The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The presidents we remember—and the ones we’ve almost entirely forgotten

I'm sorry, Lyndon B. Who? (Charles Tasnadi/AP Photo)

You can be the most important person in the free world one day, and almost entirely forgotten only decades later.

A number of United States presidents have, in fact, already fallen victim to that fate, according to a new study, which measured forgetfulness over a more than 40-year period. And many others are merely inching their way to a similarly unremembered state.

The study used four surveys conducted at Washington University at St. Louis—one in 1974, another in 1991, another in 2009, and another in 2014—each of which asked students to write down the names of as many presidents as they could and organize them in chronological order. The researchers then ranked the presidents that were most and least remembered by students in each survey to see if a trend emerged.

What they found was a pretty clear pattern. Nearly everyone in each of the four surveys was able to identify the first few presidents—George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, specifically—as well as the most recent handful—so, for those asked in 2009, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George H.W. Bush. A healthy portion of people also remembered presidents whose reign coincided with significant events, like the Civil War—cue Abraham Lincoln. But by and large, the ability to name presidents faded over time, and often to a point of near non-remembrance.

This is what it looked like when they plotted the percentage of each generation—Baby Boomer, Generation X, and Millenials—that was able to identify each of the 44 presidents (without placing them in order).

This is what it looked like when the students had to not only name but also list the presidents in order (notice the near-immaculate U-shape):

"Memory for the order of presidents who served in office during the individual’s lifetime (or a few years before) declines linearly," the researchers note. They also point out that the way in which we remember presidents independent of the order in which they served is similar to way in which we remember a lot of other things.

Whether it be cards, numbers, or presidents, we tend to remember the first few things in a sequence, the last few, and a few stand outs in between. Otherwise, we're pretty good about forgetting everything else, and all the more as time goes by. The reason being that we tend to hold onto knowledge seen as useful, and discard knowledge seen as not. The less society talks about, reads about, or hears about a president, the less it remembers him.

"By the year 2060, Americans will probably remember as much about the 39th and 40th presidents, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, as they now remember about our 13th president, Millard Fillmore," Henry L. Roediger III, one of the study's authors, said in a statement.

By the study's estimates, fewer than half of Americans will remember Richard Nixon, and less than a quarter of the country will remember Dwight Eisenhower, Harry S. Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson, Gerald Ford by 2100.

It remains to be seen whether history will be so unkind to America's current president. Obama is, after all, the first African American president in the country's history, an unquestionably important and arguably unforgettable marker of not only his legacy, but the United States'. But many of his crowning achievements, including "Obamacare," aren't known to voters as a creation of the president. "Obamacare," for instance, isn't actually called "Obamacare"—it's called the Affordable Care Act. And in the states, it often goes by names that have no relation to the law.