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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.

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.

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.

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.

“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.

“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.

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

Thursday, July 19, 2007

25 Greatest Americans in History (10-7)

(Editor's note: I was very short on time, so unfortunately I had to keep the word count down. I also only had time for four today. So tomorrow I'll do 3-6, and Saturday I'll finish with the top two.)

10. Thomas Edison (1847-1931; inventor) - He had 85 birthdays and 1,093 patents. His first patent was in 1869 and he averaged nearly 18 patents a year until the day he died. It is one of the greatest streaks of ingenuity in world history. He is mostly remembered for the long-lasting light bulb, but it doesn't nearly end there. Here is a list of all Edison patents. As you scroll over all of them, his greatness really sinks in.

9. James Madison (1751-1836; author, Father of the Constitution, Speaker of the House, Secretary of State, President) - I wrote a bit on Madison and the founding fathers during Fourth of July week, and I'll very briefly revisit those thoughts for this list, but to get the full idea, click on that link.

Madison authored more than one third of the Federalist Papers, which is one of the most brilliant political science works in the history of the discipline. In it, he argued for the ratification of the Constitution. Speaking of the Constitution (I cringe at the segueway), he wrote it. With some help from peers, he was the principle author of it, including the Bill of Rights. Therefore, he is known as the "father" of both.

These are the basic laws of America itself! The Constitution. The Bill of Rights. They're not only the rule of law in America, but the United States Constitution has been emulated by numerous governments across the world. It's one of America's greatest exports. The country and the world have James Madison to thank.

He was a leading member of the House in the 1790's, working with Washington and his cabinet through the first years of the United States. He went on to serve as Jefferson's Secretary of State, which included playing a key roll during the Louisiana Purchase.

Finally, his two-term Presidency (1809-1817) is nothing too impressive, and it only plays a slight role in his inclusion on this list (His penning of the Constitution, Bill of Rights, and Federalist Papers are more than enough for a top 10 spot). In fact, in my brief experience as a fledgling presidential historian, I rank him in the bottom quartile of U.S. Presidents.

His presidency was weak. Speaker of the House Henry Clay and his War Hawks practically ran the country, which included another war with Great Britain, the War of 1812. During this war, Madison, as commander-in-chief, was the great evacuator, getting the heck out of Washington before the British came and burned the White House to the ground. The war was a terrible idea, as the British were undoubtedly eager to get revenge for the American Revolution. Madison's presidency had little power over his divided cabinet, disrespectful governors, and militiamen who would not fight outside their respective states like they would for General and President Washington.

Still, thanks to able leadership from two future Presidents, Generals Andrew Jackson and William Henry Harrison, the United States was able to hold off the British long enough for them to grow tired from the American invasion and defending against Napoleon. The U.S. survived... but not thanks to President Madison.

8. Albert Einstein (1879-1955; physicist, a real Einstein) - Like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Albert Einstein was not born in the America but became an American. And that's where the comparison ends.

Look, I know this will be a controversial inclusion. After all, Einstein was German born. However, he did live the last fifteen years of his life as a United States citizen. Like many others on this list, mainly the founding fathers, he was not born an American, but died as one. Even someone coming later in this list was not born in modern day America like Madison, Adams, et. al but did become a U.S. citizen. I feel to not include that man or Einstein on a Greatest Americans Ever list simply because they were not born here is unfair. One cannot help where they are born. (Just ask kids in a favela.) But sometimes they can choose where they wish to live and apply for citizenship, and that's what Albert Einstein did.

Now for his accomplishments. Time Magazine named him "Person of the Century," so that's a pretty good start. I almost agree with Time, as he is the second highest ranked 20th century American on this list. (Is the rest of the list coming into focus yet? Have you picked up on the clues dropped since Monday?) (Though, be sure I don't dismiss Hitler, Churchill, and Ghandi as influential non-Americans of the 20th century.)

Einstein is arguably the most important scientist of all time, save Isaac Newton. His breakthrough in numerous theoretical physics areas makes him the greatest physicist ever. His discoveries were immeasurably important in the initiation and development of quantum theory and are still relevant today. It is through his theories that the use of nuclear power and lasers are based. Moreover, his famous theory of relativity is the basis for today's research of the universe.

So as the human race continues to learn about our surroundings in this solar system and beyond, we have one man more than any other to thank - the American Albert Einstein.

(Editor's note: Now we enter the portion of the list where just about everyone can make a case for being #1.)

7. Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790; author, inventor, diplomat) - Hailed by many historians as the "First American," Ben Franklin was an excellent intellectual (though not moral) representative of the American colonies. Franklin was not the jack of all trades - he was the master of all trades. He could speak with authority and experience on science, technology, politics, literature, environmentalism, diplomacy, civics, and philosophy. He was respected in Europe as a European equal (quite a feat for a mere colonist).

His inventions include the bifocals, the lightning rod, and the iron furnace stove, each a significant contribution to the world. As an inventor and experimenter alone, he'd receive mention in a top 50 list of Americans.

But his contribution to America goes light-years beyond that. His role in the American Revolution was immeasurable. His Albany Plan of Union in 1754 was an unprecedented proposition of colonial unification. It was used as a reference two decades later when it came time for America's revolution against Great Britain. His support of unification is shown both in this comic panel from the French and Indian War as well as his quote at the signing of the Declaration of Independence (which he helped draft on the "Committee of Five"), "We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately."

His contribution to the American Revolution is even felt militarily. As the ambassador to France, he was crucial in parlaying the victory at the Battle of Saratoga into military and financial support from France against Great Britain. Though not nearly as significant as France, the French entrance brought in Spain under alliance stipulations and eventually the Netherlands. Without help from these experience European countries, American victory was much more in question.

At the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, George Washington was this country's greatest hero and most to thank for American Independence. Second, was Benjamin Franklin.

Tomorrow I'll hit up 3-6.

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.


#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.

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.

Monday, July 16, 2007

25 Greatest Americans in History (25-21)

All right, here we go. If you don't know the deal, catch up by reading the posts since Friday.

First, let's take a moment to examine those Americans that just missed being in the Top 25. After all, being the 44th Greatest American is not a slight. Simply put, it's tough competition.

36-50 in no order of significance:
*Denotes toughest ommission(s) from next group

Muhammed Ali
Charlie Chaplin*
Noam Chomsky
Bob Dylan
Dwight Eisenhower
JP Morgan*
Hugh Hefner
Robert Kennedy
Eleanor Roosevelt
Babe Ruth
Upton Sinclair, Jr.
Al Smith
Harry Truman*
Woodrow Wilson
Malcolm X

"The Next Ten" (26-35 in no order of significance)
These are the Americans who just missed the cut.

Cesar Chavez* - Labor leader, civil rights activist, founded the eventual UFW. Perhaps the greatest civil rights leader this side of Martin Luther King.
Walt Disney* - Probably the most influential person in the history of American entertainment.
Bill Gates - Chairman and co-founder of Microsoft. Generous philanthropist. Not adjusted for inflation, arguably the richest man ever.
Barry Goldwater - The man who kick-started modern political conservatism.
Woody Guthrie - The most significant and influential singer/songwriter in American History, and was the primary inspiration of the greatest singer/songerwriter in American History - Bob Dylan.
Andrew Jackson - Started the Democratic Party, pushed the strength of the executive branch, weakening the legislative branch in the process (Jacksonian Democracy).
John F. Kennedy - Busy three year Presidency including pushing the space race, assisting the Civil Rights Movement, and manning up during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Was the first non-Protestant President, which would have been more important if a non-Protestant has won since.
Rosa Parks* - Dubbed the "Mother of the Modern-Day Civil Rights Movement" by the United States Congress.
Henry David Thoreau* - Championed civil disobedience scores of years before Ghandi and Dr. King. Lasting contributions to natural history and philosophy. Leading abolitionist.
Wright Brothers (pick one) - Can't be in Top 25 because of all of the competing claims of the first flight. Basically, someone would have done it if they didn't, and right around their time period.

Without further ado...

The 25 Greatest Americans in History

25. Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919; Entrepreneur, philanthropist) - Yeah, U.S. Steel, ever heard of it? It's the largest steel producer in the country and seventh largest in the world. He merged his Carnegie's Steel Company with JP Morgan's Federal Steel Company and U.S. Steel was born. Carnegie's ranking ahead of Morgan, who also founded General Electric, is because of Carnegie's work after his retirement. Andrew Carnegie became one of the largest philanthropists in the history of the world. All of his financial and public support of great causes are enough to write a book. Ultimately, he gave millions and millions of his own dollars to libraries, schools, scholarships, technology institutes, music (Carnegie Hall, anyone?), African-American causes, and much, much more. When it was all said and done, Carnegie had given away $350,695,653 (inflation number brings it over $4.3 billion). On his death bed, he gave away the last $30,000,000 to foundations, charities, and to pensioners.

Yeah, and he's only #25.

24. John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937; Entrepreneur, philanthropist) - How fitting that the first billionaire became such by peddling the product that, upon its depletion, might someday eliminate everyone's wealth: Oil. His revolution of the petroleum industry gave way to a world that is now inconceivable without petroleum. He also started perhaps this country's foremost ongoing dynasty: The Rockefellers, which have included a former Governor of Arkansas, a former Vice-President, and a current Senator from Virginia. Moreover, other family members have made impacts with their money outside of politics. Like Carnegie, Rockefeller was a leading philanthropist of the early 20th century.

23. Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922; inventor) - In 1876, he became the inventor of the telephone.

22. Ulysses S Grant (1822-1885; General, 18th President) - As general-in-chief of the United States armed forces beginning in 1863, he guided the Union to victory in the U.S. Civil War. He was the first of the several union generals to coordinate multiple war theaters to make the most of his army's potential. He led the victory against General Lee at the Battle of Richmond, leading to Lee's surrender at Appomattox. Three years later, he was elected President, and served a complete, consecutive two-term presidency, being the only President of the twenty between 1837 (Jackson) and 1921 (Wilson) to do so. Grant ably oversaw eight years of the Reconstruction period, and was as much of a friend towards African-Americans as can be expected at the time.

21. Thomas Paine (1737-1809; Author, revolutionary) - "These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph." - Paine, The American Crisis, 1776

Thomas Paine also wrote perhaps the greatest piece of non-binding literature of the overwhelmingly significant final quarter of the 18th century, Common Sense, a pamphlet which promoted secession from Great Britain in prose so simple that every American could easily read and comprehend it (which rankled but also made him the envy of no less than Thomas Jefferson).

"Small islands not capable of protecting themselves are the proper objects for kingdoms to take under their care; but there is something very absurd in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island." - Paine, Common Sense, 1776

And, like countless great Americans, Paine died in obscurity.

Check back tomorrow for numbers 20-16, where we'll find another President and the only athlete in the Top 25.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

James Gilmore Drops Out

From the CNN Newsticker, former Virginia Governor James Gilmore has dropped out of his run for the Presidency, marking the end of the longest of shots in the Republican primary. (At 500-1, he had the longest odds of any of the GOP candidates on the left sidebar's The Line. He has since been switched to the OFF position.)

Check back tomorrow for the beginning of my ranking of The 25 Greatest Americans in History.
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