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Great Presidents

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Great Presidents

Great Presidents

Professor Allan J. Lichtman Ph.D.
American University
Course No.  8100
Course No.  8100
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Course Overview

About This Course

48 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

It was one of the most audacious decisions in American history. The founders of the American Republic created a new kind of leadership office. It would be a strong and independent president who commanded the armed forces and led the executive branch of government. Through this act of genius, the founders put in place the rock of the republic.

Now you can see how well this worked by examining the lives, the achievements, and the legacies of those generally considered our 12 greatest presidents:

  • George Washington
  • Thomas Jefferson
  • Andrew Jackson
  • James K. Polk
  • Abraham Lincoln
  • Theodore Roosevelt
  • Woodrow Wilson
  • Franklin Roosevelt
  • Harry S Truman
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It was one of the most audacious decisions in American history. The founders of the American Republic created a new kind of leadership office. It would be a strong and independent president who commanded the armed forces and led the executive branch of government. Through this act of genius, the founders put in place the rock of the republic.

Now you can see how well this worked by examining the lives, the achievements, and the legacies of those generally considered our 12 greatest presidents:

  • George Washington
  • Thomas Jefferson
  • Andrew Jackson
  • James K. Polk
  • Abraham Lincoln
  • Theodore Roosevelt
  • Woodrow Wilson
  • Franklin Roosevelt
  • Harry S Truman
  • John F. Kennedy
  • Lyndon B. Johnson
  • Ronald Reagan.

Your teacher is Professor Allan J. Lichtman, a widely published and cited authority on American politics and an award-winning teacher. In these lectures you will see why.

Drawing on a wealth of revealing anecdotes and inside stories, he sheds new light on how the individual characters and historic decisions of each president made a major contribution to shaping our developing nation.

Collectively, they played critical roles in:

  • America's founding years
  • Westward expansion
  • The transformation from an agricultural to an industrial society
  • The struggle over slavery and the Civil War
  • America's entry into "the war to end all wars" in 1917
  • The Great Depression
  • World War II
  • The civil rights and women's rights movements
  • The perils of an atomic age
  • The start and finish of the Cold War.

These 12 leaders can be seen as giants of the most powerful elective office in the world. But through Professor Lichtman's eyes we see them as they really were, contradictions and paradoxes included.

  • How did early presidents reconcile their slaveholding with their support for democracy and liberty?
  • How did Thomas Jefferson, the champion of limited government, magnify presidential powers?
  • Why did Abraham Lincoln believe that he could not be re-elected in 1864?
  • How did Harry Truman, a onetime Missouri dirt farmer who became "accidental president," transform the modern world?
  • How did master politician Lyndon Johnson blunder into the Vietnam War?
  • Why did Ronald Reagan abandon the Christian conservatives who fought for his election as president?

A New Type of Leader for a New World

When the Founding Fathers created it in 1787, the presidency was a radical novelty.

That first president (everybody knew it would be Washington) would be the first head of state in the world whose authority would rest explicitly on the consent of the governed rather than the prerogatives of birth or conquest.

The founders built well. The presidency and its occupants, Professor Lichtman argues, deserve much of the credit for the political stability we have enjoyed for more than 200 years.

We may take for granted the peaceful transfer of power that has been such a hallmark of life in the United States. But it is something that much of the world still tragically lacks, and we did not gain it by accident.


Inside Stories


from Our Highest Office

Professor Lichtman shares insights based on his own close study of these 12 leaders, asking:

  • Is there a single formula for presidential achievement?
  • What made George Washington so uniquely important to the founding of the American Republic?
  • How did Andrew Jackson become the first president to be censured by the U.S. Senate?
  • James K. Polk was the first president who was not a military hero or an experienced elder statesman. What made him the right man in the right place at the right time?
  • Why did Teddy Roosevelt split his own party to run for president as a third-party candidate?
  • How did Woodrow Wilson go from obscure academic to U.S. president in a few brief years?
  • How did FDR's New Deal change the landscape of American politics?
  • How much of his promise had John F. Kennedy fulfilled before an assassin cut him down in November 1963?
  • How did Ronald Reagan set the stage for the end of the Cold War?

Many Faces of Leadership, One Thing in Common

Professor Lichtman's lectures reveal 12 leaders of widely differing backgrounds. They had varying styles, personalities, and beliefs; came from disparate roots; and embraced different approaches to governing.

Each had a powerful vision of America and the American promise.

Some, such as Kennedy and the two Roosevelts, were born to wealth and privilege. Others, such as Lincoln, Truman, and Johnson, came from middling or even humble circumstances.

These leaders took many roads to reach the presidency. Some were career politicians; some followed different paths.

Woodrow Wilson was a college professor and administrator.

Besides farming, Truman sold menswear (unsuccessfully).

Ronald Reagan was a movie star.

Some, including Washington, Jefferson, and Jackson, would have been major historical figures even if they had never become president. Others really had not made their mark on the country until after they became president—and then left a significant legacy indeed.

"But," states Professor Lichtman, "they each possessed the qualities that all great presidents seem to share: They had an unsinkable ambition, deep affinity with the American people, and a strong inner core of guiding values and principles."

An Evolving Institution

The formal constitutional authority of the president has changed only modestly since 1787. But presidential practice, congressional legislation, and judicial interpretations have altered the powers and role of the presidency enormously.

However, it is also important to understand, Professor Lichtman stresses, that there have been new restrictions and new limitations on the exercise of presidential power. Thus the presidency is still changing even while remaining one of the pillars of the American Republic.

Perhaps as a schoolchild you had the misfortune to learn of the presidents as boring, godlike figures in a dry textbook. Now you can see at last the human beings who deserve their mantles of greatness, through narratives as compelling as an historical novel.

View Less
48 Lectures
  • 1
    The American Presidency
    This first lecture will review the selection of 12 great American presidents who led the nation through crises of war, depression, and social upheaval. It explains how we will consider both the personal and public lives of these leaders, explore their presidencies, and show how they shaped both the office of the presidency and the history of the United States. x
  • 2
    George Washington—The Rise of a Patriot
    George Washington wanted fame and a lasting, positive legacy. By fame he did not mean mere celebrity, but the honest esteem that comes from service, sacrifice, and character. Even with all of today's debunking cynicism, he remains a true American icon. x
  • 3
    George Washington—American Liberator
    At critical moments during the Revolution and the nation's infancy, Washington was beyond doubt the "indispensable man." He led the Continental Army to victory against the British, and after the war, lent his prestige to the cause of strengthening the dangerously weak national government. In 1788, he was unanimously elected as the first president under the new Constitution. x
  • 4
    George Washington—The First President
    President Washington had to work to establish precedents for relating to the public and administering the new government. During his first term, he and his gifted cabinet established a new financial system, developed a foreign policy based on noninvolvement in European affairs, and pursued westward expansion. x
  • 5
    George Washington—American Icon
    "The approbation of [one's] country," said Washington, "is the highest reward to a feeling mind, and happy are they who so conduct themselves to merit it." His second term saw parties forming even as Washington remained above the fray. He dealt with threats from abroad and showed the power of the federal Union by crushing the Whiskey Rebellion. Refusing a third term, he stepped down in 1797 "first in the hearts of his countrymen." x
  • 6
    Thomas Jefferson—The Pen of Freedom
    Thomas Jefferson occupies a special place in American history. Before he was 45, he had written the Declaration of Independence, the Northwest Ordinance, and Virginia's Statute for Religious Freedom. Also considered are his views on women and on slavery. x
  • 7
    Thomas Jefferson—Party Leader
    Between the Revolution and his election as president in 1800, Jefferson was minister to France and later Secretary of State. He lost the presidency to John Adams in 1796, but under the system of the time he became vice president. Jefferson led the formation of the party that became known as the Democratic-Republicans. In 1800, he unseated Adams; it was the first transfer of presidential power in U.S. history. x
  • 8
    Thomas Jefferson—Expansionist President
    Jefferson's greatest accomplishment as president, the Louisiana Purchase, came in his first term. These years also saw the first-ever presidential sex scandal when Jefferson was charged with fathering children by his slave, Sally Hemings. x
  • 9
    Thomas Jefferson—The Agonies of a Second Term
    Jefferson's second term was far more vexing and controversial than his first. When he left office, controversies in foreign policy remained unresolved. Like no other Founder or early president, Jefferson today remains an immediately influential—and controversial—figure. x
  • 10
    Andrew Jackson—Hero of the New Republic
    A combative product of the Western frontier and the bitter Southern phase of the Revolution, "Old Hickory" won a victory over the British at New Orleans in 1815 that made him the greatest American war hero since Washington. x
  • 11
    Andrew Jackson—The Conqueror Returns
    After fighting the Indians and the British, Jackson won the popular vote for president in 1824, but lost to John Quincy Adams in the House of Representatives. His supporters denounced this "corrupt bargain" in which Adams's chief supporter in the House, Henry Clay, became the new Secretary of State. Jackson's vindication would come four years later. x
  • 12
    Andrew Jackson—The Warrior President
    Jackson's war against the Bank of the United States was the highlight of his first term, a stormy period that also saw the Peggy Eaton affair, a struggle over the nullification of federal laws by South Carolina, and the forced removal from their lands of Native Americans. x
  • 13
    Andrew Jackson—A President Defiant
    The bank crisis continued as Jackson became the first president to be censured by the Senate. Social unrest, especially over slavery, forced new challenges on Jackson and his party. Finally, we examine Jackson's impact on American political life, especially his role in the development of the modern party system. x
  • 14
    James K. Polk—Party Loyalist
    Although relatively little known, Polk is an important president. Sickly as a child, he had an intense will to succeed. He was elected to Congress at a young age and became a disciple of Jackson. But by the early 1840s, his career seemed to be over. x
  • 15
    James K. Polk—The First Dark Horse
    Polk was the first "dark horse" nominated for president, and he won an upset victory over veteran Whig leader Henry Clay. He worked hard at all phases of his job, and especially when pursuing expansionist policies vis-à-vis Oregon and Mexico. x
  • 16
    James K. Polk—Apostle of Manifest Destiny
    Polk's single term featured the dispute with Britain over the boundaries of Oregon Territory, and the conflict with Mexico. Each receives detailed discussion, with specific attention to Polk's place at the center of "Manifest Destiny"—the drive toward the sea-to-sea expansion of the United States. x
  • 17
    Abraham Lincoln—Frontier Politician
    Abraham Lincoln had a true log-cabin upbringing in Kentucky and Indiana. He rose as a lawyer and state legislator in Illinois, served a term in Congress as a Whig, and moved like many antislavery Whigs to the new Republican Party in the 1850s. x
  • 18
    Abraham Lincoln—The First Republican President
    His debates with Stephen Douglas made Lincoln a national figure and set him on the path to the 1860 Republican nomination. The lecture will cover the crackup of the American party system in the 1850s, the complex alignments of 1860, and the repercussions of Lincoln's eventual triumph in the four-man presidential race of that year. x
  • 19
    Abraham Lincoln—Wartime Leader
    Although he lacked military or administrative experience, Lincoln was an active commander-in-chief. With the Emancipation Proclamation and the Gettysburg Address, he gave the war a purpose beyond the restoration of the Union on the old terms. And he faced the task of running for re-election in the midst of the struggle. x
  • 20
    Abraham Lincoln—The Martyred President
    After winning re-election, Lincoln was preoccupied with the problems raised by the end of slavery and the start of reconstruction. The lecture will also highlight the controversy surrounding Lincoln's assassination and examine the reasons why he is considered the greatest of all American presidents. x
  • 21
    Theodore Roosevelt—Patrician Reformer
    The first part of TR's life saw him go from sickly boyhood to a vigorous young manhood. This lecture considers his early experiences, his political ideas and involvements, his work as assistant Navy secretary, and his service with the Rough Riders in the war with Spain. x
  • 22
    Theodore Roosevelt—The Cowboy as President
    TR's rise was meteoric. He became the reform-minded governor of New York in 1898, and William McKinley's running mate two years later. After McKinley's assassination in 1901, TR became the youngest president ever. He used the "bully pulpit" more effectively than any prior president and put a distinctly progressive stamp on the presidency. x
  • 23
    Theodore Roosevelt—Progressive Dynamo
    TR's first term saw him steer a program of progressive reform through Congress and shape an expansive, active foreign policy. His landslide election to a second term in 1904 would bring an expansion of his progressive agenda, creating difficulties with conservatives in his own party. x
  • 24
    Theodore Roosevelt—Third-Party Crusader
    After trying to wrest the GOP nomination from Taft, TR ran as a Bull Moose Progressive. His losing bid gained the biggest vote share ever for a third party. As president, he had expanded his office's power, and his vision of world affairs enduringly influenced our foreign policy. He was fittingly the first president of what some would call The American Century. x
  • 25
    Woodrow Wilson—American Visionary
    Woodrow Wilson began the shift of the Democrats away from state's rights and limited government toward federal initiative and governmental activism at home and abroad. How did his youth in the Civil War and Reconstruction South affect him? What role did his scholarly career play in shaping his politics? x
  • 26
    Woodrow Wilson—The Professor as Politician
    After 1904, Wilson began leaning toward the reformism that he would embrace as governor of New Jersey and U.S. president. The unusual 1912 presidential election is discussed, as is Wilson's ambitious domestic program of tariff reform, antitrust initiatives, and creation of the Federal Reserve Board. x
  • 27
    Woodrow Wilson—The World Stage
    World War I was the central foreign-policy challenge that Wilson faced. As the war dragged on, U.S. neutrality became increasingly hard to maintain. Acting on his belief that it was America's mission to "make the world safe for democracy," Wilson took the country to war in 1917 despite his 1916 campaign promise not to. x
  • 28
    Woodrow Wilson—The Fight for Postwar Peace
    Having given the Allies crucial help in winning the war, Wilson wanted a League of Nations to help secure the peace. The British and French were cool to the idea, however, and at home Wilson lost a grueling Senate fight over the League. He suffered a debilitating stroke in October 1919. The impact of his efforts is still much debated. x
  • 29
    Franklin D. Roosevelt—Provocative Politician
    Meeting the challenges of war and depression led FDR to launch revolutionary changes that are still with us today. In many ways he created the modern presidency that TR and Wilson had helped establish. FDR's life began in privilege, but he knew deep personal and political adversity as well. x
  • 30
    Franklin D. Roosevelt—New Dealer
    This lecture examines the critical election of 1932 and FDR's significance in forging the New Deal coalition that made the Democrats the normal majority party. Many of the New Deal's early innovations, especially those designed to fight the Depression, lasted only a few years, but the sheer magnitude of New Deal experimentation was beyond anything previously envisioned. x
  • 31
    Franklin D. Roosevelt—Into the Storm
    After his 1936 landslide FDR sought to extend the New Deal, but fell victim to his own hubris. Even a president of huge stature and popularity can push his powers only so far. As the 1930s ended, war in Europe and the possibility of a third term dominated the 1940 campaign. x
  • 32
    Franklin D. Roosevelt—President in a World at War
    When FDR died in April 1945, just weeks after his inauguration and weeks before the end of the war in Europe, Winston Churchill said that the former president had "altered decisively and permanently, the social axis, the moral axis, of mankind by involving the New World inexorably and irrevocably in the fortunes of the old." x
  • 33
    Harry S Truman—A Struggle for Success
    Although the hardscrabble Truman was the least esteemed of presidents, scholars have reappraised him, and he usually ranks high in surveys of historians. When FDR's sudden death thrust him into the world's most important position at one of history's great turning points, Truman became a key shaper of the postwar world. x
  • 34
    Harry S Truman—Needing America's Prayers
    A vice president Roosevelt had largely ignored, Truman found himself in April 1945 facing the responsibility of ending the war and making foreign and domestic policy for the postwar world. The bold decisions he made over the next few months profoundly affected the world and America's place in it. x
  • 35
    Harry S Truman—Winning the Peace
    The strategy of containment was a product of the first Truman administration that became the hallmark of U.S. foreign policy throughout the Cold War. America would assume huge and unprecedented global responsibilities that would deeply affect both life at home and the shape of the presidency. x
  • 36
    Harry S Truman—No Accidental President
    In the early 1950s, the Cold War suddenly turned hot, Stalin got the bomb, and Americans began wondering if their neighbors were Communist spies. In a reversal of earlier roles, Democrats became the party of civil rights, activist government, and internationalism. Truman left office in 1953 having changed the future of his country and the world. x
  • 37
    John F. Kennedy—The Construction of a Politician
    The tragic end of JFK's short presidency left Americans wondering what might have been. He led the nation through three turbulent years marked by the Cuban Missile Crisis, the most dangerous moment of the Cold War, and the Civil Rights Movement, the most significant social movement of the postwar era. x
  • 38
    John F. Kennedy—The Emergence of a President
    After a campaign in which the use of TV, polling, and image-making would make it a model, the cool, analytical, and glamorous Kennedy would bring a new look, style, vitality, as well as a new idealism and realism to the presidency. x
  • 39
    John F. Kennedy—A President in Crisis
    Despite his bold rhetoric, JFK proceeded cautiously on domestic issues such as civil rights. Much of his early term was spent dealing with major Cold War crises involving Cuba, Berlin, and Vietnam. x
  • 40
    John F. Kennedy—His Final Challenges
    The Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 showed Kennedy at his best. In 1963, he proposed landmark civil rights legislation, began planning a major initiative against poverty, and struggled with the question of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. x
  • 41
    Lyndon Johnson—Politician in the Rough
    Lyndon Johnson, one of the most activist presidents in history, left a legacy of both achievement and tragedy. Growing up amid rural hardship, he developed a deep need for attention and respect, and great sympathy for the less well-off. Devoted to and brilliant at politics, he became a successful six-term congressman. x
  • 42
    Lyndon Johnson—Professional Politician
    LBJ narrowly won a Senate seat in 1948, and by 1955 was the youngest majority leader in Senate history. Never fully comfortable in the vice presidency, he took office after JFK's assassination determined to follow the liberal precedents of Franklin Roosevelt. x
  • 43
    Lyndon Johnson—Building the Great Society
    As president, Johnson immediately pursued ambitious domestic reforms. These Great Society programs included his war on poverty, civil rights, Medicare and Medicaid, environmental and consumer protection, aid to education, and an expansion of federal welfare measures. x
  • 44
    Lyndon Johnson—Acrimony at Home and Abroad
    Turmoil and social unrest would mark Johnson's last three years in office. Above all, the war in Vietnam dominated events—detracting from the Great Society, undermining the economy, sapping the strength of Johnson's Democratic party, dividing Americans, and exacerbating other domestic problems. x
  • 45
    Ronald Reagan—"The Gipper"
    Ronald Reagan made conservatism respectable and formidable in late 20th-century America, slowed the growth of domestic spending, shifted priorities to the military, deregulated industry, achieved a major arms reduction treaty, and brought America to the brink of victory in the Cold War. x
  • 46
    Ronald Reagan—A Conservative in the White House
    Reagan's victory in 1980 capped a 20-year revival of conservatism. In 1981, he forced through Congress a major tax cut, an expanded military budget, and cuts in domestic programs. x
  • 47
    Ronald Reagan—The Acting President
    Reagan roused Americans from the malaise they had been in since the mid-1970s and made them believe again that America was a great country, a citadel of democracy, one worth fighting and dying for. But his domestic policies faltered as the administration failed to address problems of the late 1980s. x
  • 48
    Ronald Reagan—The Teflon President
    Although Reagan's final place in history is not yet clear, he successfully transformed the terms of political debate and understanding in the United States, and his second term ushered in the beginning of the end of the Cold War. x

Lecture Titles

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Allan J. Lichtman
Ph.D. Allan J. Lichtman
American University

Dr. Allan J. Lichtman is Professor of History at American University in Washington, D.C. He did his undergraduate studies at Brandeis University and earned his Ph.D. from Harvard University. Professor Lichtman is the recipient of the Scholar-Teacher Award from American University. He was a Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the California Institute of Technology. He is the author or coauthor of six books, including The Thirteen Keys to the Presidency and The Keys to the White House. The ìKeysî system predicted well ahead of time the outcome of every presidential election from 1984 to 1996. He is editor of the book series Studies in Modern American History. Dr. Lichtman has published more than 100 scholarly and popular articles that have appeared in journals and newspapers, including the American Historical Review, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, New Republic, Washington Monthly, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, and the Los Angeles Times. Dr. Lichtman has provided commentary for CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, FOX, MSNBC, CNBC, C-SPAN, Worldnet, Voice of America, the BBC, and many other networks worldwide.

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Rated 4.6 out of 5 by 31 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Also a Great Snapshot of US Politics & History This is a fabulous course if you like the Presidents as well as US politics and history. The professor is an engaging speaker who obviously knows his material and makes the subject matter go down easy. I would also recommend the book "Where They Stand" as an accompanying text. Professor Lichtman is quoted and sourced often in the book. Overall, a great listen. February 5, 2013
Rated 4 out of 5 by A Progressives view of Presidents Overall, I enjoyed this course. There were a few presidents I wasn't initially sure why Polk and Jackson were included and felt like I learned a lot. With more historical presidents I thought the professor did a good job presenting the president in his historical place and explaining what made the "great." With more contemporary presidents, however, the presenter appeared biased. He was effusive and gushing when it came to Kennedy and Johnson. It was almost as if they could do no wrong. Even when discussing the Vietnam war and fraud committed by Johnson, it was almost an afterthought. But as I was listening to the Reagan section, it was full of nothing but criticism. Even after stating that Reagan won the 84 election in a "landslide" he then went on for 10 minutes about how the left and the conservatives were angry with his presidency. He then spent quite some time talking of HIS OWN theory on picking the presidency and how he went to the White House etc. This is so inappropriate. If this were more balanced, I would give it 4 stars. June 23, 2012
Rated 5 out of 5 by Dr Lichtman’s Excellent Adventure I really enjoyed this course covering the illustrious lives and deeds of 12 great presidents. It’s a great tour. The DVDs were worth it, as I enjoyed Dr Lichtman’s presentation. He’s an articulate speaker and he’s got a good command and presence behind the podium. Every day I looked forward to watching each lecture. He’s got a distinctive Brooklyn accent, too. Twelve presidents are spotlighted in this course. They were chosen not because they were the 12 greatest presidents in US history, but because they presided during pivotal years and had enormous influence on our history long on down the road. Think of times of economic depression, war, territorial expansion, social unrest, etc. Dr. Lichtman does point out that we will all draw our own conclusion based on our own value judgments. Most are top-tier presidents in the eyes of scholars while a couple have somewhat mixed evaluations. It’s worth pointing out that with exception of perhaps LBJ, raters of both liberal and conservative persuasions rate these presidents highly, although in various orders. While I had already known some of the material (who wouldn’t?), there was certainly enough new content in the way of historical anecdote to make the course worthwhile to me. This wasn’t simply a paint-by-numbers biography. I felt I did get a good sense of American life, political changes from era to era, political machinations, and while not directly noted, a familiarity with how the presidential office changed over time as each executive officer made his mark in the oval office. Each president gets 4 lectures—that’s only 2 hours. Don’t expect encyclopedic coverage like you might find in 12 or 24 lectures. Nevertheless, I was pleased with the content, delivery, and the well-written Guidebook. I’m watching this along with History of the Supreme Court and they dovetail quite nicely, together giving a very detailed and thorough overview. They’re a nice combo. April 26, 2012
Rated 4 out of 5 by Meet the man, and the office What I found most engaging about this course was how we got to meet the man. The presidents selected were presented, each in a biographical style, showing us how he got to be the way he was (his childhood, his environment, his ambitions) foibles and all. In addition, Professor Lichtman showed us how these men expanded the powers of the office. His presentation was enthusiastic, but unfortunately, his volume went down at the end of a sentence making a point. I frequently had to backup and re-listen to a sentence to 'get it.' April 14, 2012
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