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Presidents Make History. Should They Also Know History?

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks as Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price looks on during a Rose Garden event May 4, 2017 at the White House in Washington. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks as Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price looks on during a Rose Garden event May 4, 2017 at the White House in Washington. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

President Trump’s recent statement that President Andrew Jackson could have prevented the Civil War sent people back to their history books. It was the latest in a string of comments that have caused historians and others to question Trump’s knowledge about America’s past.

Here & Now‘s Jeremy Hobson asks historian Julian Zelizer (@julianzelizer) of Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School how much presidents’ knowledge of history matters.

Interview Highlights

On President Trump’s comments about Andrew Jackson and the Civil War

“I think a lot of historians didn’t agree with what he said, both from the notion that he necessarily had a big heart, but more importantly, that he would have been able or willing to end or prevent the Civil War from happening. It obviously happens after his death. And I think most historians agree with the overall power of the problem of slavery in dividing this nation.”

On what he thinks was behind Trump’s comments

“Some of it might be that he doesn’t understand it. Some of it might be he heard bits and pieces about discussions of President Jackson, and then repeated them out of context. Part of it is, he often turns to Andrew Jackson, not to make a point about history but to make a symbolic political point today, using him as a kind of symbol of conservative populism that he himself wants to champion, and also as a symbol of a tough leader. In [Trump’s] account of the Civil War, a president who is just tough enough and who knew how to make things happen could end this horrific event that happened in our nation’s history. And he wants to make the argument I think that he could do the same kind of thing, or the same kind of magic, that he imagines Andrew Jackson would have been able to do.”


On Jackson’s presidential legacy

“Well certainly, with many issues like the treatment of Native Americans, he doesn’t rank very well, and many people have a very different vision of Andrew Jackson — not just the populist, but someone who was quite repressive. And this is a part, obviously, of Jackson — as well as his slaveholding past — that is something very troubling to historians, as is the idea that the Civil War shouldn’t have happened necessarily, meaning in the end… one historian said if you view this as a war of liberation that ends this horrendous institution that was part of this country, then the claims by President Trump are even more troubling.”

On how important presidents’ knowledge of history is

“Well, it’s important, obviously you don’t want presidents frequently making big mistakes about the kinds of issues that we learn about in school. I think it’s also fair to say that presidents will make mistakes, and they’ll make statements that often are inaccurate or incorrect. And we shouldn’t argue this is necessarily disastrous. So I think a lot of this is the context of the person saying it. If a president seems to have a sense of this country and what made this country, and makes one mistake, I don’t think everyone will necessarily jump on them. As opposed to a president who doesn’t seem to have much deep interest in those issues. Then these mistakes are magnified.”

On previous occasions when presidents have gotten history wrong

“There were a lot of famous quotations from Ronald Reagan, who would sometimes mix things up about World War II, for example, that he had seen in films, and talk about them as if they happened in his own life. Gerald Ford made one of the famous gaffes in presidential debates in 1976 against Jimmy Carter, when he said there’s no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. He meant to say something different, but it sounded like he didn’t really understand the history of the Cold War, and that was very costly politically.”

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