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Are These Really Our 100 Most Influential Americans, Past and Present?

November 29, 2006

For its December 2006 issue, the Atlantic Monthly came up with a list of “the most influential figures in American history.” Before commenting, I’d just like to say that I can’t believe Mortimer J. Adler is not a part of the top 100! Just kidding, of course. I’m sure every Ph.D. student studying the U.S. has convinced themselves that their subject matter is the most important in all of American history.

On the list, authored by Ross Douthat, does it say something about the U.S., or more about the prejudices of Atlantic Monthly editors and Douthat, that 5 of the top 10, and 10 of the top 20, are former U.S. presidents? Politicians are certainly influential, but are they the most influential character types in U.S. history? Shouldn’t a few cultural figures, such as Walt Disney (26), Mark Twain (16), or Samuel Goldwyn (95), be rated higher? I think I could make a solid argument that film folks have been influential in a top-twenty fashion.

So, what does the Atlantic mean exactly by ‘influence?’ I saw no substantial text accompanying the article: only a short blurb saying the editors/Douthat consulted “historians” in constructing the list. There are a number of still living figures on the list. Are historians any more qualified than other public intellectuals to analyze the current scene? For instance, what of Warren Buffett or the recently deceased Milton Friedman?

Does anyone out there really believe that the Atlantic‘s top 10 males are the same as the top 10 that would be chosen by the “other” 50 percent of the U.S. population: women? Women make their first appearance at 30 (Elizabeth Cady Stanton), 38 (Susan B. Anthongy), and 39 (Rachel Carson). I suppose that women’s relatively low place on the list could simply reflect the history of neglect of women’s abilities in the U.S.

Do the proverbial man and woman on the street, the working folk, agree that three of the top twenty should be U.S. business titans: John Rockefeller, Henry Ford, and Andrew Carnegie? Again, I suppose that simply reflects the low respect for the common worker in a nation focused on wealth accumulation. Famed union leader Samuel Gompers, for instance, came in at a relatively low 61.

In a nation still very much attached to its Protestant-Christian roots, how is it that Billy Graham, the father of the late twentieth-century Evangelical movement, did not make the list? Why is only one preacher, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., in the top 40 (at 8)? The next most influential, according to the list (and my memory), is William Lloyd Garrison at 46. – TL

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4 Comments
  1. I hate these lists. What can you say? At least Gompers made it on. That's it for labor–one might argue that John Lewis or Walter Reuther were actually more influential.

    Both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young?

    The entry for Ralph Nader says a lot about the list's authors.

    Who should have been on the list: Eugene Debs, John Lennon, Robert Ingersoll…

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  2. TH: I agree with your Nader observation. And Debs should have been on there for sure. Not to sound too much like Foucault, but the list does – at least – reflect the loci of power in this country. – TL

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  3. Anonymous permalink

    Well, it seems like it's really “a list of the the most influential people that we also happen to like.” I mean, how could Hoover not make a list like that, whether you like him or not?

    And, I know Parks is recently deceased, but did we really have to forget her that quickly?
    -A.

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  4. Without Hoover, we certainly wouldn't have had F.D. Roosevelt. It's continuous causal factors like that make history interesting: the subject can't simply be a string of beads, whether those beads are presidents, influential person, great books, movements, etc. – TL

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