All the President’s Historians
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 decades go 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. Cooper, Ron 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.
Three presidents have written biographies of other presidents. George W. Bush’s biography of his father was published in 2014, four years before George H.W. Bush died. Herbert Hoover, after leaving office, wrote a biography of his late predecessor Woodrow Wilson. And Wilson himself, while still an academic, wrote a biography of George Washington. (Wilson’s nemesis Henry Cabot Lodge, who had produced his own biography of President Washington, liked to say that Wilson’s scholarship might have been good enough for Princeton but would never have passed muster at Lodge’s Harvard.) Only one other president had serious ambitions to not just live history but write a lot about it: Theodore Roosevelt, a preposterously prolific author.
Other presidents have cultivated historians to their side. George Washington’s friend David Humphreys, who had served as his aide de camp during the Revolution and as a diplomat during his presidential administration, wrote the only authorized biography of Washington—although it was only partly published during Washington’s lifetime. A devout Jacksonian Democrat, historian George Bancroft served James Polk as secretary of the Navy and acting secretary of war. The historian Henry Adams, the great-grandson of John Adams, when he was a young man assisted his father in Abraham Lincoln’s administration as the ambassador to the United Kingdom. Irving Newton Brant, a newspaperman who became a speechwriter for and adviser to President Franklin Roosevelt, left FDR’s administration to write a six-volume biography of James Madison, of whom he had become enamored; Brant would eventually also write his own account of FDR’s environmental legacy.
No academic historian has rubbed shoulders with presidential power as much as Harvard’s Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., a special adviser to John F. Kennedy. By the time of the 1960 election, Schlesinger had not only completed a Pulitzer Prize-winning and paradigm-shifting work about the Jacksonian era, but he had finished a huge, three-volume history of FDR and the New Deal. During his time working for JFK, Schlesinger was not merely watching events unfold but was, as Richard Aldous showed in his 2017 biography of Schlesinger, deeply involved in some policy decisions, including the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the Cuban missile crisis.
Although it seems unlikely that anyone in the future will ever again serve in the Schlesinger-like role of “insider historian,” presidents and would-be presidents have continued to call on historians for their perspective and advice.
For example, cultural historian Christopher Lasch’s theories concerning America’s “culture of narcissism” attracted the attention of Jimmy Carter. Bernard Lewis, the historian of the Middle East, gave counsel to the George W. Bush administration concerning the region and supported the war with Iraq. Princeton University’s Sean Wilentz has long been associated with the Clintons, from defending Bill Clinton during the impeachment proceedings in the 1990s to being dubbed “Hillary’s Historian” during the run-up to the 2016 Democratic primaries. Many other academic historians have offered endorsements of various presidential contenders and contributed to their campaigns, all while offering historical commentary on why their preferred candidate would make for a historic president and attacking their rivals for their uses (or abuses) of history.
Although Donald Trump will likely be remembered as one of the worst presidents in history, he was not entirely bereft of admirers among historians, and it is not impossible that future contrarian historians might offer revisionist accounts sympathetic to his presidency.
And what are we to make of Joe Biden’s pick of Jon Meacham as his historian of choice?
Meacham is what some academics have dubbed a “Dad historian,” a dismissive term to describe the type of authors who appeal to middle-aged (typically white) men. Think Ron Chernow, David McCullough, and H.W. Brands (or, if you must, their inferior imitators, like Brian Kilmeade, Don Yaeger, and Bill O’Reilly). While university-educated, the majority of these writers have journalistic backgrounds and are based outside university history departments (Brands being a notable exception). Their work tends to focus on influential political figures (mostly presidents or Founding-era individuals) or pivotal military moments (mostly from the Civil War or World War II).
All this applies to Meacham: Although he now has a named chair at Vanderbilt, he is not an academic by training but a journalist and editor. He cut his teeth as a writer for the Chattanooga Times before establishing himself as a leading voice for the Washington Monthly and Newsweek. Meacham’s first book, Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship, became a New York Times bestseller and his profile of Andrew Jackson, American Lion, earned a Pulitzer. He has also written biographies of Thomas Jefferson, George H.W. Bush, and John Lewis. In general, Meacham seems drawn to contradictory figures who triumphed in moments of crisis: Jackson, the symbolic champion of democracy who held the Union together in the face of the nullification crisis, yet who enslaved black Americans and removed indigenous peoples from their native land. Jefferson, the leading revolutionary figure and author of the Declaration of Independence who enslaved six hundred human beings—one of whom, Sally Hemings, he fathered at least six children with.
Given the heated climate in which the nation’s past is discussed these days—with radical statue-topplers squaring off against conservative ignoramuses—it is little wonder that someone like Jon Meacham and the stories he tells about America can be so appealing.
In the early years of the Trump presidency, Meacham released The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, a text that resonates with Biden’s call to “restore the soul of America” and his “battle for the soul of America” slogan. As Kara Voght highlighted for Mother Jones, Meacham’s appeal to Biden and Biden voters is obvious, as he evokes a politics “above partisan conflict, championing a civic Christianity and orienting American history around certain core national values.” Voght scoffs at this, particularly Meacham’s interest in Jefferson, and argues that Meacham’s American “mythmaking” ought to be supplanted in favor of a different American story: “Biden’s presidency will be measured by the extent to which he can supplant the lessons of his muse [Meacham] with a new old story about the soul of America.”
There are two problems with this argument, though. First, while Voght’s point about “supplant[ing]” old stories about America is well taken—again, the process of historical revisionism is never-ending and largely healthy—this is not a process that can be expedited. It takes time. The historical work, the teaching, the sentiments and attachments—the mystic chords of memory—can be very slow to change. Put simply, the American people like the American story and are not quick to reject parts of it.
On Meacham’s appeal to Biden voters, historian Michael D. Hattem, who has studied the way memory of the Revolution came to shape American identity, commented by email:
Meacham has, in recent years, sought to reclaim the liberalism embedded in our revolutionary legacy, which puts him distinctly at odds with many academic historians who increasingly reject that legacy. For Biden to become a Reagan-esque figure who can glean the moderates of the opposition party, he needs to lay claim to the legacy of the Revolution, because even if studies show that many Americans don’t know many specifics about our history, they still nevertheless feel an emotional connection to the Revolution that conservative politicians and media, along with our national institutions, have long cultivated in them.
Which brings us to the second problem with Voght’s argument. If, as she recommends, at least the center-left were to walk away from Jefferson and the other Founders, the dark reality is that there are other people ready and eager to claim them for their own. On the eve of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017, participants rallied around a statue of Jefferson, proclaiming, “Jews will not replace us.” The logo on the leaked memo planning the aborted America First caucus to promote “Anglo-Saxon values” featured the visage of George Washington. Donald Trump responded to statues being defaced and torn down by giving a major speech in front of Mount Rushmore. Are we supposed to leave the Founders to a select and depraved few?
Far better to do as Meacham does—and as Biden, through his embrace of Meacham, does—and accept that the American past, all of it, in all its terror and beauty, its enlightenment and its evil, belongs to us all.
Correction (April 20, 2021, 2:50 p.m.): As originally published, this article left out one biography of a president written by a fellow president: George W. Bush’s book about his father. It has been added to the text.