Presidential Leadership: 15 Decisions That Changed the Nation


Why did George Washington personally lead the militia that put down the Whiskey Rebellion? What drove Harry Truman to fire Douglas MacArthur at the height of the Korean War? Did Gerald Ford know that his pardon of Richard Nixon could very well end his political career? Why did John F. Kennedy challenge America to reach for the moon?

This book examines more than a dozen major decisions of the presidency?Truman dropping the Bomb; Nixon going to China; Jefferson purchasing the ...

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Why did George Washington personally lead the militia that put down the Whiskey Rebellion? What drove Harry Truman to fire Douglas MacArthur at the height of the Korean War? Did Gerald Ford know that his pardon of Richard Nixon could very well end his political career? Why did John F. Kennedy challenge America to reach for the moon?

This book examines more than a dozen major decisions of the presidency—Truman dropping the Bomb; Nixon going to China; Jefferson purchasing the Louisiana Territory—and the stories behind them. Told in a crisp, narrative writing style, the author brings the presidency and its big decisions to life with his unique storytelling and pacing, and highlights the lessons to be learned. Some of the decisions are well known; others are not. But they’re all told in a way that will keep you turning the pages to learn more. Each chapter stands as a study in leadership and decision-making. By the end of the book, you’ll be an expert in the men and the decisions that shaped the country, and the lessons that can be learned from their leadership and often their courage.

With a concluding chapter that assesses President Obama’s first year in office and reviews his major decisions, this lively, illuminating book will appeal to history buffs, devotees of politics, students, and anyone interested in decision-making at the highest and most influential level.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Nick Ragone brings an historian’s research skills and a storyteller’s enthusiasm to this fine book on presidential leadership. His look at fifteen key decisions is never less than thought provoking. This is a book that transcends its genre and is appealing to readers interested in history, leadership and power but also to anyone who wants to have some intriguing stories to tell at their next party."
--Paul Sullivan, Author of Clutch: Why Some People Excel Under Pressure and Others Don’t
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781616142377
  • Publisher: Prometheus Books
  • Publication date: 2/1/2011
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 1,141,086
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Nick Ragone, JD (Jersey City, NJ) graduate of the Georgetown University Law Center and the Eagleton Institute of Political Science at Rutgers University, is the author of The Everything American Government Book, Essential American Government, and President's Most Wanted: The Top Ten Book of Extraordinary Executives, Colorful Campaigns, and White House Oddities. He has written on recent presidential history and current events for US News & World Report and the Star-Ledger, and has appeared on CBS Early Show, Fox News, CNBC, ABC News, and Fox Business.
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Table of Contents


FOREWORD by Ali Velshi....................11
1. Washington Puts Down the Whiskey Rebellion....................17
2. Thomas Jefferson Purchases the Louisiana Territory....................33
3. Andrew Jackson Rejects Nullification....................47
4. Lincoln Signs the Emancipation Proclamation....................67
5. Teddy Roosevelt Builds the Panama Canal....................89
6. Woodrow Wilson and the League of Nations....................111
7. Franklin Roosevelt and the Lend-Lease Program....................129
8. Truman Drops the Bomb....................155
9. Truman Fires MacArthur....................173
10. Eisenhower, Kennedy, and the Race to the Moon....................187
11. Lyndon Johnson and Civil Rights....................207
12. Richard Nixon Visits China....................225
13. Ford Pardons Nixon....................241
14. Reagan and the Evil Empire....................257
15. Barack Obama Takes On Healthcare Reform....................271
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First Chapter



Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2011 Nick Ragone
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-61614-237-7

Chapter One

Washington Puts Down the Whiskey Rebellion

Why has government been instituted at all? Because the passions of man will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice without constraint. —Alexander Hamilton, Federalist Paper No. 15. A little rebellion now and then is a good thing. The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. —Thomas Jefferson, 1786

In the summer of 1794, an angry mob of seven thousand people gathered outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to convene an ad hoc "convention" of sorts to determine their responses to the federal government's attempts to collect the taxes imposed on distilled spirits. Tensions between distillers and the government had been on the rise in western Pennsylvania since 1791 when the whiskey tax was first instituted. There had been intermittent bursts of violence every time federal agents tried to collect tax revenues from the distillers, and by July of 1794, many in the government feared that mass violence, insurrection, and even the overthrow of the capital in Philadelphia was imminent. At the prodding of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, President George Washington summoned thirteen thousand armed militia from neighboring states and personally led the effort to put down the rebellion. It was a defining moment for the young Republic—its first constitutional crisis—and would remain the largest domestic disturbance until the Civil War some sixty-five years later.

* * *

Armed resistance and protest was not uncommon during the early years of the Republic. There had been minor uprisings throughout the thirteen colonies immediately following the Revolutionary War, the largest and most serious being "Shays's Rebellion" of 1786, where one thousand armed protesters in central Massachusetts surrounded the capital in search of debt relief and tax fairness from the local courts. A private army was formed to put down the rebellion—which it easily did—but the prospect of having to organize private armies to defeat future insurrections convinced political leaders that the Articles of Confederation were simply not tenable as a governing charter.

Shays's Rebellion highlighted the weakness in the loose confederation approach. In the summer of 1787, the second Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia with the intent to amend the Articles of Con federation, which favored a weak central government and reserved great powers to the states. The Founding Fathers decided to scrap the articles altogether, and instead wrote a new charter for the United States, which was ratified the following summer. The hope was that a new constitution with a strong central government would bring greater stability and cohesion to the fledgling country.

George Washington was unanimously selected as the first president of the United States under the newly ratified Constitution, in part because he was universally regarded as the most capable and trustworthy person to guide the new country through its formative years. Nobody was quite certain how a strong chief executive—something the Articles of Confederation did not have—would relate to Congress and the states, or how his powers would be interpreted and used. In many ways, the political establishment was counting on Washington to carefully and deliberately define the position and the office. Their logic was simple if not unassailable: if there was one person who could strike the right balance between respecting popular sovereignty and providing firm authority, it was George Washington.

The Whiskey Rebellion was the first test for President Washington and the new Republic. It was particularly complicated because the crisis represented not only a physical threat—for a brief time, an assault on the capital was a real possibility—but an intellectual one as well. Was it the duty of a responsive government to simply accede to the protestors' demands and repeal the tax? Did the president need the assent of Congress to raise an army and put it down? Would an aggressive reaction from the federal government pose a threat to liberty itself? Nobody really knew for certain. Antifederalists—those who supported a weak central government—had one point of view, federalists held another, and many farmers and merchants throughout the colonies sympathized with the rebels. The president's own cabinet was split on the issue while Congress was preoccupied with other matters. This was Washington's decision alone, and with it rested the fate of the country.

Hamilton's Tax

Many historians consider Alexander Hamilton the father of the US economy, and with good reason: as the nation's first treasury secretary, Hamilton helped found the first National Bank, established the United States Mint, created a national system of tax collectors, promoted a stable paper currency, and generally transformed what had been a regional, disorganized financial system under the Articles of Confederation into a rigorous and highly structured national economy.

He did it, in part, because he could. Hamilton was a brilliant political philosopher and financial theorist with few equals. Given that President Washington's first order of business was to stabilize the economy (in order to quell any lingering domestic unrest as well as protect the country from foreign encroachment), Hamilton was given free rein to reshape commerce—and create the institutions necessary to do it—to his liking. It was an opportunity he met with zeal.

But it went beyond just merely following Washington's agenda and implementing his orders. Hamilton was an ardent believer in a strong central government. During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, in fact, he argued—quite passionately—that the president should have a life term, a position that caused many to suspect that he secretly desired a monarchy. Writing as "Publius" in the Federalist Papers, Hamilton was at his most persuasive when defending the notion of a strong executive and central government. "A feeble Executive implies a feeble execution of the government," he writes in Federalist Paper no. 70. "A feeble execution is but another phrase for a bad execution; and a government ill executed, whatever it may be in theory, must be, in practice, a bad government." It's not surprising then that Hamilton viewed the president's directive to create a robust economy as something of an invitation to consolidate the power of the federal government—and he wasn't about to pass that up.

In January of 1790, Alexander Hamilton put forward his plan to reorganize the economy and straighten out the nation's finances. Called the "Report on Public Credit," the fifty-one-page document was startling for its complexity and ambition; few members of Congress were able to adequately comprehend it, let alone debate it. The plan did three things: paid interest on (and ultimately paid off) the foreign and private debt incurred during the Revolutionary War; assumed the debts that the state governments had also incurred during the war; and raised revenues through a series of tariffs and duties on imported goods as well as an excise on whiskey—the first-ever domestic tax.

Hamilton's plan was shrewd. By paying off the foreign debt, it established the government's credit worthiness and enabled it to borrow money from foreign powers that could be used to fund his ambitious federal programs, something that Thomas Jefferson—who was also in the cabinet—and James Madison opposed.' But even more importantly, by assuming the states' debts, it gave creditors-most of whom resided in the states—a reason to support his national agenda since it resulted in the funding of their war bonds. In effect, Hamilton bought their loyalty and in the process lessened their fealty to the states. "The debt of the United States," Hamilton reasoned, "was the price of liberty." He would later refer to the assumption of debt as a "national blessing."

Of course, in order to assume and finance all this debt, the federal government needed to collect revenues, and that's where their whiskey tax came in. Hamilton somehow convinced Congress that a tax on whiskey was both desirable from a public health standpoint (he had the Philadelphia College of Physicians testify that whiskey consumption had become a "plague" on the laboring class) and equitable from a fairness standpoint because it would disproportionately tax the wealthy who could afford to consume whiskey. "A source of national extravagance and impoverishment" is how he described whiskey to the Congress, and after little debate, the whiskey tax was passed. The fact that he knew that both assumptions were patently false hardly mattered. His real goal in passing a federal excise tax was that it would necessitate the creation of a national network of federal tax collectors—something that had never existed before—who would round up revenues from whiskey distillers and any future taxes, too. Up to that point, the federal government had relied upon the states to collect taxes, which made predicting government revenues a difficult proposition. But not anymore. In one fell swoop, Hamilton had strengthened the federal government by adding a network of tax men, created a predictable and consistent revenue stream to fund the growing federal government, and lessened the authority of the states by assuming their debt. Everything was in place for national commerce to flourish, or so he thought.

Tar and Feather

In the early fall of 1791, not long after the whiskey tax became law, a newly appointed federal tax collector for western Pennsylvania named Robert Johnson was making his way through the dense forests of the back country when he was met by a gang of musket-toting locals. The group represented something of a "welcoming committee" to the westernmost counties of the state; the dozen or so men had been instructed by county leaders to advise Johnson to leave at once or face the consequences. They were in no mood to negotiate.

The earnest taxman, looking to complete his task and collect revenues from the local distillers, refused to yield or run. And for it he was rewarded with a shaved head, scalding hot tar, and a body full of feathers. The rabble stripped him of his clothes, horse, and supplies and left him stranded twenty miles in the forest to walk his way back to civilization in shame. Somehow Johnson survived the ordeal and eventually made his way back to Philadelphia, where he recited his humiliating tale. For the first time Alexander Hamilton experienced a hint of doubt as to whether his plan to nationalize the economy would actually succeed. It was a portent of things to come.

Throughout 1791 and 1792, similar tales of abuse were reported from all corners of the country. The details varied here and there but the basic story was the same: tax collector enters county; tax collector met by local vigilantes; tax collector is abused or tortured. In North Carolina, one wild-eyed distiller locked the taxman in his barn for three days. Another unfortunate soul had his nose ground off from a grinding wheel.

Western Pennsylvania, and in particular four counties—Washington, Allegheny, Westmoreland, and Fayette—represented the epicenter of the growing civil unrest. It wasn't because the inhabitants were particularly ornery or more rebellious than their neighbors—though being frontiersmen, they certainly enjoyed a more rigorous existence than their city brethren. It was a simple numbers game: of the eight thousand Americans who distilled whiskey for a living, a quarter of them resided in those four counties. And the whiskey tax represented a direct assault on their way of life.

In some respects, Alexander Hamilton planned it that way. His dream of creating a thriving merchant class required the transfer and consolidation of wealth and resources to the cities, the federal government, and the educated elite in order to create manufacturing jobs along the coastline and the transportation infrastructure to support it. It was in direct contrast to Thomas Jefferson's competing vision of an agrarian-based economy, which Hamilton found detestable. In that sense, the whiskey tax had the added benefit of undermining Jefferson's ambitions. If Hamilton could raise government revenues through the tax and force laborers off the farms—all the better.

Of course, Hamilton never came out and said this; to the contrary, he positioned the tax as equitable—the burden would be shared by distillers both big and small everywhere. But with Hamilton, the devil was always in the details, and in this case the fine print told a different story. He deliberately placed the tax burden on the point of distillation, not sale, so that he could create a two-tier payment system: one for large distilleries located in big cities and one for rural distilleries out in the hinterlands. Since the government could monitor the big distilleries in the cities and nearby towns, those businesses paid a tax on the actual whiskey produced, while the rural distilleries paid an annual flat fee based on the total estimated capacity of their stills. Hamilton structured it this way because he knew full well that small stills could only distill a fraction of the assumed capacity outlined in his onerous law—the impact being that their net tax burden would be substantially higher than the larger distilleries. What made matters worse for them, the law required that the tax be paid at the point of whiskey creation (literally at the still) in coin or paper currency—something westerners had very little of—with the failure to pay resulting in a stiff fine and an appearance at a Philadelphia court. Why Philadelphia? Hamilton chose it because it meant a difficult, ten-day trip over the mountains for the aggrieved distillers in the western counties. And he knew that many would rather forfeit their stills to the government than leave their families and make the dangerous journey to the east. He had thought of everything.

At the end of the day, the whiskey tax placed an enormous burden on the entire system of commerce in the "frontier" counties because, in addition to consuming it, whiskey was also used as currency. Unlike paper currency, which tended to fluctuate wildly in value, and coins, which were hard to come by, whiskey was commonplace and very stable in value. It was simple to make, easy to transport, and didn't easily perish. Landlords accepted it as rent; laborers preferred it as pay; and merchants recognized it as tender. Doctors used it as anesthesia and a remedy for common ailments. It was the life-blood of rural farmers everywhere, and the tax on it reminded many aggrieved patriots why they had supported independence from England in the first place. "A breath in favor of the law is sufficient to ruin any man," is how renowned novelist and protest sympathizer Hugh Henry Brackenridge described it. "It was considered a badge of toryism." An insult, no doubt, that Hamilton took with delight.

Oddly enough, while most in Congress didn't pick up on Hamilton's ulterior motives or lopsided mathematics, the illiterate masses in the backcountry weren't fooled for a second; they understood the dire implications of the whiskey tax from the moment it was enacted. Some distillers toyed with the idea of simply selling their raw grain—which wasn't taxed—to the markets back east instead of converting it to whiskey, but the cost of transporting bundles of grain by pack mule over the mountains was simply greater than the revenues it would generate. Whiskey in barrels was much lighter than grain, and therefore cheaper and easier to get to market—the reason why so many farmers became distillers in the first place.


Excerpted from PRESIDENTIAL LEADERSHIP by NICK RAGONE Copyright © 2011 by Nick Ragone. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. 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.

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