Professors Cotlar and Ellis edit new presidential history book

by Jennifer Johnson,

“Presidents shape not only the course of history but also how Americans remember and retell that history.”

So begins “Historian in Chief,” the latest book edited by Professor of History Seth Cotlar and Mark O. Hatfield Professor of Politics Richard J. Ellis through The University of Virginia Press.

In it, the nation’s top historians and political scientists explore how 11 U.S. presidents, including Barack Obama, deployed their power to shape the nation’s collective memory and its political future.

“Conceptualizing presidents as historians in chief draws attention to a crucial aspect of the presidency that is too often slighted if not ignored: namely, that presidents are an extraordinarily history-conscious bunch with an outsized capacity for recasting the nation’s historical memory,” Cotlar and Ellis wrote in the introduction.

An iconic example of this is the way Abraham Lincoln's “Cooper Union” speech put the Declaration of Independence, with its assertion that "all men are created equal," at the center of the nation's conversation about slavery, Cotlar said.

Lincoln used the Declaration to claim that America's founders were anti-slavery at heart and by principle, they just didn't succeed in putting those principles into practice at the time, he said.

“The implication was that the United States was an inherently anti-slavery nation, a statement that most Americans now would agree to, but which just about all white Southerners and probably most white Northerners would have disagreed with in the 1850s.”

Presidents should be evaluated “not only on how effective they are in persuading others to believe the historical narratives they tell — political scientists’ conventional measure of presidential performance — but also on the veracity of those narratives,” Cotlar and Ellis wrote.

Initially conceived as an idea for a conference, “Historian in Chief” had enough traction and interest among Cotlar and Ellis’ national colleagues to become a book. Selecting some of the 11 presidents was obvious — “Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson were the two most prolific historians in the White House, how could you not?” Cotlar said — but others depended on the availability of expertise.

Luckily, essayists including James T. Kloppenberg, the Charles Warren Professor of American History at Harvard University and author of “Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope and the American Political Tradition,” and historian and journalist Rick Perlstein, who wrote “The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan,” agreed to participate.  

The book begins with George Washington and ends with Barack Obama, but its observations will always apply.

“Throughout American history, presidents have sought to reimagine what sort of country we’ve been and what sort of country we should be,” Cotlar said. “Of what does American greatness consist? Just as we debate that today, with President Donald Trump weighing in with great force and with great regularity, it’s worth remembering that he is just the most recent president to recast our national memory and identity. And like all presidents, he will undoubtedly fall short of fully remaking the country in his preferred image.”

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