For a historian, it’s a complicated question

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Dean Franklin, WikiCommons

Every year, usually around Presidents’ Day, Americans talk about the best and worst presidents and debate how to rank their successes and failures. Inevitably, questions about their values and morality come up and we ponder how much weight to give their personal characteristics versus their leadership while in office.

I cohost and produce a podcast with the Center for Presidential History, called The Past, The Promise, The Presidency. This season we are exploring the complex history of race and the president, so naturally we’ve covered the good, the bad, and the ugly of the American story. While we were interviewing…

Being an eyewitness to history is essential for future historians

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Photo: Picturenow/ Universal Images Group/Getty Images

On Wednesday afternoon, the House impeachment managers laid out the series of tweets, speeches, and interviews in which former President Trump had conditioned his supporters to attack the U.S. Capitol. They showed how he riled up his supporters against the election and stoked their rage. They showed how he planned and repeatedly promoted the January 6 rally. They showed how he applauded violent and intimidating messages from his supporters, demonstrating his support for their actions. They showed how his campaign political action funds spent $50 million spreading the lies about the election, advertising the rally, and planning for the event.

To grasp the full scope of Trump’s historic failure, compare him to FDR

President Franklin D. Roosevelt sitting at desk, giving radio address.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt sitting at desk, giving radio address.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt giving a radio address. Harris & Ewing, Courtesy: Library of Congress

As the impeachment trial in the Senate begins today, the country is grappling with the final weeks of the 45th president. In the days leading up to the inauguration, Donald Trump’s cemented his presidential legacy by inciting a seditionist insurrection. On January 6, the same day rioters attacked the U.S. Capitol, over 4,000 people died from COVID-19. When Trump left office, the death toll passed 400,000–70,000 more than the number of Americans killed in combat in World War II. In his inaugural address, President Joe Biden noted this dark milestone. President Trump remained silent. His indifference to American suffering and…

Every month, I write a column for Governing, an online magazine designed for state and local government issues. My columns always focus on the historical origins of our current moment. Or in other words, I look around me, figure out the big issues, then explain the history of that issue.

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Courtesy of U.S. Senate Collection

With the impeachment proceedings beginning next week, many citizens have questions about past impeachments, the constitutional implications, and what precedents they should know about. So I wrote about three past impeachments, explained why they matter and shared what they tell us about our contemporary moment. Here’s an excerpt:

“On Feb…

The Framers of the Constitution created a federal district because they didn’t want any one state to have too much power over the Federal Government. The political balance of power has changed — the president is now a threat to Congress and the citizens of D.C. It is time for the District of Columbia to attain statehood and obtain power over its own security forces in order to protect its residents and Congress.

On June 20, 1783, roughly 400 Continental Army soldiers marched to the Pennsylvania State House (now known as Independence Hall) and barred the doors. Congress owed troops…

I thought the pandemic would ruin the chances to promote my book. It didn’t

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About a year ago, news was really starting to swirl about COVID-19. To be honest, I struggled to acknowledge the coming reality. I really didn’t want to think about it because I had my first book coming out and a book tour planned (You can find The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution on Bookshop, Amazon, or any of your favorite stores!). I put my head in the sand and kept scheduling events, then one morning I was talking about some of my plans and my husband said as gently as possible, “you aren’t going to…

A historian’s view of how a pet’s loyalty transforms the White House

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Pete Souza for Wikimedia Commons.

Today is #LoveYourPetDay. Also known as every day that ends in “y” in my house. But I’m not alone. Most American presidents have surrounded themselves with dogs and citizens have been fascinated by presidents’ furry friends.

And for good reason! Politics is hard under the best of circumstances, but leading a nation is a nearly impossible task. The decisions, the burdens, and the power make for long, sometimes lonely days. Which is why the unfailing love and loyalty of dogs is so welcome. Similarly, it’s all too easy to see the president as unhuman or simply the office. That’s why…

And an opportunity to think about potential reform

The president wields unparalleled power — the power to shape our national culture, proclaim values, manage institutions, and lead the government in times of crisis. History shows us how presidents can harness that power for tremendous good, or fail to live up to that potential. With Presidents’ Day just around the corner, this week is a good opportunity to think about whether we want the president to have all that authority and whether those expectations are fair. For example…

The president’s bully pulpit is one of the most powerful tools at their disposal. Through their public actions, speeches and interviews…

Presidential accountability and framers of the Constitution demand it

The delegates at the Constitutional Convention cared a great deal about holding the president accountable, but they weren’t initially sure how to do so. George Washington, the future first president, was in the room and that conversation was pretty awkward. At Benjamin Franklin’s insistence, they included the impeachment provisions in the Constitution.

As a result, the Constitution emphasized the importance of presidential accountability from day one. But for many reasons — political calculations, behind-the-scenes dealings, and death — Congress has rarely held presidents accountable through impeachment. …

Millions of Americans tuned in yesterday to watch President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. take the oath of office. In his inaugural address, Biden stressed his duty to protect and defend the Constitution. So the concept of oaths and responsibilities to the office should be on our mind.

In March 1825, President-Elect John Quincy Adams broke with tradition and used a book of laws at his inauguration. He selected the book of laws, rather than a bible, so that he would be taking the oath of office on the Constitution of the United States. …

Lindsay Chervinsky

Historian. Writer. Speaker. Author of THE CABINET.

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