Stanford professor talks US history with students

Aaron Chum, Author

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David M. Kennedy, professor of history at Stanford University and author of the popular textbook “The American Pageant,” came to speak to Advanced Placement US History students Wednesday during fifth period. 

Despite an untimely fire alarm that cut into Kennedy’s presentation, he continued to answer questions from several students on the football field.

Below is the transcript of the exchange: 

Q: What is your favorite period in American history?

A: Well, the period I know best because I’ve done most of my research in it is the Great Depression, New Deal, World War II period. That’s my default answer. In my general view of the whole subject of American history, there are three great moments. If you understand what happened in those three moments, you understand a lot about the nature of this society and historical development. The first one is the period of the Revolution, the period of the Constitution, 1770s to 1780s. The second one is the Civil War and Reconstruction, and the third one is the Great Depression and World War II. Interestingly, every one of those three episodes has a war in it – Revolutionary War, Civil War, World War II. But I would make a very strong case that before and after each of those events, this society was fundamentally different. They were transformative moments. And if you understand the logic of how things changed in those periods of time, you know a lot about American history. So those are the three big ones and my favorite happens to be the Great Depression and World War II.

Q:Who was your favorite historical figure in American history?

A: It depends on what you mean by that. If you mean who do I think had the most beneficial effect on this society, that’s one answer to the question. Another is who I would most like to hang out with. Probably Theodore Roosevelt. He just had more energy and a broader range of interests and a livelier mind, I think, than just about any figure that has risen to the top of the national agenda. So if I had to be marooned on a desert island somewhere with some figure from American history, it would probably be Theodore Roosevelt.

Q: Who do you think was the worst president?

A: There are several candidates. Every now and then, somebody polls a few hundred or a few thousand historians and asks that question. Essentially, who are the best and who are the worst presidents. Two people consistently place at the top of the scale: Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. They’re always right up there at one and two. And then there’s a bit of argument about three, four and five. And there’s a pretty good consensus about who’s at the bottom. And interestingly, the two presidents that bracket the Civil War are always down there in the basement: James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson. They’re on either side of Lincoln. Buchanan failed to prevent the war and Johnson badly botched the beginnings of Reconstruction. So they’re always there. Other people who are in the basement [on Kennedy’s personal list] would be most recently, George W. Bush. I think history will show that he was a truly catastrophically bad president. And another is Richard Nixon. There are other failed presidencies. Jimmy Carter’s was a failed presidency, Herbert Hoover’s was a failed presidency. But they didn’t really do active damage the way Nixon and Bush did. Ulysses Grant and Warren G. Harding usually end up down there in the cellar as well. But they were, in my judgement, merely corrupt and incompetent. Those are kind of common human failures. It’s the guys that really use the power of the office to do harm, those are the ones you really want to put down there at the bottom.

Q: Who was the most irrelevant US president?

A: Again, there are several candidates. There are those we call “bearded, bland and boring” characters of the late 19th century. I mean, what can you remember about Rutherford B. Hayes or Chester A. Arthur or Benjamin Harrison? That was a period in which the presidency as an institution was largely irrelevant. 

Q: What are your top 5 most important events in US history?

A: Well, I named three of them. Or by some definition, six of them. Revolution, Constitution, Civil War, Reconstruction, Great Depression and World War II.

Q: In your textbook, how do you try to balance what is fact and what is opinion? How do you balance which opinions to put in and how do you choose that?

A: Let me say, first of all, that the writing of all history is a matter of opinion and argument and interpretation. The thing they drum into you when you try becoming a career historian is that you can’t just pick your opinions off the shelf when you want. Your opinion has to be informed by the facts and the knowledge of what other people have said about the matter. You try to bring your own interpretation to bear, but with proper deference to the documentary record and the conversation that has already been going on about this subject. So, if it was only a matter of facts, any history book would look like a phone book. It would just list these things. So, how do you balance fact and interpretation isn’t exactly how I would tee up the question. I understand where you’re coming from, but that’s not the best way to put it. It’s how do you responsibly use the factual records to make an argument that really is cogent and defensible. When it comes to textbook writing, once again, I’m assuming for most of you the textbook is the most historical reading you’ve done, you have to drill in a lot of monographs, really primarily focused things. Textbooks by their very nature are kind of a satellite view of things. You can see the tops of the peaks but you don’t really go down very far. So, part of the art of writing a textbook is trying to put forth interpretations that are cogent and sound and perhaps a bit provocative, trying to get you thinking. So, we try when we get together to revise [the textbook] every three or four years to look for places where we can say something that might bring you up short a bit, but make you think it through.

Q: If there was one historical figure who you would want to be president but who was not, who would it be?

A: That’s an excellent question and I’m not sure I can answer it briefly in a way that would do it justice. Actually, I’ll share a little story with you. You may have read this, it’s public knowledge, that President Obama has had several dinners with a group of historians, he’s had three of these. And I’ve been president of all three. And it’s been an opportunity for me to see how the president thinks up close and personal. And I went to the first of these with a lot of respect for him. I voted for him, just to tell you the whole thing. You didn’t have to vote for him to get one of these letters, but I did. He’s an exceedingly thoughtful, an unusually thoughtful person, whether president or not. On any scale, he’s very thoughtful. He thinks deep and he thinks synthetically and comprehensively… [He is] someone who really puts his head to work on getting the job done. So that’s all wonderful, but most of these conversations that we’ve had as a group of about eight or nine historians in the room with the president, the discussion is really not about the great concepts of how to run a just society or how history will judge our time, kind of the things that I was expecting. He wants to know a more about how did Theodore Roosevelt get that piece of legislation passed, how did Franklin Roosevelt convince the country of this, how did Lyndon Johnson make that congressman behave. Nuts and bolts stuff. And at the first of these conversations, I was a bit surprised. And then I thought, what kind of person do you want to be president of the United States? You want someone who can make the system work. He might be wrongheaded some time or another or get some
facts wrong, but, my god, the most important thing is making it work for us. It’s a practical, nuts and bolts kind of a proposition. And it’s the politician’s art that political scientists have been trying for generations, really since Machiavelli, to define what it is. Some guys have it and some don’t. Herbert Hoover was widely acclaimed in the 1920s before he became president. He was probably the most competent man in the world. He had an international reputation. He supervised the relief of Belgium during World War I; he became the food administrator here in the United States; he went to the Paris Conference along with Woodrow Wilson. Extremely smart guy, widely respected. Yet a disastrous president. Franklin Roosevelt was a C student, kind of a gentleman’s C guy. But my god, he was an effective president. And it wasn’t because he had more brain power. He didn’t have the intellectual endowment Hoover had, but he was a far more effective president. What made that difference? They were both handed the same lemon, which is the Great Depression. It completely crushes Hoover, but Franklin Roosevelt makes lemonade out of it. He uses the opportunity to create lasting change in American society.