses on the attribute that Beschloss calls "presidential courage": "the willingness to confront, sometimes even to challenge big issues and the daring, sometimes the eagerness, to make the big decisions that change and alter American destiny." To crystallize his points, he describes how great U.S. leaders faced moments of crises in their administrations. His examples include both early presidents (Washington, John Adams, Jackson, Lincoln) and 20th-century chief executives, including FDR, Truman, Kennedy, and Reagan.
Publishers Weekly

Don't be afraid!" was George Washington's near-to-last utterance, to the worried doctor at his bedside. The essential founding father's counsel is understood by well-known historian Beschloss (The Conquerors: Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler's Germany) to set an example for future presidents. Beschloss outlines how several occupants of the Oval Office—including Jackson, Lincoln, Roosevelt, FDR, Truman, Kennedy and Reagan—combined courage with wisdom to change the future of the country, notwithstanding the slings and arrows they earned. Despite its unpopularity at the time, for instance, Reagan's "strong beliefs combined with his optimism" led him to pursue the policy to abolish nuclear weapons, which helped bring down the Soviet empire peacefully. None of the author's heroes were saints, but rather flawed men sustained by friends, families, conviction and religious faith. With contenders for 2008 already lining up, this well-timed book might, the author hopes, persuade some to take the kinds of "wise political risks that Presidents once did."Perhaps. But knowledgeable readers should look elsewhere for genuine historical insight. The author's broad brushstrokes necessarily restrict him to painting nuanced individuals and complex times in only basic primary colors, and there is little that has not been said before—in some cases, many times. (May)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal
The high-profile Beschloss pays a visit to all 43 Presidents, considering how they faced their biggest challenges. Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Historian Beschloss (The Conquerors, 2002, etc.) pens a vivid account of how nine U.S. presidents withstood political firestorms. Inevitably, his lively narrative will be compared to John F. Kennedy's homage to Senate bravery, Profiles in Courage. But Beschloss views his subjects not as saints but as "worried, self-protective politicians" not above vacillation, arrogance and evasion as they steered between national and electoral interests. Recent presidents have not been the only ones who required sentence-parsing. FDR justified breaking his promise, "your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars," by claiming a loophole: It did not apply in case of attack. A few of these figures relished political combat; Theodore Roosevelt aptly styled himself a "rough-and-tumble man." Most, however, abhorred their struggles. Convinced that he would lose his bid for a second term, Abraham Lincoln wrote a private memo pledging cooperation with opponent George McClellan to save the Union between the election and the next inauguration. All of the chief executives profiled here subscribed to John Adams's belief that a president must incur "people's displeasure sometimes, or he will never do them any good in the long run." Some found strength in the examples of heroic predecessors, others in their wives, all in some manner of religious belief. Beschloss recognizes that even the best policy choices come freighted with mixed motives and adverse consequences. In particular, he appraises Andrew Jackson with exquisite balance, noting that Old Hickory's assault on the Second National Bank destroyed a corrupting political influence but also "peddled the dubious notion that America did not need a centralbank," leaving Americans to suffer 80 years of boom-and-bust before the Federal Reserve was established. Readers might question some episodes chosen, but it's impossible to fault Beschloss's engrossing characterizations, marvelous scene-setting and judicious assessments. History written with subtlety, verve and an almost novelistic appreciation for the complexities of human nature and presidential politics.
From the Publisher
"Michael clearly the most widely recognized Presidential historian in the nation.... Most Presidential historians...content themselves with writing biographies of individual Presidents.... And Beschloss has done that too.... But if any book can be said to epitomize the genre of Presidential history, Presidential Courage does." — Mary Beth Norton, The New York Times Book Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743561792
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio
  • Publication date: 5/8/2007
  • Format: MP3
  • Edition description: Abridged
  • Ships to U.S.and APO/FPO addresses only.

Meet the Author

Michael R. Beschloss

Michael Beschloss has been called "the nation's leading Presidential historian" by Newsweek. He has written eight books on American Presidents and is NBC News Presidential Historian, as well as contributor to PBS's The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife and two sons.


It's not for nothing that Newsweek has called Michael Beschloss "the nation's leading Presidential historian." As a political science major at Williams College, he wrote his honors thesis on the ambivalent relationship between FDR and Joseph P. Kennedy. Reworked and expanded to book length, the material was published in 1980 under the title Kennedy and Roosevelt: The Uneasy Alliance. Although the book was met with subtle condescension from the notoriously snarky academic community, mainstream critics were quick to lavish praise on Beschloss for his meticulous research and reader-friendly prose style. Encouraged by his publisher, he followed up his debut with another historical narrative, Mayday: Eisenhower, Khrushchev, and the U-2 Affair (1986). Reviewed by Paul A. Kreisberg in Foreign Affairs magazine, the book was described as "popular history at its best: accessible and fascinating reading for those who know little about the subject; containing enough new material and insight to command the attention of serious scholars."

Since then, the high-profile author has carved a lucrative career out of the American Presidency, penning several bestselling biographies and political histories, including The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khrushchev, 1960-1963, The Conquerors: Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler's Germany, 1941-1945, and Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America, 1789-1989. In addition, he has edited Lyndon Johnson's White House tapes into a critically acclaimed trilogy and is in demand both as a lecturer and television commentator.

Good To Know

From 1982 until 1986, Beschloss served as a historian at the Smithsonian Institution.

From 1985 until 1987, he was a senior associate member at St. Antony's College, in the University of Oxford, England.

From 1987 until 1996, he was a senior fellow of the Annenberg Foundation in Washington, D.C.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Michael Beschloss
    2. Hometown:
      Washington, D.C.
    1. Date of Birth:
      November 30, 1955
    2. Place of Birth:
      Chicago, Illinois
    1. Education:
      Williams College, Harvard University

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

A Speedy Death to General Washington!

In August 1795, at Mount Vernon, drenched by what he called a "violent Rain," George Washington nervously paced down a garden path, elegantly covered by crushed oyster shells.

He was desperate to return to the national capital of Philadelphia, but the biblical torrents had washed out roads and bridges. Adding to his frustration, his mail had been cut off.

Back inside, as the rains pelted his red shingle roof, spinning the dove-of-peace weathervane, the President bent over his candlelit desk, dipped a quill in black ink and tensely scratched out letter after letter. He was feeling "serious anxiety" in a time of "trouble and perplexities."

For twenty years, since the start of the Revolution, he had taken as his due the bands playing "The Hero Comes!" and the lightstruck Americans cheering "the man who unites all hearts." His anointment as President by the Electoral College in 1788 and 1792 had been unanimous.

But now the national adoration for Washington was fading. Americans had learned that a secret treaty negotiated by his envoy John Jay made demands that many found humiliating. One member of Congress said the fury against "that damned treaty" was moving "like an electric velocity to every state in the Union."

As the public tempest had swelled, some wanted Washington impeached. Cartoons showed the President being marched to a guillotine. Even in the President's beloved Virginia, Revolutionary veterans raised glasses and cried, "A speedy Death to General Washington!"

With the national surge of anger toward Washington, some Americans complained that he was living as luxuriously as George III, the monarch they had fought a revolution to escape. Using old forgeries, several columnists insisted that Washington had been secretly bribed during the war by British agents.

Still others charged that the President stole military credit from soldiers who had bled and died: "With what justice do you monopolize the glories of the American Revolution?"

Reeling from the blows, the sixty-three-year-old Washington wrote that the "infamous scribblers" were calling him "a common pickpocket" in "such exaggerated and indecent terms as could scarcely be applied to a Nero."

One still-friendly gazette moaned, "Washington has been classed with tyrants, and calumniated as the enemy of his country. Weep for the national character of America, for, in ingratitude to her Washington, it is sullied and debased throughout the globe!"

President Washington had brought the national furor upon himself by trying to avert a new war with Great Britain that threatened to strangle his infant nation in its cradle.

In the spring of 1794, the British were arming Indians and spurring them to attack Americans trying to settle the new frontier lands that would one day include Ohio and Michigan. London was reneging on its pledge, made in the peace treaty ending the Revolutionary War, to vacate royal forts in the trans-Appalachian West -- Oswego, Niagara, Detroit, Michilimackinac.

Since Britain was at war with France, British captains seized U.S. ships trading with the French West Indies. Renouncing the agreed-upon border between the U.S. and Canada, Britain's governor in Quebec predicted a new Anglo-American war "within a year."

Former Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, who hated England and adored France, demanded retaliation against the British. But Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton warned the President not to plunge into a war that America could not win.

The religious...

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Table of Contents

Preface     xi
A Speedy Death to General Washington!     1
Kick This Treaty to Hell!     10
The Damnedest Liar     18
He May Retire with Undiminish'd Glory     25
Rivalries Irritated to Madness     34
Oh, That i was a Soldier!     39
Rocks and Quicksands on All Sides     47
The Most Splendid Diamond in My Crown     57
I will Kill it!     65
Not a Man to be Forced     71
I was born for the Storm     77
Who Would Have had the Courage?     86
I am going to be Beaten     96
Too Angelic for this Devilish Rebellion     103
A Well-Meaning Baboon     113
The Country will be Saved     119
I see Dynamite     127
Black Storm     136
A Rough-and-Tumble Man     143
I Upset Them All     150
We Must Protect the Chief!     157
Gloom Personified     166
Salute Your Caesar?     172
We have Avoided a Putsch     182
No People Except the Hebrews     196
The Right Place at the Right Time     204
How Could This Have Happened?     211
I amCyrus!     221
They Never Show their Passion     235
Go get Him, Johnny Boy!     244
It's going to be a Civil War     259
A Man has to Take a Stand     272
We Win and they Lose!     280
It Left me Greatly Depressed     289
Don't Worry that I've Lost my Bearings     302
A Miracle has Taken Place     313
Epilogue: Presidential Courage     327
Notes     331
Sources     387
Acknowledgments     409
Index     411
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Sort by: Showing 1 – 8 of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Posted February 16, 2009

    Loved this book

    This is by far one of the easiest history books that you can find, yet it is very detailed in the events that it describes and lays them out logically. While entire books could be devoted to any one of the events that Beschloss describes, he does a great job in explaining the essentials of the most important events that shaped our nation.<BR/>One of the most balanced history books that I have read in some time.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 28, 2010

    Not a lot that you can't find in other books

    This book started off a little slow for me, because I had just recently read books about John Adams, Andrew Jackson vs. Nicholas Biddle, Lincoln,... So I already knew some of the stories at the beginning of the book (although there were a few interesting tidbits here and there that added some spice to the stories).

    The parts of the book that I enjoyed the most were the parts about Harry Truman and Israel, JFK and Civil Rights, and Reagan and the Soviets. These are much more recent in history (some of it I even grew up through), but it's stuff that I knew a lot less about. One of the things that really struck me was how different things were back in the days of FDR, Truman, and JFK in terms of the blatant racism and anti-Semetism (even from the Presidents and their families themselves). We really have come a long way in a short amount of time.

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  • Posted September 19, 2009

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    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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