Study: Americans remember presidents that never were

About 71 percent of Americans are fairly certain Alexander Hamilton served as president.

And about 71 percent of Americans are wrong.

Photo: Courtesy Alexander Hamilton — not a president, but 71 percent of those surveyed in a memory study thought he held the nation’s top office.
Photo: Courtesy
Alexander Hamilton — not a president, but 71 percent of those surveyed in a memory study thought he held the nation’s top office.

The “founding father” celebrated in the hit Broadway musical Hamilton was the first secretary of the U.S. Treasury and served as a chief aide to Gen. George Washington. He also founded the New York Post. But he never served as president, contrary to what people told researchers at St. Louis’ Washington University.

“Our studies over the past 40 years show that Americans recall about half the U.S. presidents but the question we explore with this study is whether people know the presidents but are simply unable to access them for recall,” said researcher Henry L. Roediger III. He co-authored with researcher K. Andrew DeSoto a paper recently published in the journal Psychological Science.

Participants were asked to identify past presidents from a list of names that included presidents and non-presidents, including Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin and the lesser-known Thomas Moore.

Study participants were asked to rate their certainty on chief executives from zero to 100.

Overall, the rate for recognizing the names of past presidents was 88 percent. Actual leaders Franklin Pierce and Chester Arthur were recognized less than 60 percent of the time yet about 71 percent remembered Hamilton as a president.

People also mistakenly remembered Benjamin Franklin, John Calhoun and Hubert Humphrey as presidents.

The study adds to an emerging line of research — collective memory or historical memory.

“The false recognition data support the theory that false fame can arise from contextual familiarity,” Roediger said. “And our recall studies show that even the most famous person in America may be forgotten in as short a time as 50–75 years.”