Document Type


Publication Date

Winter 2007

Department 1

Civil War Era Studies

Department 2



Like the business cycle, the reputations of great actors in history seem to go through alternating periods of boom and bust. Harry Truman was scorned in his day as an incompetent bumbler. A half-century later, he is regarded as a gutsy and principled president. Andrew Jackson was hailed as the champion of the common man and the enemy of power-mad bankers. Since the 1970s, he has become the champion only of the White man, a rancid hater of Indians, and a leering political monstrosity. John Quincy Adams was, for more than a century after his death, dismissed as a dyspeptic holier-than-thou; however, a single book, William Lee Miller’s Arguing About Slavery, and a single movie, Steven Spielberg’s Amistad, re-made him into an apostle of the American anti-slavery conscience. Perhaps this shows only that historical reputations may be made of the same stuff as markets, and that over-investment and over-extension always leads to collapse and recession. Or perhaps it shows that the only way the attention of a generation can be grabbed by historians is to contradict, as loudly as possible, the historical certainties of the preceding one. [excerpt]

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