Michael Beschloss: A President's Ultimate Test

Roundup: Historians' Take

When friends heard I was writing a book on presidential courage, some of them turned snarky: "Was there ever such a thing?" they would ask. They presumed all of our presidents have been versions of what seems to be the modern politician—obsessed by polls, focus groups and fund-raising, chasing the holy grail of popularity. But in fact, if you explore American history you will find that at crucial moments we have been startlingly dependent on having a chief executive who demonstrates what I call presidential courage—the bravery and wisdom to risk his popularity, even his life, for a vital, larger cause.

In tranquil times we have survived presidents like Warren G. Harding, whose supreme ambition was to stay popular. But these times aren't tranquil. Our soldiers are fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. We face the specter of a nuclear North Korea and Iran and worldwide terrorists. During the next president's term, there may be one blinding moment when we desperately need a president to make the same kind of self-sacrificing decision that courageous predecessors did.

America would be a very different place without presidential courage. If Andrew Jackson had not halted the increasingly powerful, corrupt Bank of the United States and its vengeful chief, Nicholas Biddle, in 1832, we might be governed today not from Washington but by an omnipotent, unelected Philadelphia banker.

In August 1864, Abraham Lincoln's campaign managers told him he had no chance to win a second term that November. Many Northern voters were willing to keep fighting the Civil War to bring the South back into the Union—but not to free the slaves. Lincoln was grimly advised to renounce his 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. Though briefly tempted to weasel away from the proclamation, Lincoln looked into his soul and decided, in the words of his old Kentucky hero Henry Clay, that "I'd rather be right than be president." As it happened, with an assist from Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's well-timed conquest of Atlanta in September, Lincoln won his second term. He got to be both right—and president. But he could not escape assassination by someone who hated him for liberating the slaves....

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