All the President’s Historians

tags: Jon Meacham, Joe Biden

Daniel N. Gullotta is a Ph.D. candidate in American religious history at Stanford University. He is also the host of the Age of Jackson Podcast. Twitter: @danielgullotta

In a White House meeting in early March, Joe Biden spent more than two hours in private with a group of historians—in keeping with a recent tradition in which presidents have chatted about their predecessors with historians. But Biden had already been consulting with a historian, Jon Meacham, who has even helped write some of his major speeches. Given Meacham’s role as a wordsmith for and adviser to the president, it is worth looking back at how presidential historians have not only helped Americans view their presidential past, but also helped presidents understand their potential place in history.

It is chiefly through the work of historians that we remember our presidents—their strengths and successes, their flaws and failures. This is obviously true of long-gone presidents, whom no one alive remembers. But even for recent presidents, the writers of history and biography play an important role in assessing and reassessing their lives and careers.

This occurs in more or less predictable stages. When a president is in office, journalists write the “first rough draft of history” and admirers and opponents offer slanted accounts. Once a president is out of office, insiders—and sometimes ex-presidents themselves—who want to influence the historical record (and make some money) come out with memoirs. Soon thereafter, biographers and historians, both academic and popular, start to put out their own books, often drawing on interviews with former administration staffers. As the decade goes by, each former administration has fewer living alumni whose memories can be plumbed—but there are still discoveries to be made, especially in diaries, letters, memos, declassified documents, and other sources dug up in presidential libraries and other archives. And later historians continue to reexamine the record, with perspective that earlier historians didn’t have: with the knowledge of how things turned out, and with changing moral sensibilities.

The revision and reassessment never stops. Andrew Jackson was long celebrated as an avatar of American democracy and the Hero of New Orleans, but in recent years, largely because of his administration’s treatment of Native Americans and his enslavement of black Americans, the esteem in which he is held by historians and the general public has fallen precipitously. Other presidents, though, have recently seen their political careers redeemed and rehabilitated. The presidencies of John Quincy Adams, Ulysses S. Grant, and Jimmy Carter were long considered failures, but new biographies by (respectively) William J. CooperRon Chernow, and Jonathan Alter have argued that their subjects have been often misunderstood and underappreciated. In a similar vein, authors with political views that clash with those of their presidential subjects sometimes surprisingly find themselves enthralled, as lifelong Democrat Bob Spitz did in producing his sympathetic account of Ronald Reagan’s life.


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