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November 25, 2006

"I have here in my hand a list"

Ok, so it's not THAT kind of list. The December issue of The Atlantic has an interesting article naming the Top 100 Most Influential Figures in American History (registration or subscription perhaps required; I don't know, I am a subscriber). A group of esteemed historians, including evangelical historian Mark Noll, voted on the top 100 most influential Americans. The article is also filled with other interesting sidelines, including the most influential Americans still living, and subsets that include influential musicians, poets, architects, and others.

Here are the Top 5:

Abraham Lincoln

George Washington

Thomas Jefferson

Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Alexander Hamilton

Now, to paraphrase Alan Jacobs in A Visit to Vanity Fair: Moral Essays on the Present Age, to make any such type of list is to invite immediate rebuttal about the list. I have made one circumnavigation, and I think the list is fairly complete (with one glaring exception). I will begin with quibbles about the order.

First, I would likely put Washington first and Lincoln second. This is a mere trifle--perhaps they should be tied for first. Nonetheless, Lincoln was not working from a blank slate. He had an idea of what America was. Washington did not have four score and seven years. He was writing on a blank slate. Thus, I would put Washington first. No Washington, perhaps no Union for Lincoln to preserve.

Second, I would put James Madison in the Top 5. Perhaps we would have had the Constitution we have now without Madison. I'd rather not gamble on it though.

Third, I would put Martin Luther King in the Top 5. He came in at eighth. His ability to rally African Americans around non-violent change, as well as his ability to rally white Americans with his eloquent logic, put him in a status with the Founders. If you disagree, consider how the Sixties, as trying as they were from a race relations perspective, would have played out without Dr. King and his non-violence.

Fourth, I was gratified to see Ronald Reagan in the Top 20 (#17). As time passes, his vision and his strength of will are being recognized. Ten years ago, he would perhaps have made the second 50.

Fifth, Patrick Henry doesn't make the list? I have been laboring under the delusion that he may have once given an influential speech, but perhaps I recollect incorrectly. I do not doubt that Stephen Foster (#97), Ralph Nader (#96) and P.T. Barnum (#67!) were much more influential. Wait! Thomas Paine (#19) is there instead? OK "PRESTIGIOUS" HISTORIANS WHO MADE THIS LIST, REPEAT AFTER ME: THOMAS PAINE WAS NOT AN AMERICAN, HE WAS A SCOTSMAN (IF HE WAS ANYTHING).

Other quick-hit trifles:

--Walt Whitman (#22) beats out John Adams (#25)? ??? ?????

--Jonathan Edwards comes in at #90. Glad to see it. Billy Graham does not make it. Not happy about that.

--Herman Melville rounds out the list at #100, making, apparently, Rachel Carson (#39) more influential. A fact no doubt supported by the fact that Silent Spring is on so many more high school and college course reading lists than Moby Dick.

--The first woman is Elizabeth Cady Stanton (#30). Apparently Sandra Day O'Connor has been less influential.

In the event, I do not want to nit-pick too much. It is a very fun list. If it gets people talking about the people, and the issues they represent, then it will have done a great deal of good.

Oh, and by the way, the person whose quote gives this post its title was an also-ran:

With only two votes, Cold War bogeyman Joseph McCarthy didn’t make the Top 100

Demagoguery ain't what it used to be.

Posted by Mark at November 25, 2006 11:18 PM

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