Historically speaking, among U.S. presidents, is it lessons learned or lessons to learn?
Recently several William and Mary professors participated in such a review. Their work will be featured this weekend in the January 17 edition of the Virginia Gazette, a local Williamsburg newspaper.
The project was the brainchild of the paper’s publisher Bill O’Donovan.
“This project developed quickly after the election. At a time when the nation is facing financial peril and international chaos, the Gazette sought to apply lessons learned from previous administrations for Barrack Obama,” O’Donovan said in an email.
To put his plan into action, he sought the assistance of professors at the College of William and Mary, Thomas Nelson Community College and the University of Mary Washington.
“The premise was to set up each president in history and walk him through what worked well and what went wrong,” O’Donovan said.
O’Donovan consulted retired history professor Ed Crapol, an expert on former president John Tyler, on potential contributors.
Fourteen William and Mary professors participated in the project including professors from the departments of history and government and several from the Law School.
John McGlennon, chair of the government department, wrote the profiles on modern presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.
“Today we are likely to see presidents surviving longer and having an impact on national and international affairs well after they leave the White House - this has certainly been the case with one of the presidents I wrote about , Jimmy Carter, he said. “Periodically reviewing their contributions is a benefit to the public and the historical record.”
Contributors were asked to provide a 300 word summary on a given U.S. president. Keeping the profiles short was a challenge, but a useful exercise McGlennon said.
“With that kind of space limit you have to recognize that you can’t say everything,” he noted. “Academics have the luxury of spending a lot of time, with a captive audience, to get their point across. A newspaper audience would never tolerate that.”
History professor Scott Nelson provided the most profiles, tackling five presidents – Andrew Johnson, Grant, Garfield, Arthur and Hayes. Historically speaking, parsing out the good and the bad presidents is challenging, he said.
“The best and the worst presidents are usually the same people,” Nelson noted.
In all, twenty-one scholars contributed to the effort. Those featured from the College of William and Mary are listed below with the president or presidents they summarized.
James Axtell, Kenan Professor of Humanities Emeritus (Wilson)
Ed Crapol, William E. Pullen Professor of History Emeritus (Tyler, Polk, Taylor)
Neal Devins, professor of law (Clinton)
Davison M. Douglas, Arthur B. Hanson Professor of Law (Ford, George H.W. Bush)
Robert F. Engs, James Picnkney Harrison Distinguished Visiting Professor in History (also professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania) (Lincoln)
Andrew Fisher, professor of history (Harding, Coolidge, Hoover)
Philip J. Funigiello, professor of history emeritus (Franklin D. Roosevelt, Truman)
George Grayson, Class of 1938 Professor of Government (Cleveland, McKinley, William Henry Harrison)
Ronald Hoffman, director of the Omohundro Institute for Early American History & Culture at William & Mary (Washington)
John McGlennon, chairman of the department of government (Carter, Reagan)
Scott Nelson, Legum Professor of History (Andrew Johnson, Grant, Garfield, Arthur, Hayes)
Robert Parkinson, National Endowment of the Humanities Post doctoral fellow at the Omohundro Institute at William & Mary (John Adams)
Richard B. Sherman, William E. Pullen Professor of History Emeritus (Taft, Theodore Roosevelt)
Thad Tate, professor emeritus of history (Madison)
Ludwell H. Johnson, taught history at William & Mary until 1992 (Van Buren, Jackson, Buchanan)