Report: PHN Conference 2016

Last week the PHN held its 3rd annual event at Northumbria University with the support of the British Association of American Studies, and the US Embassy London, attracting scholars from around the country, students from the region, and interest from media.

The event began with presentations from three “practitioners” of presidential memory. Bland Whitley, an editor at the Jefferson Papers project (Princeton), kicked things off with a fascinating insight into what must be the longest running presidential research project. The Jefferson Papers project began in the 1940s and has produced 42 volumes of correspondence to and from the third president. What Whitley eloquently explained was that gathering the vast correspondence actually provides us with a sort of social history because thousands of Americans of all walks wrote to Jefferson. John Marszalek, the Executive Director of the Ulysses S. Grant Association and Presidential Library (and a distinguished Emeritus Professor at Mississippi State), has coordinated efforts to start an non-traditional presidential library and told listeners about the plans to re-launch Grant’s library and museum in Mississippi.  Marszalek related the myths that developed around Grant and how communities of commemorators like the Grant Association attempted to discredit ahistorical narratives. Rounding the first panel off was Tom Putnam, the former director of the JFK Presidential Library and Museum who talked about the various forces at play in presidential libraries, namely the government body responsible for maintaining the resources (the National Archives and Records Administration) and the memorial foundations who seek to promote positive presidential memories. Putnam showed two videos about JFK, produced by the two groups, to effectively demonstrate his point.

The keynote address was delivered by H. W. “Bill” Brands who has written over 30 books, many of which feature the president. In fact, Brands explained, 5 of those biographies on presidents were designed to tell the story of the United States in a most accessible form. He related how he addressed Theodore Roosevelt first, because he was the most interesting of former presidents, before analysing the life of Benjamin Franklin (not a president, but part of Brands’s “series”), Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, Franklin Roosevelt, and finally Ronald Reagan.

On the second day of the conference, ten speakers expanded on the legacy theme. Peter O’Connor described the British perception of antebellum presidents, arguing that across the ocean most of them looked like Andrew Jackson: pandering to the mob. Kristin Cook took a literary approach to Jefferson, observing the legacy of the American president in the Batture case and keeping historians aware of the vast amount of printed material that ensures a chief executive lives on past his tenure. The PHN conference would be remiss to pass over the Roosevelts, and this year Hans Krabbendam offered a take on Theodore’s choice of a successor and the impact it had on his legacy and the 1912 election. Clive Webb re-assessed a familiar memorial for Londoners: the Franklin Roosevelt statue at Grosvenor Square, contending that its donors (the British public) tells us much about the president’s standing in international hearts and minds. Dean Kotlowski also discussed Franklin, but from the celluloid impression, investigating films that feature FDR to show the ebb and flow of his reputation. Richard Damms, an Eisenhower expert, demonstrated the legacy of speech by tracing the impact of Ike’s condemnation of the Military-Industrial complex in his Farewell Address. Thomas Tunstall Allcock gave a sneak peak of his new research project on presidential diplomacy as legacy, by illustrating the ways in which JFK and LBJ treated distinguished state visitors, and Mark McLay also discussed LBJ, but how the spate of 50th anniversaries that are upon us is transforming the way we consider him. Bringing things into the contemporary debates about legacy, Emily Charnock counted presidential visits abroad and domestically – the Farewell Tour – to explain how presidents aim to set their own legacy before departing the Oval. And Patrick Hagopian took up memorialization in America’s most sacred space, the Federal City, demonstrating how Eisenhower’s proposed memorial is deeply contested by communities of commemoration.

In sum the event was intellectually stimulating, and shows, as Brian Balogh said in the recent edited collection Recapturing the Oval Office that the White House is “being brought back in” to historical scholarship with captivating effect. In this case, at this conference, we heard little about the agency and institution of dead white men, but rather the story of the United States, the communities that remember the past, and how we can use the presidency to understand these historical contexts.

Michael Patrick Cullinane

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