Paul  Kengor

V&V: Dr. Kengor, tell us about your talk, your motivation for the talk, and how it applies today.

Dr. Paul Kengor: Throughout American history our presidents have invoked our nation’s founding fathers. This is particularly true of recent presidents. Which founders have these presidents cited—and why? What did, say, President Reagan’s view of George Washington, or President Clinton’s view of Thomas Jefferson, tell us about their view of America and where they intended to lead the country?

In many cases, it told us a lot about the president. That being the case, the thought begged a question in my mind: Which founders are being cited by the two presidential nominees today, and what does that tell us about our next president?

V&V: How did you research these questions?

Kengor: With the superb research help of Jarrett Skorup, one of our talented student fellows at the Center for Vision & Values, and Mallory Sampson, another of my students, I looked at modern presidents, going back to JFK. We picked six of the most frequently cited founders: Adams, Franklin, Patrick Henry, Jefferson, Madison, and Washington. We tossed in Abraham Lincoln. Yes, Lincoln wasn’t there in 1776, but Lincoln really is, in so many ways, a founder, and certainly was motivated to preserve, extend, and ensure those founding principles more than any other president. If you need a quick lesson on how, go read the Gettysburg Address.

For each president, we searched the number of times that he mentioned these founders. Our source was the official Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, also known among presidential scholars as simply “The Presidential Papers,” which is the comprehensive collection, published by the GPO, of every presidential speech, statement, press conference, interview, you name it. This is not a perfect method, for reasons I won’t go into here, but it is generally accurate. For the current presidential candidates, we used sources like Google.

V&V: What did you find? Which modern presidents cited which founders?

Kengor: The presidents varied in the degree to which they cited the founders. Some, like JFK, LBJ, Nixon, and Clinton, cited them somewhat frequently, in the range of 100 to 200 times, though, regrettably, not in a thematic or notably profound or even interesting way. Others, like Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, cited them rarely.