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Monday, July 23, 2007

25 Greatest Americans in History (The Top Two!)

Undoubtedly, you've figured out who the top two Americans are on this list. But in what order? Before we get to that, let's wrap some things up. This post may appear long, but it's staggered, so it'll go rather quickly. I hope.

First, I couldn't fix the formatting in the last post. I am sorry. Blogspot has been acting up lately, and anyone using it knows what I'm talking about.

Second, regular commentary on presidential politics will resume this week, including tonight's intriguing Youtube debate, though I've already had ruminations about doing other lists, specifically a ranking of the U.S. Presidents, as well as early thoughts towards the most influential people of the last millennium, if not all of world history. After all, I teach world history so hopefully I know what I'm talking about.

Third, I've had several reader emails of late.

Darren from Washington DC said: Einstein was not American. He was German born and emigrated. The majority of his work was accomplished in Germany.

Fair enough point, Darren. Those are facts. However, I hope my explanation made sense to you. If not, we'll agree to disagree. More on Einstein...

Erin from Connecticut said: I agree with your inclusion of Einstein, I read an excellent article in Time that Einstein was so disgusted with Germany and Europe after the Holocaust that he only truly felt comfortable in the U.S. and believed strongly in the democratic foundations of this country.

That is a wonderful inclusion I did not mention in my Einstein entry. Thanks, Erin!

Jim, a high school history teacher and author, argues for an unranked 20th century President (I had him in the 36-50 category): I think you are selling Truman a little short. Ends WW II, architect of the Marshal Plan which deepened American power and influence, intervenes in the Greek Civil War, Berlin airlift/blockade, most ironic in this day and age, saw his popularity plummet during the Korean War because he staunchly refused to extend the war into China and start WW III (Imagine President Bush with a public wanting to see a war expanded), laid the ground work for future civil rights activity when he used executive power to desegregate the military after WW II, cold was begins under his watch and his policy of containment was followed, in various incarnation, for the remainder of the conflict and established U.S. relations with the new country of Israel.

Finally, Dave from Canterbury, CT, a university history professor, shared a well-thought out opinion here: Some really excellent picks on the list, and only a few atrocious ones. The atrocious ones were, of course, the uber-politically correct ones that every generation since 1970 or so has been indoctrinated into believing were far more special than they actually were. I mean, Jackie Robinson? He played baseball. A million other black men would have killed to have changed places with him and gotten to play professional ball for a major league team. He was just the first one lucky enough to have the opportunity. Was it tough? Sure. But there are a lot of people who live much harder lives than putting on a leather mitt and shagging fly balls for a living. They do it in total obscurity and never make a list. Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglas? Check world history. Equality was simply in the air in the nineteenth century. It was the zeitgeist. The serfs in Russia, for example, weren't freed until 1861, just two years before the Emancipation Proclamation. Napoleon freed many of the eastern European serfs. Opposition to the slave trade hit Britain earlier than the U.S., and agitation for Women's rights was universal on both sides of the Atlantic, too. What unique contribution did SBA or FD ever make? They were just saying what millions of other people had already said. In the meanwhile, think of the countless lives saved by American scientists. Lives changed by American inventors. Heck, imagine a world without television, personal computers, or the Internet. A world without transistors or jet airplanes, or even airplanes, for that matter. And what about culture? America has dominated world culture even more completely than Florence dominated the culture of the Renaissance or Athens dominated the culture of the Classical Age. Whose movies does the world watch? Whose music do they listen to?

Thanks for that, Dave, though I think you definitely sold Douglass short. Thanks to all readers for reading and to those that take the time to write. If you want to join them, just go to my profile near the top left and click email.

All right, we're getting to the final two. Here's a quick recap of the list:

25. Andrew Carnegie
24. John D. Rockefeller.
23. Alexander Graham Bell
22. Ulysses S. Grant
21. Thomas Paine
20. Jackie Robinson
19. John Marshall
18. Frederick Douglas
17. Teddy Roosevelt
16. Jonas Salk
15. Mark Twain
14. Susan B. Anthony
13. Ronald Reagan
12. Henry Ford
11. John Adams
10. Thomas Edison
9. James Madison
8. Albert Einstein
7. Ben Franklin
6. Thomas Jefferson
5. Alexander Hamilton
4. Franklin Delano Roosevelt
3. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Notes on the list:

Yes, I had only one woman (Anthony), three African-Americans (Robinson, Douglass, and King), and no other minorities, though I had each of these in the extended 26-50 section. Apologies to anyone who's offended. If you can honestly argue that Sandra Day O'Conner or Shirley Chisholm has been more important to America than anyone on my #21-25 entry, I'd love to hear it. I didn't make this list to fill quotas. Frankly, for better or worse, fair or not, the most influential people in this country's have been established, white men. If you'd like to argue that this is a travesty, all the power to you. The country could admittedly use a bit of critiquing, but it's how it is.

Some fun numbers. Of the 25:

Nine are Presidents, which frankly is probably low, considering they are the most powerful people in the country.
Seven are known for their contributions to the American Revolution and early America.
Five were known for their contributions to science, medicine, and technology.
Four were known for contributions to civil rights.
Three were known chiefly as entrepreneurs.
One was an athlete.
Though many had published works, only one is known chiefly as an author.

Ben Franklin was born the earliest (1706) and died the earliest (1790).
Martin Luther King was born most recently (1929). Ronald Reagan died most recently (2004).
As far as when they had their most significant contributions:
18th century: 6
19th century: 9
20th century: 10

All right, that's enough prologue. On to the finale.

The 25 Greatest Americans in History (The Top 2)

2. Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865; President) - No American and few people in history have taken a greater leap from relative obscurity to timeless infamy. Prior to the beginning of his Presidency in 1860, Abraham Lincoln's experience in federal government was as a one-term member of the House of Representatives. All other Presidents have been VP's, Governors, Senators, or Generals and almost all of them can't even come close to the greatness of the Lincoln Presidency. To give a frame of context, imagine any current freshman House member, or any former one-term house member being elected President, and then not just having any Presidency, but one of the most famous Presidencies in the history of the country, and then you get an idea of his leap from the Illinois State House to Mount Rushmore.

At possibly 7,000, there have been more books written on Lincoln than any other American. He is known as so many things. He is known as the Great Emancipator for his historic (at least for the United States) Emancipation Proclamation, freeing 3.5 million slaves. He saved the union by not ignoring the southern secession and the siege of Fort Sumter. He began the reconstruction of the United States in his final months of office and life. He wrote beautiful policy and moral speeches, addressing America's past (Founding Fathers) as well as being the inspiration and example for the future (King, Kennedy, et. al). His death might make him America's most famous martyr, and certainly in the top 3.

As stated earlier, what makes his forty-nine months as executive even more awe-inspiring is his complete lack of experience. He had no military experience, like Presidents Jackson, Harrison, and Taylor. He never worked in foreign lands like Adams, Jefferson, and Monroe. He wasn't a Vice-President like a handful of his predecessors. He was just a one term Congressman who handled the country's greatest crisis in a manner which can be described as no less than heroic and inspirational. (It makes you think how many better candidates we have for President who aren't nationally known...)

Obviously, this crisis was not easy. In the first months of his Presidency, grim report after grim report funneled into Lincoln's office from General-in-Chief Winfred Scott and Secretary of State William Seward and it took years for those reports to improve. States seceded. Battles lost. Soldiers dead. Confederacy advances. Farms destroyed. Blacks lynched. Union soldiers desert. Multi-day riots. Newspaper criticisms. Executive departments in disarray. Cabinet members on different pages. For years, the President received this news and forged forth.

The country was tired. Horace Greely famously remarked: "Our bleeding, bankrupt almost dying country longs for peace." In Lincoln's re-election campaign of 1864, his former general George McClellan ran against him. McClellan was one of many former Lincoln generals, mostly fired by Lincoln, when the slightest sniff of pessimism or subordination crept into their reports. Of course, you could not blame them. Unlike the colonial Americans of the Revolutionary War, the union victory could not be a stalemate. It was incumbent on the Union to invade and hold the South, an incredibly difficult task. Yet Lincoln forged forth.

The Union's eventual victory sealed the future of the United States as one country. The greatness that was to come could not have happened if the area between Canada and Mexico was two separate nations. The hypothetical argument that the country's similarities in language, culture, and religion would have inevitably brought the two sides back together is sound and plays a role in Lincoln not being #1. Moreover, the current northern half of the country, with New York, Chicago, and the rest would still be more populous than all but four countries in the world as well as be a top 5 economic power. But the top economic power (apologies to the emerging EU, still not a nation) and top military power? Not a chance if this country was split in two.

Lincoln preserved the Union, and by way of that freed the slaves. Those are two overwhelmingly important decisions in United States history and make him worthy to be #2 or even #1. At his height of historical popularity - that is, after he led the north to victory, after his Emancipation Proclamation, and after his dedication to the Thirteenth Amendment, while he was reconstructing the country, he was assassinated, forever frozen as one of the great Americans of all time.

And as if Lincoln was its great inspiration, the country forged forth.

1. George Washington (1732-1799; General of the Continental Army, First President, "Father" of the United States) - There are three paramount reasons why George Washington places at the top of this list of the 25 Greatest Americans in History.

1. He led the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, a war won by the American colonies when they weren't supposed to win. Lincoln was supposed to win the Civil War, FDR was supposed to propel the Allies to victory in World War II. The American soldiers were outnumbered, outspent, outfitted, under-experienced, under-equipped, and didn't even have the complete military support of their own people, with a sizeable portion of colonists (estimated as much as 1/3) still loyal to King George III. Similarly to Lincoln, though, Washington stood bravely in the dreariest of times and pushed his men forth when they had little reason to follow. Washington's tactics are not spectacular in nature, with nowhere near the generalship of an Alexander or Napoleon, but Washington as an example for the country is historically colossal.

2. As President of 1787's Constitutional Convention, Washington oversaw the official and unofficial debates and squabbling of Madison, Adams, Hamilton, and the rest of the Framers. While Washington himself did not have the intellectual output of these other names, whenever he contributed input, he had unrivaled attention. Moreover, his place as head of the Convention was a constant reminder of what the country had fought for, and kept public support for a Constitution despite constant disagreements between states and factions.

3. There was never another choice for first President of the United States. As still the only unanimous President ever elected, a feat he repeated in 1792, Washington is inarguably the most popular figure of their time in American history. While there were no official public opinion polls of the time, it's safe to say no American politician has had closer to a 100% approval rating for such a sustained length of time.

The popularity was well deserved. The United States is most fortunate that this was the first President. With an unsettled position, a lesser man could have taken many more liberties with the rank as chief executive, the most famous of which was the traditional two-term limit, which absolutely shocked European monarchs and aristocrats. It was such an odd decision - so out of its time - to step down from power.

Moreover, look at the history of beginning nations in South America and Africa. Even those with democratic governments and constitutions, it was all too easy for a military dictatorship to develop. Washington's early leadership and his example of an American president are crucial, undeniably crucial, in United States history. A lesser man might have meant a lesser country; a country that wouldn't be worth saving by Abraham Lincoln, a country that wouldn't allow a Martin Luther King speech in its capital, a country where the American dream is not realized by entrepreneurs or where education is free for young scientists, inventors, and doctors, a country where all of the above would not have been an example to be emulated by the rest of the world. The democratic revolution, now commonplace across the civilized world, owed its inspiration to the Americans. And the Americans owed their inspiration to George Washington.

The ranking of Washington over Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Franklin, and Hamilton is simple. True enough, he was not as brilliant as those men - few in the world were - nor could he write laws and form political arguments like them. But exactly when the country needed it, he provided leadership. Washington was the only man that all of these egomaniacs would freely and unquestionably play the role of second fiddle. Those men advised him, and then George Washington made the decision.

He is the unquestioned father of the country, and has been known as such for 230 years. No man played a bigger role in American independence, and the world - the world - views him as the quintessential example of a national founder.

For these reasons, George Washington is the greatest American in history.

Thanks for reading.


The Culture King said...

Overall, a solid list. As per usual, your hard on ..sorry..."passion"....for the executive branch blinds you to the work of people whose pub has't come from Prentice Hall and MCgraw Hill for the past 80 years.

IC said...

You know me better than to insinuate that my sole reading on the subject has come from the likes of textbooks. My disinfatuation with text books is the reason I graduated high school with a 2.4 GPA. My love of research and topical nonficton is the reason I turned it around in college and found myself drawn to history.

Look at it this way, if someone were to write a book on the 3rd millenium Red Sox, and asked who their best cluch hitter has been, a contrarian would read an interesting and persuasive piece on Bill Mueller and swear it was him. Meanwhile, I'd look at all the evidence and probably say similar things about the identical answer a Prentice Hall textbook would say on the subject: David Ortiz.

Nice job on the movies list...

Peter S. said...

These list things being highly subjective, I won't quibble with your choices, except to say I'm grateful and impressed that you ommitted the Kennedy clan from the top 25. Also, I would implore you to consider William F. Buckley's contributions to a movement that gave us intellect and wit, while elucidating for the inquisitive and obtuse alike the true meaning of libertarianism, which had precious little to do with conservatism as we know it today. And remember, without Buckley, no Goldwater, without Goldwater, no Reagan.

Jonathan said...

IC, these are very interesting!!!

Anonymous said...

A pretty good, albeit unsurprising, list overall, but two things:

1) Where is Norman Borlaug? Hugh Hefner cracks your top 50 but not the man who saved the lives of literally a billion people? Nikola Tesla also is a glaring omission.

2) Not so much the list itself, but I must object somewhat to the way you explain your choices. To me, much of the fun in reading or making a list like this is in seeing the author weigh the dark sides of these figures against their accomplishments, yet you seem to talk about the good parts of their legacy only. You mention Madison's incompetence as President, but that's about it. You have FDR at #4-fine, he led the nation through two of its greatest crises, but you ignore the dark side of his presidency, like internment of Japanese-, German-, and Italian-Americans. You've got Ford at #12-fair enough, he did revolutionize the way business works quite fundamentally, but you don't even mention his support for Hitler. Reagan's #13-OK, although I'm a liberal, I still acknowledge Reagan's role in ending the Cold War and resurrecting faith in the American government after the Vietnam, Watergate, and Carter's general incompetence, and you do at least acknowledge the failure of the Star Wars initiative, but what about his invasion of Grenada? What about Iran-Contra (among many other scandals)? Your #17 is Teddy Roosevelt-alright, he made the U. S. a world power and was the first true progressive President, but you totally leave out his imperialist policies.

TL;DR: The point of a list like this, to me, is not just to talk about the great things people did, but also to weigh them against the not-so-great things. Your list, I feel, loses a lot of that by glossing over the negative parts of these people's legacy.

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