There’s no better way of celebrating our presidents around Presidents Day than by remembering a few of their extraordinary acts of courage.
Here are four examples highlighting when past presidents have displayed clear leadership:
George Washington. When King George III asked what General Washington would do after he led the Colonial Army to victory, the target of his conversation answered, “They say he will return to his farm.”
“If he does that,” King George said, “he will be the greatest man in the world.” And still, he gave up command. There was no template for the role of president when Washington was elected to office. He could have considered himself a clerk to carry out congressional legislation, acted as a pollster of sorts that followed the whims of the states—or even a king.
His tenure as president can certainly be judged in the way he restored our financial footing, or how he led our nation through the pains of growth. But the real measure of his character is found in the way he fulfilled King George III’s words, by voluntarily stepping down not just from command of the Colonial Army, but from what would become the most powerful office in the world.
Washington set the precedent for those who followed in many ways, and perhaps the biggest way he did this was in his willingness to go against convention and cede power after just two terms.
Abraham Lincoln. President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was attacked from all sides. National papers decried it as “a monstrous usurpation, a criminal wrong, and an act of national suicide.” Desertions by disgusted Union soldiers climbed into the thousands, and a New York Herald correspondent wrote, “The army is dissatisfied and the air is thick with revolution[.]”
Riots broke out in New York City, the largest of their kind to that moment in American history. Seeing no slaves freed, even abolitionists were soured by the proclamation’s impotence. Lincoln was isolated and alone, and yet he considered, and our nation remembers, the Emancipation Proclamation as his greatest act as president. He didn’t just put his comfort and reputation at risk; he would ultimately sacrifice his life in his move to better our nation.
Harry S. Truman. Following North Korea’s invasion of the South in 1950, General Douglas MacArthur was placed in command of the force to retake the peninsula. He was already an American icon, and as his forces drove the North Koreans back toward the Chinese border, his legend grew.
The Allies’ advance drew China into the conflict, and as President Harry Truman became increasingly worried about the war’s escalation, he denied MacArthur’s requests to expand his campaign into China. Adamant in his stance, MacArthur took his argument directly to Congress and aired his views openly to the press.
Even in the face of MacArthur’s success and universal popularity, Truman relieved him of his command in April of 1951. Truman’s actions kept the conflict from expanding, reaffirmed his control over the military, and reinforced the strength of the commander in chief for following presidents.
Ronald Reagan. On Aug. 3, 1981, more than 13,000 air traffic controllers went on strike throughout the U.S. The strike came at the peak of summer travel, forcing some 7,000 flight cancelations of across the country.
President Ronald Reagan declared the strike illegal and threatened to fire controllers who didn’t return to work within 48 hours. Dismissing the controllers would inevitably impede air travel, and Reagan’s closest advisers worried that a major air disaster might result if the president held his red line. Two days later, he fired 11,000 striking air traffic controllers.
The Federal Aviation Administration’s contingency plan restored airline operations, but it would be many months before air travel returned to pre-strike levels. As unpopular a measure as it was, by going against the advice of his staff and conventional wisdom, Reagan reaffirmed his intent to enforce the law and strengthened America’s hand in everything from public discourse to our dealings with the Soviet Union.