NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • From a preeminent presidential historian comes a “superb and important” (The New York Times Book Review) saga of America’s wartime chief executives
“Fascinating and heartbreaking . . . timely . . . Beschloss’s broad scope lets you draw important crosscutting lessons about presidential leadership.”—Bill Gates
Widely acclaimed and ten years in the making, Michael Beschloss’s
Presidents of War is an intimate and irresistibly readable chronicle of the Chief Executives who took the United States into conflict and mobilized it for victory. From the War of 1812 to Vietnam, we see these leaders considering the difficult decision to send hundreds of thousands of Americans to their deaths; struggling with Congress, the courts, the press, and antiwar protesters; seeking comfort from their spouses and friends; and dropping to their knees in prayer. Through Beschloss’s interviews with surviving participants and findings in original letters and once-classified national security documents, we come to understand how these Presidents were able to withstand the pressures of war—or were broken by them.
Presidents of War combines this sense of immediacy with the overarching context of two centuries of American history, traveling from the time of our Founders, who tried to constrain presidential power, to our modern day, when a single leader has the potential to launch nuclear weapons that can destroy much of the human race.
Praise for Presidents of War
"A marvelous narrative. . . . As Beschloss explains, the greatest wartime presidents successfully leaven military action with moral concerns. . . . Beschloss’s writing is clean and concise, and he admirably draws upon new documents. Some of the more titillating tidbits in the book are in the footnotes. . . . There are fascinating nuggets on virtually every page of
Presidents of War. It is a superb and important book, superbly rendered.”
—Jay Winik, The New York Times Book Review
"Sparkle and bite. . . . Valuable and engrossing study of how our chief executives have discharged the most significant of all their duties. . . . Excellent. . . . A fluent narrative that covers two centuries of national conflict.”
—Richard Snow, The Wall Street Journal
"In this brilliant work, Michael Beschloss burnishes his already bright reputation. He tells a gripping tale of courage and mendacity as well as recurring defiance of the constitutional requirement to seek congressional approval for making war. A monumental and profoundly important achievement.”
—Ron Chernow, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Grant
“A deep history of how chief executives since the early nineteenth century have waged war . . . Most of the wars described here were grounded in deception and, arguably, were unjust wars of choice. Beschloss drives this point home in his disquieting study.”
—Matthew Dallek, The Washington Post
“Beschloss’s broad scope lets you draw important cross-cutting lessons about presidential leadership. . . .
Presidents of War is worth reading, whether you are one of the nation’s leaders or just an armchair historian.”—
“Conflict and war played an essential role in the accumulation of presidential power, as Michael Beschloss explains in his magisterial book. . . .
Presidents of War, 10 years in the making, is on an epic scale. It looks at leadership from every angle: communication, the critical relationship with Congress, the treatment of civil liberties and the role of the (often formidable) presidential spouse.”
—Lionel Barber, Financial Times
“In this monumental book, the incomparable Michael Beschloss tells the riveting story of how, through history, our Presidents came to be so powerful and to lead Americans into waging major wars. With his new research discoveries and unerring eye for human detail, Beschloss has brought us an unforgettable narrative.
Presidents of War is a landmark book about power, leadership and human nature itself.”
—Jon Meacham, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Soul of America
“Once again, Beschloss captures our Presidents in terms both historic and human, showing that whoever holds the office will fearlessly—or fearfully—impact our world.”
—Tom Hanks, author of Uncommon Type
“Michael Beschloss guides us on a fascinating and sobering journey from the War of 1812 to the present, illuminating a steady expansion in presidential war powers and consequent abandonment of the constitutional restraints the Founders crafted to prevent despotism. It is a powerful and troubling story, essential reading for our time.”
—Drew Gilpin Faust, author of This Republic of Suffering, President Emerita and Lincoln Professor of History, Harvard University
"There is no more serious task a President can undertake than leading our nation in war time. With
Presidents of War, Michael Beschloss, our leading historian of the American presidency, presents a deeply researched and elegantly written chronicle of how presidents from the early nineteenth century through modern time have handled this most daunting and important responsibility. Revealing both the high points and the low, and using newly available material, Beschloss tells us much we did not know about important events and gives a different perspective on things we thought we knew."
—Annette Gordon-Reed, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Hemingses of Monticello
and Charles Warren Professor of American Legal History, Harvard Law School
"With his historian’s eye for the telling detail and a novelist’s appreciation for the quirks and crotchets of individual personalities, Michael Beschloss has crafted a sweeping chronicle of presidential war-making from the birth of the republic to the twenty-first century. Throughout this compelling story runs a question of ever-more clamorous urgency: have the Constitutional safeguards against war as the dread spawn of presidential ambition, whim, or ignorance been eroded to the point of irrelevance in our own day?"
—David M. Kennedy, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Freedom from Fear and Professor of History Emeritus, Stanford University
"Beschloss offers a sweeping history of American presidents seeking and waging war. . . . He provides insight into the motivations of American leaders; presidents’ battles with other branches of government; their degree of respect for civil liberties; and the role of personality, emotion, and the general political climate as American commanders-in-chief executed the power of the country’s military forces. . . . Ample detail and enticing storytelling.”
“This spirited account, reminiscent of
The Oxford History of the United States, will captivate history buffs and interest scholars of the institutional presidency and the Constitution.”
—Library Journal (starred review)
“Exceptional storytelling. . . . Beschloss sweeps across more than 160 years, delving into presidential decision-making in eight wars from the early 19th century to Vietnam. Along the way, he paints rich portraits of Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and other larger-than-life leaders whose choices determined the fates of millions and redirected the flow of history.”
—Mark Atwood Lawrence, The Boston Globe
"Filled with fascinating insights. . . . A compelling work on the necessary qualities and dangers for wartime presidents."
—Albert R. Hunt, Bloomberg
“Beschloss sounds the alarm about the president’s power to drag the nation into war. . . . Well-crafted. . . . Excellent.”
“A fascinating look at US presidential history and how leaders from James Madison to present times have dealt with the pressures and difficult decisions of war.”
—The New York Post
"A monumental cautionary tale. . . . Vividly written,
Presidents of War is a sobering and timely look at our commander-in-chief’s awesome war-making powers, and how those powers can so easily circumvent our Constitution.”
—Chris Patsielis, Philadelphia Inquirer
Michael Beschloss is the author of nine books on presidential history, including, most recently, the
New York Times bestsellers
Presidential Courage and
The Conquerors, as well as two volumes on Lyndon Johnson’s White House tapes. He was also editor of the number-one global bestseller
Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy. He is the NBC News Presidential Historian and a
PBS NewsHour contributor and has received an Emmy and six honorary degrees.
And so it had come to this. Horrified as he stood on a height above the Potomac, James Madison, the fourth President of the United States—and now, some wondered, the last?—watched his beloved Washington City as it seemed to vanish into a crimson-orange swirl of fire. It was after midnight on Wednesday, August 24, 1814, and Madison was a fugitive, escaping the Capital—first by ferry, then by galloping horse—for the dark wilderness of Virginia.
Still wearing formal knee breeches and buckled shoes, the sixty- three-year-old Madison knew that the invader-incendiaries from Great Britain were out for his capture and arrest, which might force him to be hanged. But he kept dismounting his horse to stare, with those intelligent blue eyes that “sparkled like stars,” at the inferno across the Potomac. He could not help himself. As a student of the Bible since col- lege, Madison knew that God had warned Lot’s wife not to look back at burning Sodom or else become a pillar of salt. Nevertheless the beleaguered President—who stood about five feet, four inches, and weighed perhaps a hundred pounds—kept gazing at the flaming, otherworldly spectacle, the nadir of the War of 1812, which many Americans bitterly called “Mr. Madison’s War.”
Earlier that day, Madison’s popular, shrewd, vivacious wife, Dolley, had stayed behind at the Executive Mansion while James was out reviewing the forces charged with Washington’s defense. She asked her husband’s enslaved body servant Paul Jennings (who once lauded the President as a man who would not “strike a slave”) to bring out ale and cider in anticipation of a three o’clock White House dinner they were planning for Cabinet secretaries, “military gentlemen,” and their wives. Dolley hoped that if Washingtonians learned that the President’s lady was keeping a normal schedule, they would feel more sanguine about the danger of the approaching British marauders. But she received a worried, scribbled plea from her nearby sister Anna: “Tell me for gods sake where you are. . . . We can hear nothing but what is horrible here.”
From the Mansion, Dolley peered anxiously through a spyglass with “unwearied anxiety.” As she wrote her other sister, Lucy, she was thinking, “Mr. Madison comes not; may God protect him!” Recoiling from the distant booms of British cannon, Dolley refused to flee until “my dear husband” was safe in her arms. But in preparation, she quickly packed letters, books, valuables, a demijohn of wine, and clothes. Determined to prevent the British from grabbing the life-sized portrait of George Washington, an irresistible battle trophy, she called out, “Save that picture! . . . If not possible, destroy it!” She ordered the painting removed from its gilded frame and taken by wagon to a “humble but safe roof,” thus ensuring her place in American history. (The Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and other treasures had already been slipped into plain linen sacks and taken to a Virginia gristmill.)
Then the Madisons’ freedman servant James Smith, waving his hat, cantered up with a message from the President: “Clear out! General Armstrong has ordered a retreat!” Stuffing flatware into her handbag, Dolley and Sukey, her enslaved personal maid, were helped into carriages, which rushed them and their traveling companions across the Potomac to the wilds of northern Virginia, where she and James had agreed to meet. But Dolley was told that the President could not be found, and she cowered in agony and tears. Part of her fear stemmed from the fact that the British invaders were not her husband’s only en- emies. Furious at the invasion of their Capital and, in fact, at Madison’s whole war, some of his own countrymen had vowed to commit violence against the President if he tried to flee the city. “I hear of much hostility towards him,” Dolley had warned her sister Lucy. “Disaffection stalks around us.” One American had threatened the President with “dagger or poison.” According to Paul Jennings, when Dolley was desperately seeking safe haven that night in Virginia, one would-be hostess raged at her, “If that’s you, come down and go out! Your husband has got mine out fighting and, damn you, you shan’t stay in my house!”
Back across the Potomac, about 150 British soldiers—“the most hellish looking fellows that ever trod God’s earth,” recalled one bystander— torched the Capitol of the United States. At nine o’clock, spurred on by the British Rear Admiral George Cockburn, soon called “the harlequin of havoc,” with “sun-burnt visage and his rusty gold-laced hat,” the arsonists had laid siege to the limestone building—two still-unconnected wings shut down in midconstruction by the war. In the chambers of the House, Senate, and Supreme Court, the enemy soldiers piled up mahogany desks, red morocco chairs, green curtains, and books. Before they lit this tinder with rocket powder, Cockburn sat in the House Speaker’s chair and mocked the democratic pretensions of Britain’s ex-colonies, demanding of his brother redcoats, “Shall this harbor of Yankee ‘democracy’ be burned? All for it will say, ‘Aye!’ ”
Soon the Capitol was enveloped by jagged tongues of orange flame, so searing that glass lamp shades melted. Cockburn decreed the raising of his own country’s Union Jack, then, riding on a mule, ordered his redcoats to march double file down Pennsylvania Avenue. Demanding their silence, to avoid arousing Washingtonians to fight back, Cock- burn shouted, “If any man speaks in the ranks, I’ll put him to death!” One American yelled at Cockburn that if George Washington were still alive, “you could not have done this.” The Admiral replied that George Washington, unlike Madison, would never have “left his capital defenseless, for the purpose of making conquest abroad.”
Bursting into the White House, Cockburn’s soldiers sat down at the dining table—still set with crystal, gold, and silver—and feasted on the Madisons’ uneaten Virginia hams and “super-excellent Madeira.” Marching upstairs into the President’s private dressing room, whose opened drawers betrayed a hasty departure, Cockburn seized the black bicorne military hat owned by the man he derided as “Little Jemmy Madison” and merrily stuck it on the tip of his bayonet. Stealing a seat cushion from Dolley’s boudoir, Cockburn made ribald jokes about her voluptuous derriere and breasts. Other redcoats donned the President’s starchy shirt and waved his ceremonial sword. Madison’s guitar and pianoforte, a half-packed portmanteau, and French sofas and commodes purchased by Thomas Jefferson were all gathered and shoved into a pile in the Mansion’s grand oval reception room. These and other spoils of war were lit by perhaps fifty torches, each charged with glowing coals from a nearby tavern. Soon, it was said, the Mansion was “wrapt in one entire flame.” Cockburn reputedly finished his night of destruction at a nearby brothel, reveling in “the coarse luxury of lust.”
James Madison, who had done so much to conceive the political institutions of Washington, DC, was reviled by many of his fellow citizens as the destroyer of their capital city. Vicious handbills appeared, demanding that the President receive a “black and bitter day of retribution” for “this foul stain on our national character.” They called him a “coward” who had fled his White House command post for Virginia, “begging” shelter and bread “from door to door”—and a cad, leaving poor Dolley “to shift for herself.” Such attacks stung the proud Madison. But his ordeal was more profound.
The War of 1812 was the first major conflict conducted by a President of the United States under the document of which Madison was justly revered as the “Father.” During the Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia, Madison and the other Founders had debated the quandaries of war. They sought to ensure that, unlike in the Old World societies governed by sovereigns, Americans would go to war only when it was absolutely necessary—and that the decision would be made not by the President but by the legislature. Virginia’s George Mason had written that he was “ag[ainst] giving the power of war to the Executive, because [that branch was] not safely to be trusted with it.” James Wilson of Pennsylvania insisted that the Constitution “will not hurry us into war; it is calculated to guard against it.” Madison himself considered war “the true nurse of executive aggrandizement.” As he reminded Jefferson in 1798, “The constitution supposes, what the History of all Gov[ernmen]ts demonstrates, that the Ex[ecutive] Is the branch of power most interested in war, & most prone to it. It has accordingly with studied care, vested the question of war in the Legisl[ative].”
The 1812 conflict proved to be the first major test of the constitutional system for waging war. In Philadelphia, Madison the Founder had worried that American Presidents, like the European monarchs they execrated, might be tempted to take the nation into military confrontation without a national consensus and an immediate, overwhelming foreign danger. But with the War of 1812, Madison had, however reluctantly, succumbed to exactly that temptation. Much of the country and Congress had opposed waging war with Great Britain, and two years into this struggle, many Americans still did not fully understand why they were fighting.
By leading his country into a major war that had no absolute necessity or overwhelming support from Congress and the public, Madison, of all people, had opened the door for later Presidents to seek involvement in future conflicts that suffered from such shortcomings. Madison’s fateful decision to seek this war had brought him, after midnight, to this dark Virginia forest, searching for Dolley and running for his life.
 The President’s residence was not officially called the White House until President Theodore Roosevelt issued an executive order to this effect in 1901, but the term was occasionally used during Madison’s time.
 General John Armstrong Jr. was Secretary of War.
 Early in the process, Congress was to be given authority to “make” war, but Madison and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts successfully changed that word to the more specific “declare,” so the record shows, “leaving to the Executive the power to repel sudden attacks.”