Top Living Influentials
Living Americans who received votes from panelists
Selected by Michael J. Lewis
Selected by David Thomson
Selected by Terry Teachout
Selected by Christian Wiman
Selected by Robert Messenger
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.
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.