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.
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So what do the panelists’ reflections tell us about influence in America? First that although the top third of the list, roughly speaking, embodies a strong consensus—every panelist voted for the first nine figures; everyone in the top thirty received at least seven votes—agreement is hard to come by. Many figures who made the final cut did so with only marginally more support than those who missed it.

Still, certain patterns are evident. The list tells us, for instance, that though we may be a nation of immigrants, it’s the native-born who are likely to shake things up the most: just seven of the final 100 were born outside the continental United States. It tells us that the East Coast states have made the most of their head start: sixty-three of the 100 were born in the original thirteen colonies, and twenty-six in New England alone. It tells would-be influentials not to be afraid of family commitments: ninety-one of the 100 were married at least once, and two—Joseph Smith and Brigham Young—had more than fifty wives between them. The list also suggests that contemporaries are sometimes good judges of whose influence will last: nine of Time magazine’s “People of the Year” show up on the historians’ list.

A political career (or a legal one) is the surest ticket to a historical legacy (twenty-six of the 100 held a judgeship or high political office). Aspiring influentials might also consider trying to invent something (like the lightbulb, or the airplane, or the atomic bomb), or discover something (the polio vaccine, the double helix)—though Gordon S. Wood remarked, after the list was finished, “We put too much emphasis on inventors. Someone sooner or later would have come up with the cotton gin … the lure of profits was too great. The same was true with the airplane and the telephone.”

Founding a religion landed Joseph Smith and Brigham Young on the list, as well as Christian Science’s Mary Baker Eddy (86). Fomenting a revolution also leaves an impression, whether you succeed, as the Founders did, or fail, but with long-lasting repercussions, as Nat Turner and John Brown (78) did. And we at The Atlantic were pleased to see that twenty-one of the figures in the Top 100 are especially famous for their writing, from Walt Whitman (22) to Margaret Mead (81)—and that more than thirty (!) of the figures on the list have been published in this magazine.

The final 100 also suggests that men still rule, at least in many historians’ eyes—oh, and make that white men. Ten women are on the list (the highest-ranked is the feminist pioneer Elizabeth Cady Stanton, at No. 30), and eight African Americans, but the Top 100 is heavily WASPish. Martin Luther King Jr. (8) was among the top vote getters, but there isn’t another African American on the list until Jackie Robinson (35). And there are no Hispanics, Asian Americans, or Native Americans.

“It’s fun and challenging,” Ellen Fitzpatrick said of the exercise, but she called the rank order “an exercise in absurdity.” Noting that Walt Disney (26) finished ahead of Stanton in the balloting, she wondered: “Does a cartoonist deserve a place above someone who most powerfully advanced the case that half the people deserved equality before the law?” Or again, “Are we to conclude that not a single Native American Indian influenced our past?”

If women and minorities are conspicuously absent, what about knaves? With only two votes, Cold War bogeyman Joseph McCarthy didn’t make the Top 100, nor did minor demagogues like Huey Long and Charles Coughlin. (Nor Hugh Hefner, though Walter McDougall voted for him.) But the much-reviled Richard Nixon (99) is in the Top 100, as is the pro-slavery legislator John C. Calhoun (58).

In a sense, perhaps, the final list is a testament to the absence of true villains from the American past—or at least figures that everyone can agree were villainous. For every conservative who damns Earl Warren (29) or Betty Friedan (77), there’s a liberal springing to the defense. The same is true, with the cheers and boos reversed, for Ronald Reagan (17) or Wal-Mart’s Sam Walton (72).

Our historians seem to have made a definite judgment, however, against pop culture, and popular taste in general. The list contains seven novelists but only three musicians, Elvis Presley (66), Louis Armstrong (79), and the songwriter Stephen Foster (97), and two athletes, Jackie Robinson and George Herman “Babe” Ruth (75). There’s one Hollywood mogul (Sam Goldwyn), but no directors or actors (save, of course, Reagan). And of the many novelists, journalists, and essayists, two of them (James Fenimore Cooper and Harriet Beecher Stowe) are true museum pieces, while many of the rest—Ralph Waldo Emerson (33) and Henry David Thoreau (65), William Faulkner (60) and William James (62)—wrote strictly highbrow fare. (On the other hand, as Gordon S. Wood points out, no historians made the list—leading him to remark, “I guess we don’t think what we do is very influential.”)

What about collaboration? Apart from joined-at-the-hip pairs like the Wright Brothers (23) and Lewis and Clark (70), the panelists found no obvious way to recognize collaborative influences. This may help explain why no woman ended up closer to the top of the ranking—because some panelists put Susan B. Anthony (38) higher and others Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and there was no way to rate the cumulative effect of the great feminists’ efforts.

Still, famous collaborations show up on the final list, if you know where to look. As noted above, present-at-the-creation Mormons Joseph Smith and Brigham Young both make an appearance; so do atomic-bomb coworkers Albert Einstein (32), Robert Oppenheimer (48), and Enrico Fermi (88). Likewise the collaborators behind America’s founding—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson (3), Benjamin Franklin (6), John Marshall (7), James Madison (13), and John Adams (25)—all appear near the top. They are joined by Thomas Paine (19), the prophet of the American Revolution. (H. W. Brands dissented on this one: “Paine articulated something that was in the air,” he allowed, but the Revolution “was going to happen anyway.”)

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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