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Tuesday, July 17, 2007

25 Greatest Americans in History (20-16)


20. Jackie Robinson (1919-1972; second baseman) - It is rare that an athlete makes a lasting impact in his sport, changing the way the game is played. Pitchers Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson were so good that Major League Baseball had to lower the mound. Knute Rockne, coach of Notre Dame, popularized the forward pass in American football, now a regular play in the sport. Center George Mikan forced the NBA to enact the three-second violation for standing in the lane, and widened the lane for good measure. Athletes who can make an entire league amend itself is indeed a rare feat.

Rarer still is the athlete who makes a country amend itself. To date, Jackie Robinson is the only American athlete to realize such an accomplishment (though some could make a case for Ruth). The fact is that Jackie Robinson ending the eighty-year segregation of baseball in 1947 came well before Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and the Civil Rights Movement of the 60's. It was before Brown vs. Board. It was before Truman's desegregation of the military. Think of all the animosity felt by segregationists during each of those subsequent events to Robinson. Think of all the violence and hatred felt towards African-Americans during the 60's. Now remember that before anyone softened the ground, it was Jackie doing the softening, and as a traveling baseball player, he wasn't limited to a city or a region; he was doing it all over the country.

Therefore, while Jackie Robinson might be the only athlete on this Top 25, let us not forget that as much as an athlete he was a civil rights activist. Still, his occupation? He was a second baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

19. John Marshall (1755-1835; Congressman, Secretary of State, Chief Justice) - Justice Marshall is a name very few Americans are familiar with and he has played an immense role in American government that even fewer realize. As Chief Justice, a position turned down by John Jay (after he had already served it once) because it lacked esteem and viability, he shaped the Supreme Court to something we are more familiar with. (Editor's Note: Speaking of John Jay, he should have received an honorable mention from me yesterday. Apologies to the Jay family.)

The changes he led during his 35-year tenure (a record in length) as Chief Justice each evolved the court, but none so much as the landmark Marbury vs. Madison case, which was the first instance of the Supreme Court overruling Congress. In other words, the branch designed to be the weakest (judicial) overruled the branch designed to be the strongest (legislative). Moreover, President Thomas Jefferson, leading the executive branch, disagreed with Marshall's ruling, but that was constitutionally irrelevant. Marshall spearheaded the establishment of judicial review, which is crucial when one discussed checks in balances, one of the core tenants of United States Government.

18. Frederick Douglass (1818-1895; Statesman, orator, editor, author, abolitionist) - Frederick Douglass was born a slave in 1818. He died 78 years later, hours after receiving a standing ovation. Yeah, that's about right.

Upon his escape from slavery to New York at age 20, Douglass almost immediately began making an impact. Within three years he was giving speeches, telling of his life as a slave and inspiring thousands of whites and blacks in the north. His autobiography reprinted nine times and was translated into French and Dutch. He went overseas to the Ireland and orated to packed churches and chapels.

In his forties, he was meeting with Lincoln throughout his presidency and advised President Andrew Johnson on the constitutional amendment to grant African-Americans voting rights. Think about that. A black man in the 1860's meeting with and advising Presidents. His public push for civil rights, a hundred years before Martin Luther King, and at a time when slavery (slavery!) was ongoing or still fresh in Americans' memory, is unquestionably one of the bravest and awing actions in the history of this country.

A standing ovation, indeed.

17. Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919; Rough Rider, Governor, President) - The forgotten member of Mount Rushmore clocks in at #17, despite possibly being one of this country's five most successful Presidents. The best way to concisely arrange all of the deeds of an accomplishing presidency is to write them one after another. From 1901-1909...

He regained power from Congress lost during Reconstruction and weak Presidents (indeed his was the most significant Presidency since at least Grant and maybe Lincoln). He became apolitical (temporarily), stressing government over party. He worked against cronyism in Congress. He fought for the elimination of corporate campaign contributions (paging John McCain). He broke up the railroad trusts. He enacted the Pure Food and Drug Act, cleaning up an incredibly dirty meatpacking industry. He transformed 230 million acres of land into national parks and is one of the all time leading conservationists in this country's history. He waved his big stick in Latin America, keeping Germany out of Venezuela and breaking ground in Panama (Roosevelt Corollary). He built a navy to rival that of Great Britain's. He mediated several overseas conflicts between world powers.

Ultimately, he made the United States an unquestioned world power itself. Fittingly, he took over just nine months into the 20th century, a century that would eventually give way to Wilson, FDR, Truman, and Reagan to continually build this country into the world's foremost and now only superpower (though the EU and China look to be making runs any decade now). (One hundred years and three days after his ascension to the Presidency, an attack on the United States gave cause to another President to extend the Roosevelt Corollary all over the world.)

16. Jonas Salk (1914-1995; physician) - Like Alexander Graham Bell yesterday, this does not need much expansion. Polio can be fatal, and short of that, cause serious havoc on a person's body, including paralysis. It often spread throughout both poor and affluent neighborhoods without pattern. Dr. Salk's 1955 cure of the paralyzing virus, which before his vaccine was infecting hundreds of thousands of people a year, probably makes him this country's most popular physician in history. Within two years of his vaccine, United States cases were cut 85-90%. The near eradication of polio around the world is one of medicine's great accomplishments.


See you tomorrow for numbers 11-15, where we'll find two more Presidents as well as the Top 25's only woman.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What an analysis! Y'oughta write a book or something.

And what courage! No such list will ever please everyone, though I suppose George Washington wouldn't argue with it. Lincoln, maybe, and J.W. Booth for sure. I think a hat tip to Jackie Robinson would suffice, and what about Al Sharpton?

You get bonus points for spelling Douglass right, while the Professor of Canturbury should get demoted to a high school in Arkansaw.

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