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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

25 Greatest Americans in History (15-11)

Let me offer this caveat: I was up until 4:30 AM watching CSPAN2 and got very little sleep. I'm still watching as I write this, so I hope this is intelligible.

#15. Mark Twain (1835-1910; Author) - From the Mark Twain House: "Mark Twain is arguably America's greatest writer. He was a renowned novelist, humorist, and social and political commentator. Twain is recognized worldwide as an icon of American literature, culture and history. His writings have been translated in over 75 languages and are studied by students throughout the world. In America's schools, Twain's works are studied more than those of any other author of fiction."

Not much more to say. He was the first great American novelist, though I reserve the title of America's greatest writer for someone to come later in this list.

#14. Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906; Civil Rights Leader) - There was no greater voice for woman's suffrage in this country's history. Considering that's approximately 50% of the voting constituency, I'd say she's rather significant.

After illegally casting a vote for President in the election of 1872, she was arrested and sent to trial. Her defense? The fourteenth amendment, intended to grant African-American men the right to vote, which stated that all "persons" were granted the right to vote.

During the trial, she rose to give an infamous speech, citing said amendment, the Preamble, three dictionaries, and the collective consciousness of a country in an effort to persuade the jury that she committed no crime when casting her ballot. The infamous speech on woman's suffrage had the clearest of points: "...I not only committed no crime, but, instead, simply exercised my citizen's rights, guaranteed to me and all United States citizens by the National Constitution, beyond the power of any state to deny."

Unfortunately, the judge pre-arranged a guilty verdict. Still, her memorable words on the woman's right to vote echoed through the decades, and eventually, 48 years after the speech and fourteen years after her death, her dream was realized.

#13. Ronald Reagan (1911-2004; Governor, President) - Arguments? There should be. The most divisive figure of the Top 25 is also the one who affected this country most recently (1980's) and died most recently (2004). In sum, history has not yet drawn enough conclusions on him. In one hundred years, when partisan politics and fresh memories are eliminated from critics, there will be a much more unified evaluation of the Reagan Administration. For now, Democrats will chew me out for having him on this list at all and Republicans will ask why he's not in the top 5. (And for those of you who've discussed him with Republicans, you know this is no exaggeration.) It's rather appropriate that he's ranked in the exact middle of the Top 25.

Therefore, I will do my best objectively describe his eventful presidency.

Eventful it was. Though Barry Goldwater started the neoconservative movement in 1964, and Newt Gingrich saw its realization in 1994, neither would be relevant without Reagan's two-term Presidency from 1981-1989. Reagan wanted to give power back to the people. Since FDR's New Deal, Reagan said, the people became dependent on government to function and it was time for government to get out of the way. His domestic tactic of cutting taxes and reducing the size of government became famously known as Reagonomics, and it (very) arguably whipped inflation and eroded unemployment that was rampant during the Carter administration.

Of course, that was only for domestic policy. His foreign policy is much more significant in history. He presided over the end of the Cold War and the downfall of the Soviet Union, which he unabashedly dubbed The Evil Empire. That label was part of a greater ideological strategy against the communist USSR. The laughable Star Wars SDI project, to this day incomplete and unproven, was more of a source of intimidation than legitimate missile shield. The already crumbling Soviet Empire, still stinging from losing the space race, from spending way too much energy in Reagan-backed Afghanistan, not to mention numerous Reagan backed anti-communism movements around the world, was a step down in class from the United States and started to realize it. Reagan used the Soviet's drop in confidence to negotiate with Premier Gorbachev to begin to slow nuclear proliferation and eventually diminish active nuclear warhead counts from both countries.

Without the Reagan Presidency, it can be argued how much longer the Cold War and the Soviet Union would have lasted. It can also be argued that Reaganomics did more harm than good. However, hypotheticals aside, Reagan presided over one of the most important period in American history.

#12. Henry Ford (1863-1947; Inventor, entrepreneur) - One of America's greatest 20th century strengths is her productivity and economy, and for that, Henry Ford is responsible. As the "Father of the modern assembly line," he greatly refined mass production to the point where his factories were the most efficient the world had ever seen.

Lost in the infamy of his assembly line and his Model T are two other success stories. First, he pioneered the automobile "franchise system." Through this system, he put a Ford dealership in every major city across the United States, as well as at least one Ford dealership on each of the six habitable continents. This consistent availability and visibility of the Ford product perpetuated the company's dominance in the industry. So while Ford invested an extraordinary amount of money, he saw more than enough return, which became the goal and tactic of countless American entrepreneur's since.

Second, as one of the first to use welfare capitalism, Ford showed all capitalists that it was possible to treat and pay workers well and have that actually be for the good of the company and overall profit. When he announced his infamous "5 dollar day" program (more than double what his employees were earning), and the five day, 40-hour work week with which we are so familiar with, employees became much more productive. The extra pay hired and kept the best and hardest workers, all but eliminating costly employee turnover. Ford was also shrewd enough to realize that, since he employed so many, if they were healthily compensated, they could afford the very cars they were creating, thereby selling more cars.

Brilliant!

#11. John Adams (1735-1826; Representative at Constitutional Congress, author, minister plenipotentiary, first Vice-President, second President; loving husband) - Washington led the army, Jefferson wrote the Declaration, Madison the Constitution, and Franklin brought the French. Adams, meanwhile, fought for Washington's appointment, assisted Jefferson and Madison in both those documents, and tempered and supplemented Franklin across the Atlantic. Simply, behind every significant event in early America, John Adams was there.

As one of the earliest and most vocal revolutionaries, Adams fought for every scrap of American liberty he could corral. His ranking just outside the top 10 is because he was a relatively unaccomplished President, except for two significant decisions, one being the most underrated moment in American history, which I will get to in short order. A Jeffersonian or Jacksonian presidency, complete with two terms and far-reaching accomplishments, would have had Adams mentioned in the same breath as the all time Americans. Make no mistake, however, that as of 1800, he was important as anyone in America's Revolution. In fact, part-time rival Thomas Jefferson himself explicitly wrote, "The man to whom the country is most indebted for the great measure of independence is Mr. John Adams."

A quick lead up to Revolution timeline:

1765-Writes A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law, opposing the Stamp Act.
1770-On principle, Adams the lawyer defends British soldiers after the Boston massacre, a very unpopular act. (He went on to say that this moment was, "the most important act I took on behalf of the nation")
1774-As a member of the First Continental Congress, he argued at length against Parliament's legislative authority over the colonies.
1776-He chaired the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence, though left most of the writing to Jefferson, and then demanded unanimous support from the states.
1776-Became the earliest proponent of checks and balances instead of a single assembly.

As stated, his Presidency was less impressive, but there were two significant events that would change the course of the country's political path. First, when most of the country and all of his Federalist Party wanted a full-fledged war with France, Adams perspicaciously refused, which probably cost him re-election. Second, a decision that would alter the course of not just American history, but the history of the world. Is is the most underrated moment in American history.

In the election of 1800, John Adams lost his re-election bid to Thomas Jefferson. It marked the first time a United Stated President lost an election. Undeniably, it was an unprecedented moment in human history. An executive, a commander-in-chief of the armed forces, was expected to leave office because he was voted out of it.

And he did.

Now, it might not seem like that big of a deal in the modern political era. Presidential and parliamentary systems have sprouted up across the world. It is, of course, completely normal for leaders to be voted out of office. But back then? Leaders either left on their own accord (Washington in 1797), or they left because they died (autocrats for millennia).

Moreover, the U.S. Constitution was set up that a President would lose in November, but the inauguration of the next President was not until the following March (now January 20). Therefore, a President, after losing his re-election, had five months remaining in power, a timespan where he was still in constitutional control of the army, among other executive functions. Now, in the annals of history to that point, how many world leaders, in control of the army, would have left their executive office if asked? Not many, folks. Not many.

Therefore, he set a remarkable precedent. A leader gets kicked out of power and quietly exits into the night. Any different action would have forever altered American history, and more than likely change the democratic ideals for which America stands.


All right, now we head into the Top 10. I'll see you tomorrow for numbers 6-10, where we'll find two more Presidents as well as a controversial inclusion, as his nationality is up for debate. See you then.

9 comments:

The Culture King said...

Nice to see you included Satan. I love your Prentice Hall version of history.

IC said...

I write as a moderate, you know that.

df said...

You may write as a moderate, but even so, Reagan? REAGAN at number 13!? First of all, he gets way too much credit for the fall of the Soviet Union. It was changing within and the change would have been inevitable. We can thank Gorbachev for his policies of perestroika and glasnost for sparking the changes. Reagan did an incredible amount of damage to our foreign policy credibility by supporting the Contras in Nicaragua and invading Grenada. A Caribbean island that was building an airport with Cuban assistance. The only good thing he did was appoint Sandra Day O'Connor to the Supreme Court.

IC said...

And there we have it. Comments from two liberals. And if a conservative decided to comment, they'd demand him being placed higher. How can I ignore half the country? What makes you guys right and all of them wrong? That's rather Bushist if you ask me.

df said...

I understand Reagan is very polarizing and his actions are as well. Why is he ranked so much higher than JFK who did about as much damage to our FP with the Bay of Pigs yet he also spearheaded the governments shift toward the Civil Rights Movement. How are you weighting these accomplishments?

IC said...

I'll get into it - maybe tomorrow - but way to argue for the liberal over the conservative. Any 20th century Republicans ranked high on your list?

sptmck said...

I'm with the culture king on this one: did you overdose on sniffing the pages of the new Prentice Hall history books you should've given to your students? No wonder you looked so dazed and confused.

IC said...

As predicted...

darren said...

It would depend on what I was rating. Nixon, Reagan, Newt Gingrich all did things with unintended, yet extremely important consequences. Eisenhower is arguably one of the most important 20th century Repubs for establishing the national highway system, improving transport and commerce, which then created the suburbs and basically renewed the modern American dream. Senator McCarthy was definitely an important figure. I'm not sure if I'd call them great Americans, but certainly some of their actions improved the country (whether through intentional action or by learning from their mistakes is arguable and probably falls down party lines).

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