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
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?

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.”

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.”)

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.

 

Ross Douthat is an Atlantic associate editor.
Jump to comments
Presented by

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

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Sad Desk Lunch: Is This How You Want to Die?

How to avoid working through lunch, and diseases related to social isolation.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In