They Made America

Who are the most influential figures in American history? The Atlantic recently asked ten eminent historians. The result was The Atlantic’s Top 100—and some insight into the nature of influence and the contingency of history. Was Walt Disney really more influential than Elizabeth Cady Stanton? Benjamin Spock than Richard Nixon? Elvis Presley than Lewis and Clark? John D. Rockefeller than Bill Gates? Babe Ruth than Frank Lloyd Wright? Let the debates begin.
More influentials:

Top Living Influentials
Living Americans who received votes from panelists

Influential Architects
Selected by Michael J. Lewis

Influential Filmmakers
Selected by David Thomson

Influential Musicians
Selected by Terry Teachout

Influential Poets
Selected by Christian Wiman

Influential Critics
Selected by Robert Messenger

* THE TOP 100 *
[Click here to see the list.]

It's a nebulous concept, influence: you know it when you see it, but definitions are hard to come by. Still, when we talk about history in America, it’s often to make arguments about influence, about the way the characters from our national past shape the virtues and flaws of our own era.

Thus, depending on whom you believe, George W. Bush is either the rightful heir to Harry Truman or the bastard child of Richard Nixon and Lyndon Baines Johnson. His critics are the successors of Walter Duranty and Jane Fonda, making apologies for tyrants—unless they’re Edward R. Murrow and Eugene McCarthy, boldly speaking truth to power. Foreign-policy analysts talk of modern-day “Jacksonians” and “Wilsonians”; defenders and opponents of affirmative action alike invoke Martin Luther King Jr.; and everyone claims the Founders for their own—because the founding generation’s influence, and example, is felt to matter most of all.

Also see:

In Their Own Words
Of the 100 Americans selected by our panel of historians, thirty-one contributed to The Atlantic. Browse a selection of their writings.

Follow-up, the Atlantic 100
A look at reader response.

Congratulations to Our Contest Winners
Find out whose guesses most closely matched our historians' picks.

With these debates in mind, The Atlantic recently asked ten historians (see panelist biographies on page 76) to compose their own lists of the 100 most influential Americans. The balloting was averaged and weighted to emphasize consensus—candidates received extra points if they appeared on multiple ballots—and the result is the list of 100 names that accompanies this article. In the instructions we gave to our panelists, we intentionally defined influence loosely—as a person’s impact, for good or ill, both on his or her own era and on the way we live now. This allowed for a certain creativity in the selection process, and it had the advantage of leaving the harder work of definition to the historians themselves.

The results are inevitably unscientific, since whittling down all the influential Americans of the last few centuries to just 100 names, let alone ranking them, is a difficult assignment. But the end product is rewarding and intriguing, offering instances of both consensus and contention, and a snapshot of our national memory early in the third American century. It doesn’t settle the debate about influence and the American past, but it does offer a starting place for discussion.

Anyone trying to arrive at a historical ranking must wrestle with certain questions. Our panelist Walter McDougall, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age, described five challenges that he and his fellow historians reckoned with in making their judgments for our list.

The definition of influence. What definition would allow us to rank Americans from different careers and walks of life—to compare the influence of a great novelist with the influence of a president, for instance, or the influence of a religious leader with that of an entrepreneur? Or again, what definition would allow for comparisons between present-day figures and the men and women of earlier generations? The influence of a nineteenth-century titan like John D. Rockefeller (who ended up No. 11 on our list) extends across a longer period of American history than the influence of a Bill Clinton; on the other hand, Clinton’s direct impact on the way we live now is more immediately obvious than Rockefeller’s. By what criteria does one choose between them?

The collaborative nature of achievement. Once you begin to weigh ideas against inventions, presidencies against companies, and present-day achievements against the past, another question arises: Who should get the credit? Do you cite Nathaniel Hawthorne for writing the first great American novel, or James Fenimore Cooper (83) for making the American novel possible? Who deserves credit for the Constitution, or the motion-picture industry, or the birth of jazz? “Harriet Beecher Stowe [41] was ‘the little lady who wrote the book that caused the Great War,’” McDougall points out, “but only because abolitionists both white and black had been preaching the same gospel for decades.” Even technical geniuses stood on the shoulders of giants: if Robert Fulton hadn’t developed the first commercially successful steamboat, someone else would have; we might not have iPods without Steve Jobs, but we’d still have some pretty nice personal computers.

The power of pop culture. The simplest way to define influence would be to use market indicators. Whom have Americans heard of, and whom do they esteem? What products do they buy, and what television shows do they watch? Such a list would “read like a Gallup Poll or Madison Avenue guide to consumer trends,” McDougall says, with Michael Crichton outstripping Herman Melville (100), and Joel Osteen beating out Reinhold Niebuhr. But perhaps this is as it should be. “The America our forefathers brought forth on this continent is a market—a free market in power, goods and services, entertainment, and spirituality,” McDougall points out. “By definition, it would seem [that] the ultimate measure of influence is simply what sells.”

The problem of value judgments. This is the “Adolf Hitler problem”: How do you assess the influence of men and women who have changed the world for the worse? In America, call it the “Hugh Hefner problem”: Does a man who has spent a lifetime lounging around in a bathrobe, getting rich off the objectification of women, really deserve a place in anyone’s Top 100? On the other hand, if you’re looking for the journalistic giants of the last century, doesn’t Hef deserve a place alongside a Henry Luce or an H. L. Mencken? And if you open the door for the man who gave us porn-on-demand, does a parade of demagogues come trooping in after him? George Wallace, Huey Long, Joseph McCarthy, J. Edgar Hoover—“We might find that half our list is a rogues’ gallery,” McDougall suggests.

The question of identity politics. America may be a melting pot, but influence often fails to extend beyond the barrio’s edge, or the synagogue door. “Must the leaders of every ethnic or religious minority be honored,” McDougall wonders, “even though they had little or no influence on the nation at large?” How broadly influential were Joseph Smith (52) or Brigham Young (74), really, given that Mormons currently account for less than 2 percent of the American population? Does César Chávez deserve extra consideration for looming so large among Hispanics? Does a gay-rights pioneer like Harvey Milk deserve consideration, for similar reasons?

Presented by

Ross Douthat is an Atlantic associate editor.

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