Tuesday I read The Atlantic Monthly’s list of the 100 Most Influential Americans. I was very disappointed by the list. I had been looking forward to a list that would go behind the familiar and give us some sense of the figures that may have influenced the more public figures. I thought that the list and its presentation had serious flaws:
• The methodology seemed flawed. 10 historians submitted their lists and the entrants were ranked. I would have preferred the 10 historians discussing and debating it out. Might have been more interesting.
• The list is not very diverse. Though a list about influence shouldn’t force diversity, I think it fails to understand that this is a country (and world) of subcultures where significant influence within that culture does affect the rest of us. For instance, no Hispanic Americans made the list. Really? When a significant amount of this country was originally Spanish-language?
• The list overly emphasized Presidents, politicians, and industrialists. I would have weighted it more to religion and the arts. The list also neglected any major figures connected with television and ignored the technological and scientific giants of the computer age.
• The ranking system seemed absurd. And the presentation gave you a sentence or two about each person instead of an essay, like Time magazine might have done. I expected more of The Atlantic.
The accompanying article discussed the nature of influence. Each historian seemed to have a different idea. Here is what guided my thinking:
• A person has affected the way our culture (or world culture) is currently experienced, with particular attention given to prominent social issues like race, gender, and class where the positions of early Americans affected a landscape the results of which we still live in.
• This wasn’t a list of the greatest Americans, so some of my favourite didn’t make my list. The Atlantic ranked Henry Clay at number 31. Clay was one of the folk who helped to forge compromises that staved off the Civil War. Given that the Civil War ended up occurring, I’m at a loss as to why he is considered so influential (though he is clearly important and would likely be on a great Americans list).
• I looked for the influences behind the familiar. Though occasionally one person takes a lot of other people’s ideas and puts them together in a way that is unique or is able to put them into practice (FDR), so I would occasionally gravitate toward that person instead.
• And I also occasionally looked for types, someone who represented a larger movement or group of individuals. Or even a representative figure from a minority group.
• Since the Atlantic Monthly list included folk who pre-dated the United States, I decided to think broadly about “the Americas” when considering the colonial period. I didn’t go wild with listing the various European explorers, but one figure on my list is a European who lived in the Americas and whose life deeply affected American life to this day.
• Finally, I didn’t rank, but have simply listed my names in alphabetical order. Essays would be nice, but I’m only going to write a sentence or two (though I think the AM could have done better than that).
I spent hours on this looking up the names behind the movements and events that I considered significant influences on contemporary life. I learned a lot in the process of doing this. I look forward to your comments and conversation:
Worked tirelessly to establish our government.
John Quincy Adams
As author of the Monroe Doctrine, created a staple of American foreign policy.
Major social reformer, influenced John Dewey, among others.
Susan B. Anthony
Leader in women’s suffrage, helping pave the way for the changing gender roles debate that we continue to experience.
A founder of jazz music, and thus one of the great influences in American popular music.
Inventor of plastic, which has had a profound effect on every area of our lives.
Alexander Graham Bell
Invented the telephone, which basic technology has spawned so many others and transformed human civilization.
William F. Buckley
The primary intellectual and gadfly of the new post-war American conservatism that was significantly different from the conservatism that preceded it (e. g. Robert Taft)
John C. Calhoun
Arguing in defense of slavery, Calhoun formulated the intellectual argument for secession, but of more importance ultimately is his philosophical defense of states’ rights.
Invented air conditioning, thus enabling much of contemporary American life and leading to the formation of the New South and the growth and development of the Southwest.
Prominent environmentalist, first brought awareness of many issues to a wider audience.
Bartolome de las Casas
Spanish priest who argued for African slavery instead of the enslavement of the Native Americans, thus paving the way for one of the United States’ two original sins.
Galvanized the Hispanic community as a political and social force and brought attention to farm workers. These debates are as relevant in 2006 as they were at the height of Chavez’ work.
As one of the leading lights of the Hudson River School of painting, Church was one of the first wildly popular American painters. His work presented an image of America as the New Eden and helped to inspire Manifest Destiny and our continuing imperial ambitions.
Harry W. Colmery
Author of the G.I. Bill which was one of the finest pieces of legislation our Congress has ever passed. It created the post-war middle class by providing money for education and housing.
W. A. Criswell
The fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention is one of the most significant social events in recent American history because it allowed a group that had long been outsiders to come to the table with significant power and influence. Criswell was not the architect or leader of the takeover, but was its inspirational figure.
Prominent philosopher who influenced American education and political issues like labor relations, race, etc.
Created an unrivaled entertainment industry that had immeasurable influence upon generations of Americans.
The first prominent African-American public figure in American life.
W. E. B. DuBois
His thinking on race is still, sadly, quite relevant a century later.
Democratized the power to save and create images. A power that continues to grow and affect how we remember, interact, and communicate with one another.
Inventor of the light bulb and much else, helped to create the contemporary way of life.
America’s first major intellectual and the leading preacher of the Great Awakening, which renewed the power of religion in American public life.
George Henry Evans
His ideas and efforts led to the passage of the Homestead Act in 1862 which opened the West for settlement. It created economic opportunity for common folk to be property owners that did not exist in Europe, but it led to the near genocide of the Native American population.
The major scientific figure of the twentieth century who transformed physics and convinced FDR to pursue the atomic bomb.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Called for a unique American culture that wasn’t simply a pale copy of European culture.
Philo T. Farnsworth
One of the inventors of the television.
His writing style has influenced many subsequent prominent authors.
His theories and work helped pave the way for the atomic bomb.
Charles G. Finney
The leading preacher of the Second Great Awakening that led to the rapid and widespread growth of evangelicalism and the formation and/or ascendancy of many denominations.
He transformed American life not only with the car but with how he built it and the company he founded.
Involved in so many aspects of American culture, his most important influence is developing and embodying a set of virtues that were uniquely American.
Inspired the modern women’s movement in America.
America’s most prominent economist, he advocated a return to greater freedom for markets and was one of the architects of modern political conservatism and ultimately helped to shape and played a part in creating the contemporary world economy.
Though he may have relied on the technological and scientific work of others, he built the company that made computing and the internet available to almost everyone in our society. But this work may yet be eclipsed by his philanthropy which may ultimately be responsible for saving millions of lives.
William Lloyd Garrison
The leading radical voice of abolition.
The inventor of the rocket.
The greatest American labor leader.
Founder of the American economic system, was the most eloquent defender of the Constitution, and created the American army.
W. C. Handy
Though the origins of the blues are hard to trace and many folk had a hand in developing the new art form, Handy was the first major popularizer who was also classically trained and thus able to leave a written record of musical notation. Almost all popular American music since the dawn of the twentieth century has been influenced by or is somehow a descendant of the blues.
The great film director was a critical and popular success. His best movies are (to quote an article I read once) “the Id to our Eisenhower Superego.”
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
America’s second greatest jurist, he brought pragmatism into American jurisprudence and his heirs carved out greater respect for individual rights.
Conquered the army of Santa Anna and helped to found the Republic and, eventually, the State of Texas. American expansion into areas once owned by Mexico forever shaped our history and culture.
The great astronomer of the twentieth century, he was the first to discover that space existed beyond our galaxy.
May have made the country more democratic, but he also illegally removed the Native American tribes and destroyed the governing consensus that had existed before him.
America’s most original philosopher who influenced how we think about how we think.
Author of the Declaration of Independence and responsible for the Louisiana Purchase.
Lyndon Baines Johnson
Passed Civil Rights legislation, addressed poverty, and split the country over Vietnam.
The Nez Perce chief had a different vision for America than that which was realized. Since his vision did not succeed, it could easily be argued that he was not influential. However, that vision still stands as an ideal quoted often by environmentalists and other social activists.
The major force behind the first transcontinental railroad which further opened up the West and was the primary cause for the immigration of many Chinese-Americans.
Jack Kilby / Robert Noyce
The inventors of the micro-chip.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
The leader of the civil rights movement who successfully argued for nonviolent direct action civil disobedience in order to effect political change.
Lewis and Clark
The leaders of the expedition that explored the American West.
J. R. Licklider
His ideas foretold the internet, and he oversaw some of the early research and influenced the computer scientist who built the earliest forms.
Held fast to the idea of Union and led us into and through our darkest moment.
Source of many ideas framed in our Constitution.
Transformed the American public education system.
Directed America’s effort in the Second World War and rebuilt Europe with the Marshall Plan.
America’s greatest jurist, he argued that the Court was a co-equal branch with the Congress and Executive and provided it the right to declare actions of the other branches to be “unconstitutional.”
As the lead lawyer in Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka he argued that separate is not equal. That case began the period of civil rights and the ending of legal segregation.
Louis B. Mayer
Prominent movie mogul who helped to create the studio system. His films and actors were among the most memorable in film history, often influencing culture through this popular medium. For instance, how much did Katherine Hepburn help to transform images and the role of women in the twentieth century?
Her anthropological research (though later seriously questioned) helped pave the way for the sexual and gender revolutions by illustrating how sexual mores were culture-bound.
A major voice in American literature, producing one of its greatest works – Moby Dick.
His invention of the mechanical reaper (and subsequent business to sell it) brought agriculture into the industrial age and led to the dramatic transfer of labor from rural to urban areas.
As the first openly gay American politician (who was subsequently assassinated), Milk represents the GLBT liberation movement which has been transforming American understandings of gender and sexuality for the last half century.
D. L. Moody
One of the leading evangelists of the 19th century and forerunners of twentieth century fundamentalism. His successor, R. A. Torrey, was the leading figure in the publication of “The Fundamentals.”
J. P. Morgan
Wall street broker who dominated American finance and industry at the turn of the last century.
Samuel F. B. Morse
Inventor of the Morse Code that facilitated long-range communication for the first time.
J. Robert Oppenheimer
The scientist who oversaw America’s creation of the atomic bomb.
William S. Paley
As chief executive of CBS, he built it into the powerhouse of radio and television. Just mentioning a few of the names from his time at CBS shows his influence on American culture: Orson Welles, Al Jolson, Jack Benny, Kate Smith, Amos and Andy, Edward R. Murrow, Lucille Ball, Bob Hope, 60 Minutes, and All in the Family.
James K. Polk
Led us into the Mexican War that seized huge amounts of territory, including California and most of the Southwest from Mexico and solidified our hold on Texas.
Pentecostal preacher who pioneered the use of television and raised Pentecostalism from being primarily a religion of the fringes of society to being a major force in American social life.
John D. Rockefeller
As owner of Standard Oil Rockefeller was the richest man in America, exerting almost unparalleled influence over American industry and the economy. In later life he became one of the greatest philanthropists ever.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Transformed American government with the New Deal.
The founder of the “modern Presidency,” he also exerted American influence abroad first as an advocate for the Spanish-American War and later in his presidency.
Developed the polo vaccine which improved life for millions.
As the leader of the birth control movement and sponsor of the scientific work on the “pill,” Sanger helped to create the environment for subsequent changes in the concepts of gender and sex.
C. I. Scofield
The Scofield Reference Bible promoted dispensationalism to a mass audience. He was one of the founders of the modern Christian fundamentalist movement.
The pastor of the Azusa Street Church where the Pentecostal Movement began, which is now the fasting growing form of Christianity worldwide.
Mathematician and electrical engineer who laid the groundwork for the information age by developing information theory. All contemporary digital devices rely on his work.
William Shockley, Walter Brattain, John Bardeen
Working at Bell Labs, they invented the transistor.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton
The primary founder of American feminism and the suffrage movement.
She developed a new writing style that included stream of consciousness and was an influence on subsequent authors like Hemingway. She was one of the first collectors of modern art. Her home in Paris was frequented by leading artists and writers. She was a catalyst in the development of modern art and literature.
Harriet Beecher Stowe
When the Fugitive Slave Law was re-enacted, Stowe published Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the mood in the North shifted dramatically toward abolitionism.
The father of architectural modernism, he created the modern skyscraper and influenced generations of architects, including Frank Lloyd Wright.
His decisions impacted our culture and world history: dropping the atomic bomb, integrating the military, recognizing the state of Israel, going to war in Korea, etc.
His slave rebellion became a nightmare of Southerners and a rallying cry for abolitionists.
Wrote in a uniquely American colloquial voice and created some of the enduring images and characters in our literary canon.
Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo
Leader of the Mexican state of California who chafed at control from the Mexican government and instead saw California’s future as part of the United States. He also checked attempted Russian expansion into California before the United States gained control in the Mexican War. He was one of California’s first state senators and was significant in commerce and founding cities.
As founder of Wal-Mart he transformed American retail and built what would become the world’s largest corporation. By keeping prices low, a recently study showed that Wal-Mart alone had held down inflation in recent decades. As the company spreads into China and India, who knows what changes it will bring to those societies.
Helped to create our contemporary culture, including the celebrity culture, which focuses more on popular culture than highbrow culture.
As chief justice he oversaw major rulings on segregation, civil rights, and criminal justice. A Republican, he moved the country significantly to the left, but also, inadvertently, helped to create the modern Far Right by being their poster boy for liberal judicial activism.
George Washington’s most important lasting contribution was refusing to be anything other than a two term president of a republic.
James D. Watson
Helped discover the structure of DNA and was the original head of the effort to decode the human genome.
His dictionary defined American English.
The greatest American poet, he glorified the democratic spirit of all people.
The cotton gin made slavery more economical and guaranteed its continuation.
Wilson’s most lasting effect, is a liberal, interventionist foreign policy based on America spreading democracy and human rights abroad instead of being focused on economic interest and/or realpolitik. This foreign policy was adopted by the neo-conservatives and dominated American life in the early twenty-first century.
The first to fly successfully
Leading the Mormons across the wilderness to found Salt Lake City is an epic story of the American frontier conquest and of American religious life that has been characterized by the birth of many new sects.