Americans are not especially well known for their political aptitude. One housewife in the 1950s famously believed Richard Nixon to be a foreigner—while watching him on television at the Republican National Convention. Unfortunately, things haven’t improved much in the decades since. In the latest demonstration of this fact, researchers report that around three-quarters of all Americans believe Alexander Hamilton was once president of the United States.
To put that in context, fewer than 60 percent believe (correctly) that Franklin Pearce and Chester Arthur were presidents. Alexander Hamilton served as secretary (and is the subject of a major Broadway musical), but he was never president.
“Students in the United States take American history in high school, so they are probably exposed to the names of the presidents at that point,” write psychologists Henry Roediger and Andrew DeSoto in the journal Psychological Science, but by the time they’re in college, they can typically recall only about half of the presidents. Still, Roediger and DeSoto point out, “people may know more than they can recall.” In particular, maybe they’d recognize more presidents than they can quickly rattle off.
To find out, the psychologists came up with a list of names: Forty-one presidents—they left off Barack Obama, and included the names George Bush and John Adams only once each—along with 82 vice presidents, military leaders, and other significant historical figures, among them Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. Then, they asked 326 Internet users to scan the list and check off which names where presidents and which were not, and to indicate their level of confidence in their choices. Participants also took a vocabulary test as a measure of their general knowledge.
As Roediger and DeSoto expected, people could recognize many more presidents than they could recall—on average, participants correctly recognized 88 percent of the presidents, compared with less than one-half in recall experiments, and they incorrectly identified others as presidents less than 10 percent of the time.
But more interesting, the researchers write, is the famous men who participants erroneously believed had been president. Notably, 71 percent thought Hamilton had been president, which is comparable to the number who correctly recognized Rutherford Hayes as president.
One likely explanation: People tend to think that, the more familiar a name is, the more important the person with that name—and Hamilton certainly is a familiar name, having been treasury secretary, famously dueled Vice President Aaron Burr, and appeared on the $10 bill (and then there’s that musical). This may also account for the fact that a high number of people thought Benjamin Franklin and Hubert Humphrey were presidents, though it doesn’t explain why 31 percent of participants thought Thomas Moore had been president.
“Our best guess is that the Anglo-Saxon structure of his name, the frequency of both parts of the name, and possibly his confusability with Sir Thomas More, the counselor to King Henry VIII, may have contributed to the name’s familiarity and false recognition,” the team writes.