Alexander Hamilton? Yeah, He Wasn't a U.S. President

Alexander Hamilton (center) was a busy guy, but he never had any presidential duties. However, Millard Fillmore (left) did serve as a U.S. president, as did Warren G. Harding (right). AS400 DB/ Leemage/Corbis

When it comes to remembering U.S. presidents, many Americans are in the same boat. And that boat is probably sinking.

According to memory experts at Washington University in St. Louis, few Americans can remember the names of all past presidents. It's a failing that's especially true if a president has either been out of office for 50 or more years or has had a fairly uneventful term.

Don't recall much (if anything) about the 13th U.S. President Millard Fillmore? That's about how much we'll collectively remember about Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, the United States' 39th and 40th presidents, by the time 2060 rolls around.

The latest findings, from a 40-year project that has studied collective memory, were published in the February 2016 issue of Psychological Science.

Since 1973, Henry L. Roediger III, the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of Psychology at Washington University, has been testing how well people remember U.S. presidents. Along with K. Andrew DeSoto, a fellow at the Association for Psychological Science, Roediger most recently asked 326 participants to select actual past presidents from a list of names that included presidents and nonpresidents, and then to indicate the certainty of the answer, with 100 being absolute.

Nearly one-third of participants believed "Thomas Moore" to be a past U.S. president, when the name was purely fictional. Alexander Hamilton, whose visage adorns the $10 bill, also was frequently misidentified as a U.S. president.

Researchers attribute the mistaken identifications to the familiarity people have with Hamilton's name, but not his actual political role. And, while not real, "Thomas Moore" combines commonly used historical names, which may have prompted false familiarity.

Hubert Humphrey, a U.S. vice president and presidential candidate also got misidentified (39 percent of the time), as did John Calhoun, a vice president and senator (37 percent), and Benjamin Franklin, founding father and inventor (39 percent).

In another study published in the Nov. 28, 2014, issue of Science, Roediger and DeSoto, asked 577 adults ranging from 18-69 to name the U.S. presidents in the order they served. If the participants could remember the name of a U.S. president, but not when the person was in office, they were instructed to record the name regardless.

The results found that most respondents could name the first four U.S. presidents — George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison — but then the recall rate dropped significantly. Regardless of age, fewer than 25 percent of participants could name the sixth president or his successors. That is, until they reached Abraham Lincoln, the 16th U.S. president, and Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant, the 17th and 18th U.S. presidents.

These presidents were most likely memorable for their roles in the American Civil War and abolishment of slavery, but few participants were able to name later presidents — with the exception of No. 26 (Teddy Roosevelt), No. 27 (William Howard Taft) and No. 28 (Woodrow Wilson).

Of course, the most recent U.S. presidents had some of the highest recall rates, a factor researchers call the "recency effect."