Book Review

Thinking about “Presidential Courage” on Presidents Day

February 18, 2019

What is courage? Courage is defined as “strength of mind to carry on in spite of danger or difficulty.” This Presidents Day, I want to take the opportunity to reflect on the courage shown by many of our nation’s past presidents. In his book, Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America 1789-1989, Michael Beschloss tackles this topic and is able to highlight many of the key figures and moments in our nation’s history.

Flawed & courageous leaders

While reading about the leaders Beschloss highlights, I expected to see bold men who led with character and faith as their guide. What I found instead was a collection of flawed leaders who, when faced with unwinnable situations, rose to the occasion, took significant personal risks, and pursued the path that they believed was best for the nation.

Unfortunately, I found myself discouraged as Beschloss showed us, again and again, the many ways that these celebrated leaders fell short in their personal lives. How, as a believer, are we supposed to celebrate the decisions these men made, courageous or not? In Romans 3:23 we read that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. We see throughout Scripture that the heroes of our faith were greatly flawed and that the Lord chose to use them in incredible ways (David’s adultery, Peter’s denial, Noah’s drunkenness, Samson’s pride).

This truth could be, and often is, used to justify sin in our leaders. However, this is a dangerous misinterpretation of Scripture. We must recognize that our elected officials are fallible so that we do not put them on a pedestal that leads us to justifying their sins. The answer is not to ignore the sins, but instead to recognize that goodness of God in using us, and our leaders, in spite of our sins. We are able, as a result, to reflect on the leaders that Beschloss highlights and celebrate the ways that they were courageous.

In his book, Beschloss examines many of the nation’s  presidents in times of crisis. Each responded to their crisis in the way they considered most appropriate for the country. This collection of stories highlights the importance of the American presidency and the courage it takes to lead well. On this Presidents Day, I can not help but focus on his telling of the stories of Presidents Washington and Lincoln. These two leaders led our country through trials that are unimaginable to many of us today, and did so in a way that has shaped the lens of how we view presidential leadership and courage.

George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, & hard decisions

The early presidents faced challenges that were bigger than themselves. It is no easy task to take a group of revolutionaries and turn them in to a nation of citizens. To make matters worse, the British were not following through with the treaties that had ended the Revolutionary

War. As the first president, George Washington led this fledgling nation as it faced its first major test as an independent nation. With the British attacking American ships in the Atlantic, President Washington had to choose between another war with the world power or seeking peace. Knowing that the young nation was ill-suited for another war, he pursued a policy of peace with Great Britain that would be wildly unpopular across the country. Though his treaty ultimately gained popularity, the president risked much by moving forward with such a contentious plan.

Though the hero of the Revolutionary War, Washington’s reputation as an American statesman was risked by his decision. Washington could have easily returned to Mount Vernon to avoid the public fallout of his decision. However, Washington stood by his decision courageously and weathered the storm of public outrage.

The risk to his reputation paled in comparison to the risk to the nation. The greatest danger was not the threat of external force but internal division and strife. There was strong opposition to his plan inside the country, and many wondered if this new form of government was strong enough to hold together. The United States needed a bold and courageous leader to lead her through this season, and Washington was up to the task. Hi leadership during this time placed the immature nation in the best position for survival, and later success.  

Though Washington helped prepare the country at its founding, Lincoln was forced to lead when it was broken. It is no understatement to call the Civil War the greatest challenge that the United States has faced in her history. As the war raged on, the president had many choices to make that would determine the future of our nation. As Beschloss highlights, the president faced many moments where it was reasonable to think that stopping the war for the sake of peace would be the best option. A compromise to end the war would have, by necessity, involved a provision protecting slavery. Lincoln had to choose between a compromise to avert war or a war to end a moral evil.

For President Lincoln, the soul of the nation was worth the sacrifice. He believed, correctly, that the stain of slavery had been on our nation for far too long and that peace without abolition was no real peace at all. On New Year’s Day 1863, through the Emancipation Proclamation, President Lincoln freed slaves in all states. This showing of courage proved that, though it wouldn’t be the easiest path, he would do what it would take to build a Union better than the one before the war. Politically, the president faced countless challenges throughout his presidency, but, following Washington’s lead, Lincoln showed over and over again that he would put the nation and her people before himself.

Men like Presidents Washington and Lincoln have inspired us over the generations to expect exceptional leadership and courage from our leaders. This Presidents Day, I am able to look back through history and be grateful that we have had leaders, though flawed in many ways, that stood up for the good of our country even when the personal risk was great. Each of them could have easily given up when faced with challenges, but they chose to make the courageous decisions that allowed America to grow and thrive over the course of history. I am thankful for the many ways the Lord has blessed our country, and I am praying for our president and for the presidents who will come. Will you join me?