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.

Each panelist found a different response to these challenges. For Ellen Fitzpatrick, a professor at the University of New Hampshire and the author of History’s Memory: Writing America’s Past, 18801980, the central questions were whether a person’s influence was at once “long-term” and “fundamental.” So the Founders, for instance, deserve a high place because “without their vision of American democracy, not much else would have happened as it did.” But a figure like Bill Gates (54), however significant, loses out in Fitzpatrick’s estimation to the computer scientist John von Neumann, because “it was von Neumann’s research that helped make computing possible,” and so his contribution to the computer was more “fundamental” than Gates’s work. (Fitzpatrick was outvoted on von Neumann, who failed to make the Top 100.)

Walter McDougall adopted a policy of giving weight to individuals involved with the federal government, “because they shaped the laws and institutions under which all Americans live”; to “the leaders in business and technology who fashioned the material environment of all Americans”; and to “the leaders in religion and education who influenced what most Americans believe and know, especially about their own country.” He “omitted ethnic leaders who, while honored … influenced only a modest percentage of Americans,” and he “eliminated celebrities altogether on the grounds that their influence is shallow, ephemeral, and replaceable.”

David M. Kennedy, a Stanford professor and the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929–1945, made a similar calculation. “Most ‘athletes, icons, and celebrities’ don’t make my list,” he wrote, because entertainment is “highly evanescent” and most entertainers tend to “leave no lasting legacy.” What he looked for instead were “originals—that is, “people who laid the foundations for enduring institutions or cultural practices or ways of thinking.”

For Doris Kearns Goodwin, who won a Pulitzer Prize for No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II, the important question was, “Which figures changed the daily lives of people, both at that time and afterward?” She looked, in particular, for “great public figures who made it possible for people to lead expanded lives—materially, psychologically, culturally, spiritually.”

Brown University professor Gordon S. Wood, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Radicalism of the American Revolution, tried to pay attention to “peculiar personalities,” like Abraham Lincoln (1) and George Washington (2), who were “ideally suited for the moment” in which they wielded influence. But he also looked for what he termed “stand-ins—figures like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong (79), who could embody a hugely collaborative industry, art form, or cultural change, and “represent a dozen or a half-dozen people.”

H. W. Brands, a professor at the University of Texas and the author of The Money Men: Capitalism, Democracy, and the Hundred Years’ War Over the American Dollar, took a similar tack, choosing some people based on “what they represent—Nat Turner (93) for the “specter of slave rebellion,” for instance, or Sam Goldwyn (95) because “Hollywood had to be represented.” He also noted that a bias toward political figures is inevitable. “Political figures,” he said, “are important precisely because they influence the lives of everybody.”

On the other hand, Robert Dallek—though he’s a presidential historian and the author, most recently, of An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917–1963—tried to privilege commerce and invention. “When people look back on this society, they will attach greater importance to science, technology, and business achievements than to our politics, or our arts and literature.” He also gave special weight to the power of ideas, which form an “undercurrent” in American life—until suddenly, as with the civil-rights movement, a sense emerges that “this is an idea whose time has come.”

Mark Noll, a professor at the University of Notre Dame and the author of America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln, shared Brands’s expectation that politics would dominate the final list, but suggested that this was a reflection of how history has been taught—“as a political narrative or as a reaction against the political narrative.” He contended there is “little room for religion” in either of these narratives—even though religious organizations “have been the main glue in American society since before there was a United States.” His own list drove that point home, by including little-remembered but hugely influential figures like the nineteenth-century revivalist Charles Grandison Finney, or the itinerant Methodist bishop Francis Asbury.

Similarly, panelist John Steele Gordon, the author of An Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power, distinguished between fame and influence, citing as an example the distinction between Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin. “Both were very famous,” he argued, “but only Kern changed Broadway forever.”

Like many of her fellow panelists, Joyce Appleby, a professor emerita at UCLA, showed a strong bias toward the Founders—those “rather remarkable men making decisions whose impact has been tremendously positive.” But she declined to propose any broader system for gauging influence. “I reflected,” she said of her choices. “But it was more of an intuitive and ineffable process.”

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Ross Douthat is an Atlantic associate editor.

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