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Historian in Chief

How Presidents Interpret the Past to Shape the Future
Edited by Seth Cotlar and Richard J. Ellis

BUY Cloth · 296 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813942520 · $39.50 · Apr 2019
BUY Ebook · 296 pp. · ISBN 9780813942537 · $39.50 · Apr 2019

Presidents shape not only the course of history but also how Americans remember and retell that history. From the Oval Office they instruct us what to respect and what to reject in our past. They regale us with stories about who we are as a people, and tell us whom in the pantheon of greats we should revere and whom we should revile. The president of the United States, in short, is not just the nation’s chief legislator, the head of a political party, or the commander in chief of the armed forces, but also, crucially, the nation’s historian in chief.

In this engaging and insightful volume, Seth Cotlar and Richard Ellis bring together top historians and political scientists to explore how eleven American presidents deployed their power to shape the nation’s collective memory and its political future. Contending that the nation’s historians in chief should be evaluated not only on the basis of how effective they are in persuading others, Historian in Chief argues they should also be judged on the veracity of the history they tell.


Historian in Chief is a wonderful and timely book. In a superb opening essay, Cotlar and Ellis argue that presidents act as historians: they shape the collective memory of the American past. The contributors all explore something genuinely important: how presidents, from George Washington to Barack Obama, drew on the past to shape the present. Presidents regularly reread American history to guide their administrants and to persuade Americans about the path forward. A great read for scholars interested in the past and citizens concerned about the future."

James A. Morone, author of The Devils We Know: Us and Them in America's Raucous Political Culture

Collectively, these timely, challenging, substantive essays (worth repeated readings) emphasize the significance of history—the power of the past in shaping the present and the future recognized by leading personalities different in enduring persuasiveness and truthfulness. Summing Up: Highly recommended.


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