History

More Top 100 Debating Fun: The Atlantic's Top 100 Influential Figures in American History

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At least we can all agree that the Beatles (or Radiohead) don't get to be number one on this list. Check it out and join the debate–the general criteria is, "most influential," not necessarily most wonderful. A random survey:
1) Abraham Lincoln;
16) Mark Twain (highest ranking purely literary figure);
30) Elizabeth Cady Stanton (the highest ranking woman);
46) William Lloyd Garrison;
52) Joseph Smith;
67) P.T. Barnum;
88) Enrico Fermi;
96) Ralph Nader.

Five of the top 10 were presidents–Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, FDR, and Wilson. Anyone reading Reason for this past week will doubtless notice one very serious omission: the late Milton Friedman.

[UPDATE: I originally wrote that I couldn't tell if ever having been an American citizen was a requirement to make this list, but on further thinking about the list it seems as if it must have been–I don't see anyone on it who, to my knowledge, never became a U.S. citizen.]


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  1. It’s terrible when you have to google #30 Elizabeth Cady Stanton to find out who she is. And I graduated number 3 in my high school!

  2. I bet Hedy Lamarr isn’t on there, and without her, we wouldn’t have cell phones!

  3. Does Christian Science really have any influence on America? My grandparents on both sides were CS, so I have some affection it, but I never thought of it as having any influence outside of the small number of followers.

    Also, I don’t see how any author or poet could have more influence on America than the most insignificant President.

  4. Gouverneur Morris? Charles Peirce?

    These top 100 lists are always quite frustrating.

  5. James T Kirk?

    Robert Heinlein?

    Robert A. Wilson?

  6. Zeno: They included Jonathan Edwards, which shows they at least gave the list some thought.

  7. Who did the selecting? Zeno is right. These lists are frustrating. To Gimme there is argurment that self-help and improvement comes from Christian Science. The CS church is in deep decline.

  8. Ommisions:

    Music: Jimi Hendrix–no sounded like him before, and everyone has tried to sound like him since.

    Science: Kary Mullis–his full impact is probably not apparent yet, but PCR made modern molecular biology possible.

    HB Stowe should probably be higher on the list. Even Lincoln referred to her as the woman who started the war, and nothing shaped modern America like the Civil War.

  9. No Eisenhower? No Edward Teller? Can we nominate the team of Shockley, Brattain and Bardeen? Well, it will make for some lively parlor discussions.

  10. Does Christian Science really have any influence on America?

    Don’t know about that but the newspaper, The Christian Science Monitor, provides a pretty good example of objectivity and balance when it comes to reporting the news. Both Fox AND MSM could learn a thing or two.

    That’s probably a more influenctial legacy.

  11. No Mencken. No Eugene Debs. No Ayn Rand.
    I’m calling shennanigans.

  12. The article doesn’t say who came up with this list or how. Emerson and Thoreau should both be higher than Twain. And Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, and Judy Garland should all be on there instead of a lot of names in the 50-100 range.

  13. THAT’S HEDLY!

  14. How about John Burgoyne? Without his poor strategic judgment, there wouldn’t even be a United States.

  15. “I bet Hedy Lamarr isn’t on there”

    That’s Hedley.

  16. No pre-Rev War figures? Wow. Nothing happened from 1607-the birth of Franklin apparently.

    If they had done any research they would have picked John Hall, the most important inventor in American history. The guy who invented true interchangeable parts manufacturing and thus brought about the “American System” of manufacturing.

  17. If you include Alexander Hamilton, don’t you have to include Aaron Burr? Remember the operative word is influential.

  18. Damn you Mel Brooks! You beat me to it. I get extra points for spelling it correctly, though.

  19. No Britney Spears? No Jamie Foxx? Who made this list anyway – people over 25?

    Sorry, just had to clear the palate.

  20. Zeno: Jonathan Edwards died before the Revolution, and he is on the list. George Whitfield should probably also be on the list. Religious life in America to the present day was fundamentally shaped by these two men.

  21. Todd, are you referring to age, IQ or both?

  22. In a contrarian mood, I suggest John Browning… a central figure in the development of modern firearms and holder of 128 firearms patents. What is America if not the celebration of firearms?

  23. Generals Sherman and MacArthur, shoo-ins.

  24. ron,

    Yeah, I missed him. I only scanned the list quickly. Still, what about William Bradford or Cotton Mather?

  25. Did anyone notice this one?

    83 James Fenimore Cooper
    The novels are unreadable, but he was the first great mythologizer of the frontier.

    What the hell? How are they “unreadable?” Hell, the guy was the first American ever to really making a living as an author! If they are unreadable, why did I enjoy his work?

  26. At least 2 Oak Park’ers! (FLW & Hemingway) Woo Hoo! Oak Park rules! In your face, Evanston!

  27. being an actual American citizen is not clearly a requirement–it was influence in American history that counts.

    Which is a sticking point: George III had a bigger influence on American history than half the people on this list. And what about Hitler and Stalin?

    Just among Americans: Where’s Philo Farnsworth? Robert Fulton? John Hammond?

    It’s a pretty good list, actually.

  28. Billy Durant, anyone?

  29. Tim Cavanaugh,

    Eli Whitney is far, far too much lionized. The cotton gin did not save slavery.

    Nice to see you back in the old ‘hood.

    Happy Thanksgiving. 🙂

  30. John Hancock – His genius for compromise made the Declaration of Independence possible.

    Cotton Mather – The first great American intellectual.

    Roger Williams – First true fighter for liberty in America.

  31. I notice that they put Thomas Edison at number 9 and the caption reads

    It wasn’t just the lightbulb; the Wizard of Menlo Park was the most prolific inventor in American history.

    Nikola Tesla is one of the most important inventors in American history, much more than Thomas Edison. If you like the electrical grid and pretty much anything else that uses alternating current, then thank Nikola Tesla.

  32. Andy Warhol? Charlie Chaplin? This is fun.

  33. Gates and Walton are way too far dowm on the list by virtue of recent impact. Edison is robbed.

    But none of this is what I wanted to talk about.

    Jefferson v Madison. I have no doubt that even Madison turns in his grave at the extent of Federalism we have wrought. Jefferson weeps.

  34. Longfellow belongs on there in place of Whitman. And Melville should probably come off.

  35. Wernher von Braun? Did the space age go by unnoticed?

  36. What the hell? How are they “unreadable?” Hell, the guy was the first American ever to really making a living as an author! If they are unreadable, why did I enjoy his work?

    Mark Twain wrote a hilarious takedown of Cooper, and were I at home, I’d give you the name of the essay. I highly recommend it, anyway. It might give you an idea of why some people think the Leatherstocking books weren’t all that great.

  37. I guess Al Jourgensen was right on the bubble.

  38. Wernher von Braun? Did the space age go by unnoticed?

    Boy, do I feel stupid right now!

  39. what about tesla

    he gave us A/C power

    and was the namesake of a bad 80’s band

  40. As long as we’re talking electrically, Joseph Henry. We might include his work at the Smithsonian as well.

  41. Doublespeak-Whether you admit it or not, you sing along when “Love Song” comes on the radio. It’s ok-everyone does it.

    In fact, it’s playing in your head right now, isn’t it?

    Loove is knockin..outside your doo-ooor!

  42. In a contrarian mood, I suggest John Browning… a central figure in the development of modern firearms and holder of 128 firearms patents. What is America if not the celebration of firearms?

    Nah, they already had two Mormons on the list. Diversity, you know.

    But you are correct: Old JMB designed many weapons, two of which were instrumental in all American wars of the past century and are still in use today: The 1911 pistol and the M2 .50 cal machine gun.

  43. joe said:

    I guess Al Jourgensen was right on the bubble.

    I’m voting for joe as winner of the thread.

  44. Jake Boone

    “The Literary Offenses of James Fennimore Cooper”

  45. Leland Stanford. Upton Sinclair. Tecumseh.

  46. Jack Booone,

    Twain was a hack. 😉

  47. I guess the way FDR adopted the ideas of Benito Mussolini and Karl Marx doesn’t count. But those ideas sure have influenced the US.

  48. Aaron Spelling? Larry David? Hugh Hefner?

  49. jp,

    Jerry Seinfeld? Michael Richards?

    Oh, er…

  50. I second the choice of Hugh Hefner. But of course, I’m biased.

  51. Herman fucking Melville? Speaking of unreadable…

    I’ll trade you ten Melvilles for one William Tecumseh Sherman, and twenty Thoreaus (not THAT one) for Crazy Horse.

  52. Fools! The most influential American of them all, the Father of the Baby Boomers, Maynard G. Krebs, should be number one.

  53. Kind of odd how they didn’t mention Kinsey.

  54. Here’s a link to Twain’s essay: Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses. I included it on the syllabus of a course I started teaching this term at the University of Pennsylvania, What’s So Funny.

  55. Scott Stein,

    Alright, that’s enough Cooper bashing. Move along. 🙂

  56. Zeno,

    Fair enough. If it makes you feel better, he’s still required reading in English courses. Moving along.

  57. If they are going to include Eli Whitney and Cyrus McCormick then they sure as hell should include:

    John Deere.

  58. Why is Babe Ruth on there? And not D.W. Griffiths? Don’t we enjoy action movies and epics more than baseball? What about Mack Sennet?

  59. Jay Cooke? Stephen Girard?

  60. Two words: Only Ed and The Almost.
    Er, five words.
    American Patriot and Pop-Culture Crackpot.*

    *Ed appologizes for this crass self-endorsement.
    Free Minds and Free Markets!
    Huzzah!

  61. I’d swap Milton Friedman for Rachel Carson any day. Other than that, it’s hard to really quibble without a week or so to think about it. But Jonathan Edwards? A poor man’s Bob Dylan in my book! But we could all “put a good buzz on” once in a while.

  62. Hmmm, I don’t know about a “Top 100” list that has 102 people on it.

  63. Notable omissions:

    Jay Gould
    Julia Child
    Ann Landers
    Marilyn Monroe

    People who didn’t belong:

    Frederick Law Olmsted
    James Polk
    Joseph Smith
    Lyman Beecher

  64. Joseph Smith, Mary Baker Eddy … but no L. Ron Hubbard?

  65. John Milton.

    Vladimir Kosma Zworykin/Philo Taylor Farnsworth inventors of the television.

    Their cred for music left with a sucking sound when Elvis topped the list (even with Alien Jourgensen on the bubble “with sympathy”)

  66. “Hmmm, I don’t know about a “Top 100″ list that has 102 people on it.”

    I only count 101… but point taken

  67. Where’s John Bartram, the first American botanist, who with his friend Benjamin Franklin founded the American Philosophical Society?

    Without him we might never have known about sexual reproduction of plants.

    Got to protect the family honor here, don’t you know?

  68. Johannes Gutenberg? Jesus?

  69. I only count 101… but point taken

    102 because of the Wright Brothers and Lewis and Clark.

  70. Lee was a great general, but Grant was the “conciliator.”

    And where’s General Blackjack Pershing? Admiral Hyman Rickover, Douglas MacArthur, Geronimo?

    Frederick Remington, Al Capp, Zane Gray, Norman Rockwell, Charles Schulz, Gene Roddenberry?

  71. Cooper is a man who loves to hear himself talk at length about some tree or another, which today we consider to be the realm of self-published crap.

    Melville, on the other hand, parodied that fashion, while at the same time taking advantage of its breadth to slip in sublime pieces of truth. Read one of his books for once without the juvenile assumption that the narrator is equal to the author and you’ll come away with a much greater appreciation of American literature.

  72. Les Paul!

    The man only invented multi-track recording and a whole host of technical innovations in the studio.

    Without what he did, music as we’ve known it for the past half-century, anyway, simply would not exist. Look back, think about it, and hoist one for Mr. Lester W. Polfus.

  73. “most influential,” not necessarily most wonderful.

    Yeah, but this is still a list of more or less good influences. I wanna see a list of Top 100 Bad Influentual Figures.

    John Dewey? Thomas Kinkade?

  74. I added Winfield Scott (the most influential general of the first half of the 19th century, who trained a lot of the generals who fought the Civil War), D. W. Griffith and Edgar Allen Poe.

  75. I only count 101… but point taken

    102 because of the Wright Brothers and Lewis and Clark.

    The discrepancy might be occuring because #54, Bill Gates, is being blocked due to an Internet Explorer issue. A reboot may help.

  76. Someone we haven’t considered yet is Norman Borlaug.

    Larry A,

    In military affairs they should have included Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan. The most influential military theorist since von Clauswitz.

  77. I don’t see anyone on it who, to my knowledge, never became a U.S. citizen

    I think Nat Turner might be the only exception.

  78. Milton Friedman’s omission is a shame . . . a travesty, in fact. It shall be left to another generation, whose lives will have been further touched by his legacy, to grant him his kudos.

  79. I don’t see anyone on it who, to my knowledge, never became a U.S. citizen.

    Well, technically Johnathan Edwards never became a U.S. citizen; he was born in the British North American colonies and died in them before the Revolution (even before the troubles started in the post-French and Indian war settlement). What his attitude towards the Revolution would have been is unknown to me.

    Thomas Paine did die somewhere in New York state (on Manhattan island somewhere), but I don’t know what his citizenship status was. He was a pariah when he died.

  80. i noticed a lack of african americans, women, hispanics, first nations people, etc etc

    and as for mary baker eddy, her influencewasnt only CS but a perculirly american optomism, about healing with faith instead of medicine, and against war, and all of that anti authrotarian radicalness, and of course the newspaper

  81. Jack Johnson
    Maybe the best heavyweight boxer ever, and the first black man that refused to not be free.

  82. Anyway, any list like this tells you more about the historical period in which the list was made than it does about American history, etc.

  83. i noticed a lack of african americans, women, hispanics, first nations people, etc etc

    That’s because for most of our history members of those groups either were not present in the US in significant numbers or not were able to rise to positions of influence due to societal restrictions.

    History is about facts and reality, not wishful thinking. Making the list more “diverse” might make modern Americans feel better about themselves, but it wouldn’t change what actually happened back then.

  84. Captain Holly,

    Well, there are a number of very influential black people who could have been included without making it a P.C. parade. For example, a number of Jazz artists. One could also include George Washington Carver.

  85. Geronimo?

    Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce?

    Sitting Bull?

  86. This list pisses me off to no end!

  87. Ahhh, the Wright Brothers. Missed it.

  88. Isoroku Yamamoto

  89. Theodore Geisel

  90. Elisha Otis

  91. Albert Hofmann

  92. Po’pay, Luis Tupatu,Antonio Malacate,El Saca

  93. Juan de Onate

  94. Sam Houston

  95. John Bunyan

  96. Jack Kilby and Robert Noyce

  97. William Barton Rogers et al.

  98. It’s like they didn’t even try.

  99. In terms of influence, Milton Friedman can’t touch Mao.

  100. I think Ayn Rand and Nikola Tesla are notable omissions. Personally I’d have liked to see Isaac Asimov make the cut, but I’m biased toward sci-fi types.

  101. bob keeshan. tex avery. jerome horwitz. ehrich weisz.

    and, of course, brooks robinson.

  102. Geronimo?

    Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce?

    Sitting Bull?

    All were influential with their respective tribes, but in terms of overall US history, they were little more than temporary impediments to the settlement of the West.

    However, since it’s Thanksgiving I will agree that Chief Massasoit and his translator Squanto should be on the list. Because if they hadn’t helped the Pilgrims get on their feet and instead treated them as enemies, the English might have gotten the idea that settling the New World just wasn’t worth the trouble. And that really would have changed US history.

  103. I understand that this is a list of influential and not greatest, however if John Wilkes Booth ands Tim McViegh did not make the grade, how the hell could Rachel Carson? That woman ( as well as the EPA) has the blood of millions of malaria victims on her hands.

  104. “That woman ( as well as the EPA) has the blood of millions of malaria victims on her hands.”

    Sorry, but you’ve been duped. Not true at all. The topic has been discussed to death here… so I won’t spend any time in refutation.

    Here is a quick look at some of the misconceptions

    http://scienceblogs.com/deltoid/2006/09/becker_and_posners_ignorance_a.php

  105. Lewis and Clark didn’t influence anyone. They were ignored in their own time and their report ended up in a desk drawer for years. By the time anyone read it, the west was already inhabited by using entirely different routes.

  106. Edward Everett Horton could replace many of the people on this list with no significant diminution of its validity.

  107. I’m astonished nobody involved in the founding of Texas made the list – Sam Houston, Davy Crockett, Tyler, Austin? Or California: Leland Stanford, for a start, who played a major role in the birth of transcontinental railroads as well.

  108. A few of my omitted favorites:

    John Brown – triggered a civil war

    Duke Ellington – most important jazz figure

    Lew Wallace – First Pop Culture Phenomenon

    Robert Green Ingersoll – Leading spokesman of American secularism

    Alan Freed – Pop music’s “Johnny Appleseed”

    William Morton – Made modern surgery possible

    George Marshall – A genuine hero in WWII, his bungling of the China situation in the late forties brought the Cold War to Asia.

    Les Paul – What would modern popular music be without electric guitars?

    Curt Flood – Changed the face of professional sports

    Milton Berle – First Television Superstar

    Willis Haviland Carrier – His invention – air conditioning – added years to the average life expectancy and made the federal government a year-round industry.

  109. John Brown is on the list.

  110. John Brown is on the list.

    In a word, oops…

  111. I know this will stick in the craw of many, but John Kennedy should rank if only for kick-starting the space program.

  112. Jim Walsh: “Les Paul – What would modern popular music be without electric guitars?”

    I’ve already noted Les Paul, and the fact is that his invention of multi-track recording is far, far more important. The electric guitar is a big deal, but it’s not the only signal that was ever run through a recording console to tape, by a long shot.

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