Even Presidents Are Destined to Die and Be Forgotten

So maybe forget about your legacy and get something done, eh?

Dec 1 2014, 7:15pm

​Image: ​Simpsons Wiki

​As pundits prepare to see what President Obama can do for "his legacy" in the rest of his lame-duck presidency, a study has been published in the journal Science that indicates that no matter what happens, that legacy is ​bound to be forgotten.

"By the year 2060, Americans will probably remember as much about the 39th and 40th presidents, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, as they now remember about our 13th president, Millard Fillmore," Henry L. Roediger III, PhD, a human memory expert at Washington University in St. Louis, said in a ​press release.

This isn't a function of "these kids today" not knowin' much about history. Roediger has been testing how well undergraduates remember presidents since the '70s, by asking people to list presidents in order. His work indicates that we forget presidents in a predictable, linear fashion.

Americans know the first three or four presidents—without Wikipedia, I'm saying it's Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Adams then, uh, Madison? (wrong!)—and the sitting president (Obama!), but as we work backwards from there it gets hazy. Less than 20 percent are able to remember more than the last eight or nine presidents in order.

As a one-term president, Jimmy Carter's legacy already seems whittled down to just the Iran hostage situation and his now-infamous-but-prescient "malaise speech." But even presidents who were in office during pivotal moments in history, or who passed important legislation, are bound to be forgotten.

Roediger's research indicates that Harry S. Truman, whose legacy includes integrating the armed forces and dropping the atomic bomb, will be forgotten by three-fourths of college students by 2040, remembered as well as Zachary Taylor or William McKinley—whose legacies included… stuff, I'm sure.

Lyndon B. Johnson, who signed the Civil Rights Act and Medicare into law, is also fading fast. In 1974, almost everyone knew which number president Johnson was. By 1991, only 53 percent did, and by 2009, only 20 percent did. He was the 36th president, by the way.

A few things seem to help your legacy: being the first at something—so Obama's at least got that going for him—or being Abraham Lincoln, or being president right after Abraham Lincoln. Surprising as it sounds, people remember Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant.

"Clearly, Lincoln and his successors are well remembered because of their association with the American Civil War and the ending of slavery, but it is notable that many students and adults also often know that Lincoln was the 16th president," Roediger said in the release.

In moments of political strife, it's sometimes comforting to remember America's bearded, caretaker presidents: Taylor, Tyler, Fillmore, Harrison, etc. Though just as contentious in their own day—Rutherford B. Hayes was called "Rutherfraud" and "the Dark Horse president" and was accused of stealing the election—with the distance of 100 years or more. Today, these presidents are largely only remembered for Simpsons bar trivia purposes.

Though, depending on your politics, surveys say that people think Bush or Obama is the ​worst president ever, our collective, presidential amnesia probably has something to do with this. Superlatives aside, presidents, like all of us, are bound to be swallowed by the void of history.