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Presidents of War

The epic story, from 1807 to modern times

By Michael Beschloss
18-minute read
Audio available
Presidents of War: The epic story, from 1807 to modern times by Michael Beschloss

Presidents of War (2018) is a panoramic study of eight US presidents and the conflicts into which they led their country. Detailing each POTUS’ motivations for war, their decisions once hostilities began, and the mood of the press and public at home, these absorbing portraits of wartime leaders look at American history on the grandest of scales – from the War of 1812 to Vietnam. 

  • Americans wanting to understand their past leaders
  • Foreigners whose knowledge of American history is limited to the twentieth century 
  • Future presidents trying to avoid the mistakes of their predecessors

Michael Beschloss is an American historian specializing in US presidential history. He is the NBC News presidential historian and the author of nine books including Eisenhower: A Centennial Life and Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America, 1789-1989

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Presidents of War

The epic story, from 1807 to modern times

By Michael Beschloss
  • Read in 18 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 11 key ideas
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Presidents of War: The epic story, from 1807 to modern times by Michael Beschloss
Synopsis

Presidents of War (2018) is a panoramic study of eight US presidents and the conflicts into which they led their country. Detailing each POTUS’ motivations for war, their decisions once hostilities began, and the mood of the press and public at home, these absorbing portraits of wartime leaders look at American history on the grandest of scales – from the War of 1812 to Vietnam. 

Key idea 1 of 11

Thomas Jefferson used his presidential power to keep America out of a war.

Although these blinks focus on wartime presidents, we shouldn’t forget leaders who used political maneuvering and diplomatic nous to keep their country out of conflict. In this, every president should look up to Thomas Jefferson, who, in 1807, successfully avoided war with Great Britain. 

The incident that almost led to war was the Chesapeake Affair. On June 22, 1807, the American frigate USS Chesapeake sailed through the waters of Virginia and was intercepted by the British vessel HMS Leopard. The Leopard was searching for four British Navy deserters and demanded that the US ship surrender for inspection. 

When the Chesapeake refused, the Leopard opened fire, killing four American sailors. The Chesapeake surrendered, and four more sailors were arrested as British deserters. 

With the War of Independence still in living memory, anti-British sentiment in the United States was rife. The Chesapeake Affair intensified this, causing a domestic uproar. The public whipped themselves into an anti-British war frenzy, stoked by a bellicose press. 

Jefferson witnessed all this unfold but was determined not to declare war. 

Jefferson was a pacifist, despising war and its needless financial and human costs. Also, he was uncertain his country could beat the British again. He knew the United States’ young and inexperienced navy couldn’t take on the Royal Navy – the world’s best – and even more so since his spending cuts had weakened his forces. 

But Jefferson also knew his nation wanted revenge. Dispatching an envoy to London, Jefferson demanded the return of the four sailors, an apology for the Chesapeake attack and reparation. A savvy operator, Jefferson knew that it would take at least four months to receive a reply. He hoped that, by then, America’s war frenzy would have quieted.

In the meantime, Jefferson prepared the military in case diplomacy failed, and tried to defuse the political situation. He reminded aggressive politicians that, as per the Constitution, a declaration of war could only come from Congress – the legislative branch of government, consisting of the House of Representatives and the Senate. He refused to call an emergency session of Congress – where a declaration of war might be made – until he received the British reply.

Thankfully, the British agreed to Jefferson’s terms, and the fervor for war evaporated. The United States’ third president showed superhuman restraint in avoiding a destructive war, but it wasn’t an action replicated by his successors.

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