Hamilton, Hamilton…Who Was He Anyway?

Broadway megahit “Hamilton” has brought the Founding Parent (okay, Founding Father) into a spotlight unknown since his own era.

Let’s face it.  The Ron Chernow biography, turned into a smash Broadway musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda, has made Alexander Hamilton into the icon he hasn’t been–or maybe never was–in a century or two. Just this week, the hip-hop musical “Hamilton” received a record-breaking 16 Tony Award nominations.

His new-found celebrity has even influenced his modern-day successor, current Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, leading Lew to reverse his earlier plan to remove Hamilton from the $10 bill and replace him with the image of an American woman.

Instead, Hamilton will remain on the front of that bill, with a group representing suffragette leaders in 1913 appearing on the back, while Harriet Tubman will replace no-longer-revered and now-reviled President Andrew Jackson on the front of the $20 bill.  We’ll see other changes to our paper currency during the next five years.

But an intriguing question remains:  How many Americans—putting aside those caught up in the frenzy on Broadway, where theatergoers are forking over $300 and $400 to see “Hamilton” on stage—know who Hamilton really was?

A recent study done by memory researchers at Washington University in St. Louis has confirmed that most Americans are confident that Hamilton was once president of the United States.

According to Henry L. Roediger III, a human memory expert at Wash U, “Our findings from a recent survey suggest that about 71 percent of Americans are fairly certain that [Hamilton] is among our nation’s past presidents.  I had predicted that Benjamin Franklin would be the person most falsely recognized as a president, but Hamilton beat him by a mile.”

Roediger (whose official academic title is the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor in Arts & Sciences) has been testing undergrad college students since 1973, when he first administered a test while he was himself a psychology grad student at Yale. His 2014 study, published in the journal Science, suggested that we as a nation do fairly well at naming the first few and the last few presidents.  But less than 20 percent can remember more than the last 8 or 9 presidents in order.

Roediger’s more recent study is a bit different because its goal was to gauge how well Americans simply recognize the names of past presidents.  Name-recognition should be much less difficult than recalling names from memory and listing them on a blank sheet of paper, which was the challenge in 2014.

The 2016 study, published in February in the journal Psychological Science, asked participants to identify past presidents, using a list of names that included actual presidents as well as famous non-presidents like Hamilton and Franklin.  Other familiar names from U.S. history, and non-famous but common names, were also included.

Participants were asked to indicate their level of certainty on a scale from zero to 100, where 100 was absolutely certain.

What happened?  The rate for correctly recognizing the names of past presidents was 88 percent overall, although laggards Franklin Pierce and Chester Arthur rated less than 60 percent.

Hamilton was more frequently identified as president (with 71 percent thinking that he was) than several actual presidents, and people were very confident (83 on the 100-point scale) that he had been president.

More than a quarter of the participants incorrectly recognized others, notably Franklin, Hubert Humphrey, and John Calhoun, as past presidents.  Roediger thinks that probably happened because people are aware that these were important figures in American history without really knowing what their actual roles were.

Roediger and his co-author, K. Andrew DeSoto, suggest that our ability to recognize the names of famous people hinges on their names appearing in a context related to the source of their fame.  “Elvis Presley was famous, but he would never be recognized as a past president,” Roediger says.   It’s not enough to have a familiar name.  It must be “a familiar name in the right context.”

This study is part of an emerging line of research focusing on how people remember history.  The recent studies reveal that the ability to remember the names of presidents follows consistent and reliable patterns.  “No matter how we test it—in the same experiment, with different people, across generations, in the laboratory, with online studies, with different types of tests—there are clear patterns in how the presidents are remembered and how they are forgotten,” DeSoto says.

While decades-old theories about memory can explain the results to some extent, these findings are sparking new ideas about fame and just how human memory-function treats those who achieve it.

As Roediger notes, “knowledge of American presidents is imperfect….”  False fame can arise from “contextual familiarity.”  And “even the most famous person in America may be forgotten in as short a time as 50 years.”

So…how will Alexander Hamilton’s new-found celebrity hold up?  Judging from the astounding success of the hip-hop musical focusing on him and his cohorts, one can predict with some confidence that his memory will endure far longer than it otherwise might have.

This time, he may even be remembered as our first Secretary of the Treasury, not as the president he never was.

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4 responses to “Hamilton, Hamilton…Who Was He Anyway?

  1. He was well known to Aaron Burr, but not well thought of by Mr. Burr who ended Hamilton’s life in a duel largely the result of insulting things that Hamilton said about Burr’s female family members.

  2. Interesting! As an erstwhile historian, I am sometimes surprised by people’s lack of knowledge of (and interest in) history. But a great musical/play can do a lot to change people’s perceptions. This phenomenon reminds me of Shakespeare’s history plays: how much of our “knowledge” of Richard III or Henry V derives from Shakespeare today? (And in my opinion, even if those plays are not completely accurate, they do make the historical figures come very much alive!)

  3. Judith Wellek

    Leave it to Susan to take a recently anointed pop figure of history and
    use him to stimulate thoughts about our own memory process! Very
    interesting and enjoyable reading.

  4. Hi Susie– Very interesting piece. –Chip

    On Wed, May 4, 2016 at 3:46 PM, Susan Just Writes wrote:

    > susanjustwrites posted: “Broadway megahit “Hamilton” has brought the > Founding Parent (okay, Founding Father) into a spotlight unknown since his > own era. Let’s face it. The Ron Chertow biography, turned into a smash > Broadway musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda, has made Alexander Hami” >

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