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.

The list is heavily weighted toward the not-so-recent past. Only three living Americans—Bill Gates, Ralph Nader (96), and James D. Watson (68), a codiscoverer of the double helix—made the list, and of the Top 100, sixty-seven died before 1950. The only significant figures from the post-’60s era to crack the top twenty were Nader and Reagan, and in general the list reflects what David M. Kennedy calls an instinctive caution about “canonizing anyone who’s among the quick,” or recently deceased. “It’s hard to judge the present,” John Steele Gordon points out. “We aren’t able to say who will be influential.” And Robert Dallek notes that even Reagan, seemingly as sure a bet as recent history offers, may not loom so large in fifty years, once all of his administration’s records have been opened to historians.

So if this exercise were to be carried out again in half a century, presumably it would show a stronger consensus about what mattered in our own era and what didn’t. This might mean a place for Sandra Day O’Connor and Hillary Clinton, for instance, or even Oprah Winfrey and Martha Stewart, both of whom received votes. (“One would hope that a hundred years from now there will be more women at the top than there are now, looking back,” Doris Kearns Goodwin said.) Bob Dylan, who fell just short of the Top 100 in this balloting, might slip in; so might Steve Jobs, once the impact of the Internet age extends over half a century.

The panelists did vote for many twentieth-century figures—as well as many athletes and jazz musicians, visual artists and religious innovators. All told, the ten historians suggested 322 influentials; there just wasn’t as much consensus on the recent and nonpolitical choices as there was on Gilded Age industrialists and Founding Fathers. But for every vote cast for a muttonchopped Victorian, at least one went to Stan Lee or Marilyn Monroe, B. F. Skinner or Tiger Woods. Which is why the most interesting part of the voting may be the fascinating figures lurking in the lower reaches of the balloting.

Take America’s religious leaders—represented on the list by Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, Mary Baker Eddy, Jonathan Edwards (90), and the Presbyterian clergyman Lyman Beecher (91), as well as a number of ministers best known for their efforts at political reform, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison (46). Worthies all, but you have to look farther down the winners’ list to find the people who actually built the churches where most of today’s Americans worship. Several Jews are in the Top 100, but the only rabbi to receive votes was Solomon Schechter, the architect of Conservative Judaism. The only Top 100 Catholics are George Herman “Babe” Ruth, Louis Armstrong, and James Gordon Bennett (69), the great nineteenth-century newspaperman; two panelists, however, suggested John Carroll, the nation’s first Catholic bishop. There were also two votes for Fulton Sheen, another Catholic bishop, whose 1950s media ministry, as Mark Noll put it, “certified Roman Catholicism as a benign religious, political, and cultural influence” (and made him a trailblazer for today’s rather-less- eloquent crop of televangelists).

Also falling short of the Top 100 were the architects of American evangelicalism, the most successful species of Protestantism in this largely Protestant nation. Two panelists listed Francis Asbury, the eighteenth-century Methodist bishop whose indefatigable missionary efforts created a model of entrepreneurial religion that successful evangelical pastors have followed ever since. The aptly named Evangeline Booth, the first female “general” of the Salvation Army, received one vote, as did Dwight L. Moody, arguably the nineteenth century’s most famous evangelist; two votes went to Billy Graham, the twentieth-century heir to that title.

Another Noll pick, William Seymour, is perhaps more obscure than the other religious figures in the Top 100, but in the long run may prove more influential than any of them. The son of freed slaves, Seymour in 1906 lost his job as pastor of a Los Angeles church over his belief that glossolalia—speaking in tongues—was available to contemporary Christians; undeterred, he set up shop in a ramshackle building on L.A.’s Azusa Street, and thus touched off the “Azusa Street Revival,” the beginning of the modern Pentecostal movement. Today, Pentecostalism is the fastest-growing form of Christianity in the world.

Interesting business figures also surface farther down in the list. The most famous Victorian captains of industry—John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie (20), and J. P. Morgan (37)—made the Top 100, as did Sam Walton, Bill Gates, and Henry Ford (14), three figures familiar to any late-twentieth-century consumer. But why don’t we remember other vote getters like Edwin Drake, the first businessman to suggest that prospectors consider drilling to find oil? Or Cyrus Field, who laid the first successful transatlantic cable, in 1858? Or Peter Cooper, an iron-and-steel magnate who—among his many accomplishments—invested in Field’s cable, developed the first steam-powered locomotive, ran for president, founded the Cooper Union, and patented Jell-O?

Then there are America’s inventors. Thomas Edison (9) earned votes from every panelist, but only John Steele Gordon voted for Nikola Tesla, the Croatian-born developer of the alternating-current approach to electricity, which won out over Edison’s direct current. (“Every time we turn on a light switch,” Gordon says, “we feel Tesla’s influence.”) Cyrus McCormick (73), whose mechanical reaper revolutionized American agriculture, made the Top 100. But why not Willis Carrier, the New Englander who developed air conditioning and thus changed forever the lives of Americans from Atlanta to Albuquerque? Before Carrier, H. W. Brands points out (from his air-conditioned Texas office), Dixie was terra incognita for most businesses, because “you couldn’t expect people to accept transfers” south of the Mason-Dixon Line. William Faulkner made the list for immortalizing the humid, tormented Old Confederacy; surely Carrier deserves credit for creating the brassy, air-conditioned New South.

If Carrier’s air conditioning built Atlanta, what about DeWitt Clinton’s canal? Dubbed “Clinton’s Ditch,” the Erie Canal channeled a nation’s commerce through Albany to New York City. “Stand on the corner of 42nd Street and look around,” says Gordon. “Clinton gave us this.”

Then there’s Frances Perkins, one of Ellen Fitzpatrick’s picks, whose monument is the payroll deduction found on every American paystub. As secretary of labor for Franklin Delano Roosevelt (4), she midwifed Social Security into the world. The retirement program outlived her, and seems likely to also outlive William F. Buckley Jr. (another Fitzpatrick pick), despite his best efforts to eradicate it.

But it may not outlive the influence of another female pioneer: Julia Child, who was picked by Joyce Appleby, John Steele Gordon, and Gordon S. Wood, and whose fingerprints, in grease or flour, are smeared over every aspect of our culinary culture, from Emeril Lagasse to Whole Foods. (Wood, for one, expressed surprise that someone like Walter Lipp-mann [89] would be deemed more influ- ential than Child.)

Similarly, as long as there are self-help books and motivational speakers, America will feel the influence of Dale Carnegie, a Robert Dallek pick and the author of 1938’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. And as long as there are Hollywood blockbusters, Americans will owe their summer entertainment—enjoyed in the cool of Willis Carrier’s air conditioning—to Steven Spielberg (who received three votes, from Brands, Goodwin, and Gordon) and George Lucas (two votes, from Wood and McDougall).

Finally, some of these figures touch our present era only indirectly, but dominated an earlier one. The Top 100 includes Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Betty Friedan, all of whom insisted that a woman’s place was in the voting booth and the workplace as well as in the home. But while they won the argument in the end, for a long time other influences put that outcome in doubt. Walter McDougall’s list, for instance, includes the nearly forgotten Sarah Josepha Hale. A nineteenth- century journalist, Hale edited the popular women’s magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book from 1837 to 1877, and used its pages to promote an ideal of domestic goddesshood that eclipsed the feminist vision of women’s place for decades.

McDougall also picked William Holmes McGuffey, the Presbyterian minister responsible for the McGuffey Readers. These books helped make Americans almost universally literate; and by emphasizing patriotism and hard work, political equality and Protestant faith, they taught their pupils to be Americans. But their day passed, and what was once a defining text of public education persists only because it’s marketed to people who opt out—to Christian homeschoolers, for instance, who prefer McGuffey’s mix of righteousness and rigor to the more latitudinarian texts that have replaced his.

Influence can be deep and yet ultimately ephemeral; our list reflects, as Robert Dallek put it, the “cruelty of historical memory.” But if the fate of the McGuffey Readers and Godey’s Lady’s Book speaks to the impermanence of influence, much of the list speaks to its contingency as well.

Take Harry Truman (21), the man who dropped the atomic bomb and created the Truman Doctrine. Surely the hot-tempered little haberdasher meets Gordon S. Wood’s criterion of a “peculiar personality” ideally suited to a historical moment. Yet his moment chose him only at the last minute, as a replacement for Henry Wallace, the left-wing former commerce secretary who was FDR’s vice president for most of World War II, and who was bumped from the ticket over concerns that he was too sympathetic to Joseph Stalin’s Russia. Had Roosevelt’s Warm Springs stroke come just a little sooner, Wallace might be on the list—remembered, most likely, as the man who misunderstood Moscow, given that two of his closest advisers were Soviet agents.

There are many of these “unfluentials—figures who, but for chance or the grace of God, might have been influential rather than obscure, and who hang like shadows around their better-remembered counterparts. LBJ (44) is shadowed by JFK, who, though hardly obscure, earned the votes of only two panelists; without an assassin’s bullet, it would have been Kennedy wrestling with civil rights and Vietnam, and Johnson fading into the obscurity reserved for elderly vice presidents. Theodore Roosevelt (15) is shadowed by William McKinley, similarly felled by an assassin (though one suspects that Roosevelt would have found his way to influence in any event); Abraham Lincoln by Jefferson Davis, almost remembered as the father of a different American republic; Ulysses S. Grant (12) and Robert E. Lee (57) by Stonewall Jackson, who might have won the war for Davis had he lived past the Battle of Chancellorsville.

Even George Washington has his shadows: Benedict Arnold, who was a better general than the man from Mount Vernon but proved a greater fool; and Horatio Gates, the Revolutionary War general who, after his victory at Saratoga, was favored by some colonial officers as a replacement for Washington.

Those that future historians deem influential will doubtless have their shadows as well. If history ranks Bill Clinton an influential for the ages, it will be at the expense of other Great Democratic Hopes whom history will slight: Gary Hart, say, whose extramarital dalliance went unforgiven, or Mario Cuomo, who dithered in 1992 while Clinton seized the moment, and the presidency. If Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s influence endures, it will be shadowed by the almost-influence of Robert Bork; likewise Samuel Alito and the shadow of Harriet Miers.

And if George W. Bush’s imprint is still strongly felt in 2056, then Al Gore—a few Florida ballots (or one Supreme Court vote) short of the presidency—will be (barely) remembered for the influence he never had the chance to wield.


Presented by

Ross Douthat is an Atlantic associate editor.

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