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Friday, July 20, 2007

25 Greatest Americans in History (6-3)

#6. Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826; author of the Declaration of Independence, Secretary of State, President) - There has been no more talented writer in American History, apologies to Twain, both Kennedies (John and Robert), both Kings (Martin and Culture), and Lincoln.

"We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independant, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these ends, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government shall become destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, & to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles & organising its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety & happiness." - Thomas Jefferson, original pre-amble to Declaration of Independence, 1776

This idea, though mostly derived from
John Locke, was the first time it was written into the basis for a government. True, it's not actually part of law in the United States, written 11 years before Madison's Constitution, but the ideas behind it is what makes it so influential. What's forgotten by many when dismissing the importance of America's Founding Fathers is the effect they had on the entire world subsequent to their endeavor. For example, the French Revolution, though only momentarily successful (and even successful is a liberal words to use there) would not have happened if it were not for the American Revolution. Numerous republican (little r) governments have sprouted in the last 200+ years after America paved the way. The world changed from autocracy-based governments to democracy-based governments. What else is important in this world if not people exercising their right of choice?

Jefferson's penning of the Declaration, with limited help from the rest of the
Committee of Five, sparked the world. The spark ushered in the world wide flame we know of now, with less and less areas of the world untouched by democratic ideals. The Greek quasi-democracy and Roman Republic were isolated in history, with a thousand years of darkness after them. The ideals of America, however, have permeated the rest of the world through current day and into the foreseeable future.

(Early American History tangent: Of course, there will always be one-dimensional nay-sayers and contrarians who argue that since Jefferson said, "All men are created equal," but, "All white males are created equal," is what sprang, that this ideology is not that significant in history. Frankly, we cannot expect that suffrage for women and freedom for blacks were realistic at all in late 18th century America, nor can we expect the leaders of the time to be so far removed from the thoughts of the people.)

First, do you think the southern colonies go along for the ride if freedom for blacks was guaranteed? Of course not. And if the Mid-Atlantic and New England colonies decided to forge ahead on their own, would the Revolution have been successful? Unlikely. Would America then be the strong force with which we are comfortable? No. And if this American Revolution against a monarchy, as limited as it was, was unsuccessful, how many future nation-states would have followed that example of failure? Probably not many. Then what type of world would we live in? A completely different one. Therefore, I can only conclude that setting aside such radical ideas as women's suffrage and emancipated slaves would have killed the Revolution on the spot, and the greater good would have died with it.

After all, could we ignore similar limited documents in history because they were less than perfect? Is 1215's Magna Carta less of a document because a full-fledged Republic wasn't set up in England? No way. It was a crucial step in the right direction; a necessary point in history. Some issues take time to develop before enough support can be fostered. In 50 years, gay marriage will be legal and the death penalty will be abolished in America and both will be looked on as archaic laws, but if a national politician were to stand up right now and demand those changes, before the country is ready, than 50 years becomes 100.)

Jefferson's service to his country after 1776 is also important. He served as minister to France in the late 1780's, missing the writing of the Constitution, but pushing from afar his friend James Madison for a Bill of Rights. He served as Washington's first-term Secretary of State, a crucial position in the country's first four years. It was during this time he first started to establish his anti-Federalist platform in opposition to Alexander Hamilton's strong Federalism. A loss to John Adams in the election 1796 (and as a result Vice-President under Adams), brought him back into politics before his victory over Adams in the election of 1800.

His Presidency is one of the most successful. He rolled back much of Adams' Federalist policies. He about doubled the size of the country with the largest peaceful transaction of land in history (
Louisiana Purchase), which though a fortuitous development for the Jefferson Administration, cannot be denied significance in American history.

And yet, despite all of Jefferson's accomplishments, the first accomplishment he wished written on his epitaph was as author of the Declaration of Independence, and there is no subsequent mention of his presidency on it. He understood the importance of the document, and so should we.

#5.
Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804; Political theorist, de-facto Chief-Of-Staff, Secretary of the Treasury) - At least on this list, Hamilton is the champion of the political debaters of the Revolution. Changing alliances and heated rhetoric continually put a strain on the relationships between Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison, and Adams, and to a lesser extent, John Jay and Aaron Burr.

While many might recognize him from the ten-dollar bill, I think that his lack of a Presidency makes him the forgotten Founding Father, especially with the recent renaissance of interest in John Adams. Without a strong enough base in American history and political thought, it's difficult to comprehend his significance on America, and I'm finding it hard to articulate his importance without becoming repetitive with my language used for Adams, Madison, Franklin, and Jefferson. You know what that means? Bullets!

(In descending order of significance)
  • He was killed by having a duel (!) with Vice-President Burr
  • He created the first political party in the country (Federalist Party)
  • He was General Washington's personal assistant in the Revolutionary War
  • He co-authored the Federalist Papers with James Madison and John Jay
  • He was President Washington's closest advisor and his second best speech writer (after Jefferson). In fact, Washington almost always went with the advice of Hamilton.
  • He was the first Treasury Secretary of the United States
  • He was, along with Jefferson, Madison, Adams, and Franklin, incalculably important in the evolution of political thought in America

The last four are related. He realized that the United States would not be able to get off the ground without a complete overhaul of the national treasury, which he articulated in his Four Pillars. Its most famous suggestion, a national bank of the United States, was met with much criticism from Madison and Jefferson, who did not want the central government to have that much power.

If one wanted to boil down the internal disagreements of early America into one issue, it was the strength of the federal government. Hamilton and Adams wanted a strong central government and formed the Federalist Party, while Madison and especially Jefferson wanted a weak central government with more hands in the power of the states and the people, forming the Anti-Federalist faction that eventually became known as the Democratic-Republicans. If one looks at the outcome of this dispute, including Adams' defeat in 1800, as well as the
Virginia Dynasty that saw Jefferson, Madison, and Madison's Secretary of State James Monroe hold the Presidency for 24 straight years, and the crumbling of the Federalist Party, then one thinks that Hamilton lost and Jefferson won.

But if you look at the subsequent history of the United States, it was mostly Hamilton's ideals that were followed. Interestingly enough, it was at the heart of the Virginia Dynasty where the tide swung to Hamilton, though he had been dead for a decade. After the War of 1812, it became clear that a strong national government was necessary to be a player on the world stage. James Madison himself eventually copied Hamilton's ideas with the national bank, federal tariffs, a national infrastructure, and a standing army and navy.

So the U.S. did indeed set up a national bank, one that was proven efficient and welcomed when it was renewed under Andrew Jackson, after the bank's 20-year trial period. And the Federal government did become stronger than the state governments. The northern based, strong central government supporting Federalist Party gave way to the short-lived Whig Party, which gave way to the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln, which won most national elections after 1856.

Can you imagine the United States where statehood was more important than the nation? Would the nation be nearly as strong, economically or militarily, if the advice of Hamilton was not heeded? The 20th century, the century of American dominance, saw a President use national powers to get the country out of debt (financial), and eradicate Europe of Hitler's menace (military), as well as future Presidents make a run into space and win the race to the moon (production and pride). This is all thanks to a strong, coordinated central government... which was the dream of Alexander Hamilton.

#4.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945; Governor, President) - One President a century has defined a nation. For the 20th century, it was FDR.

No President before or since the establishment of Mount Rushmore has made a greater case to be its fifth face. His role in domestic and foreign affairs are the most sweeping since Lincoln, and modern day America and the world would be a distinctly different place without his contribution.

In the U.S., he inherited the Great Depression. His New Deal made far-reaching changes (some unconstitutional) in an effort to kick-start the economy. His implementation of dozens of acronymed agencies federalized numerous employment programs. Almost immediately, the country's Gross Domestic Product
began to rise. Most notable among his changes was Social Security, now an integral (and expensive) part of American life. Roosevelt also began the revolution and revitalization of the modern Democratic Party, eventually leading to Presidents Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, and Clinton.

Outside of the U.S., though of course affecting the U.S., was his intervention in World War II. Even before Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt involved the U.S. financially in Europe, supporting the democratic countries (
Lend-Lease Act) of the Allies against the fascist regimes in Axis German and Italy. His "Arsenal of Democracy" fireside chat rallied Detroit and the rest of the country to turn out arms and make sacrifices to insure the survival of Europe against Hitler's Nazi influence. After Japan's bombing of Pearl Harbor, which drew in the United States militarily, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill remarked, as soon as he heard the news, that the Japanese attack won World War II for the allies.

The remarkable turnaround of the American economy became complete during World War II, as the homefront rallied to support the troops on the front line. There was full American employment, a laughably quixotic thought ten years earlier, and the country's economy turned into one of the world's most wealthy. It was one of America's great turning points, and all it took was three terms from President Roosevelt (elected to, but dying shortly thereafter, a fourth term, Roosevelt is still the only President to serve more than two terms, and it looks to remain that way since the ratification of the
22nd Amendment).

At the conclusion of World War II, his presence at the
Yalta Conference and his role in the forming of the United Nations ensured his place not only as an all time influential American, but an all time influential citizen of the world.

#3.
Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968; Minister, orator, Civil Rights leader) - All right, for this one, I'm calling in the inspiration for the list itself. Here is The Culture King, one of the smartest people I know, making the case for his #1, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

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“Rage, Rage at the Dying of the Light”-Dylan Thomas

Despite the end of slavery by 1865, the social ramifications of the early period of America have never really gone away. In fact, the Wilson Administration’s ability to reinstall the dogmatic nature of White Supremacy oversaw the socialization of racism across the United States. This effectively erased the small gains made by civil rights activists since the end of reconstruction in 1877. Something needed to explode, a leader needed to be found.

“Man was born into barbarism when killing his fellow man was a normal condition of existence. He became endowed with a conscience. And he has now reached the day when violence toward another human being must become as abhorrent as eating another's flesh.” Martin Luther King, Jr., Why We Can't Wait, 1963.

By the 1950’s, America was the height of hypocrisy for the entire world. It called for the triumph of Capitalism over Communism, Freedom over Tyranny, while doing little to end the oppression and exploitation of African Americans and other minorities across the Deep South and beyond. The voice of the voiceless had been suppressed. The work of Washington, Franklin, Adams, Jay, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, Lincoln and TR was all for not.
Why?

“Injustice anywhere threatens justice anywhere” Martin Luther King Jr. Letters from a Birmingham Jail, 1963

This is why Dr. King is such an important person in the history of the USA. The impact that King makes from 1955 to 1968 (with his words and actions) toward the mental/emotional progression of American society constitutes a social revolution of epic proportions. He helps to establish a status quo that is the closest America has ever gotten to fulfilling its promise. Not only did Dr. King’s message echo the statesmen who helped create America, but the view of humans as rational and peaceful. King’s emphasis on non-violent protest took the words of Jefferson and Lincoln to the next level. In a time chaos, King chose peace as the most effective tool to bring order. His message was simple, and he stated in perhaps the greatest speech ever made.

"Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted." Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love, 1963.

It can be said that if King chose not to take the leadership mantle during the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, you never see the creation of the Civil Rights Movement, the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, or the Voting Rights Act of 1965. If he chose not to lead the SCLC, the nation would never have seen the creation of the Chicano Rights Movement, the American Indian Movement, The Anti-War Movement, the LGBT Rights Movement, and the Modern Women’s Movement…let alone the countless social justice organizations that exist today…especially the SPJL. The fact is, all these movements co-opted the basic ideas and structure of the organizations Dr. King ran or helped create for the Civil Rights Movement. That is 40 years of social activism that has America on verge of actually living up to notion of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all Americans.

Few Americans also recognize that King’s actions and words inspired entire generations of people to challenge an oppressive status quo or seek peaceful solutions across the globe. Activists in Jamaica, England, France, Slovakia, Germany, Argentina, Brazil, Ireland, Kenya, and South Africa (just to name a few) looked to follow Dr. King’s lead in changing life for its citizens in the face of violence. Dr. King’s message became a global message.

I would argue that without Dr. King, the society we live in today would be Far More evil in nature. Dr. King helped create the path so many of us want this world to follow. Thus, my continued belief that Dr. King is the greatest American ever.
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So there you have it. A spirited entry.

I'm busy this weekend, so the top two will have to wait until Monday. Thanks for reading!

IC out

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