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American Idols

Who are the most influential figures in American history? Ten historians came up with a 'Top 100.' Now, you get to decide...

By Ross Douhat


Last year, The Atlantic magazine worked with 10 prominent historians to come up with a list of the 100 most influential Americans, past and present, with "influence" defined as "a person's impact, for good or for ill, both on his or her own era, and on the way we live now."

The results are inevitably unscientific, since whittling down all the influential Americans of the last few centuries to just 100 names, let alone ranking them, isn't easy.

The list suggests that white Protestant men have been the most influential, at least in the eyes of these historians. There are 10 women on the list, eight blacks, a few Catholics and Jews, and no Hispanics, Asians, or Native Americans.

Of course this list, or any such list, is far from definitive. But it does offer a good takeoff place for discussion, starting with who's not on the list that you think deserves to be, and who's on the list that you think shouldn't be.

Let the debate begin.

1. Abraham Lincoln
As President (1861-65), he saved the Union, freed the slaves, and presided over America's second founding.

2. George Washington
The first President (1789-97) made the United States possible—by defeating a king, and by declining to become one himself.

3. Thomas Jefferson
Third President (1801-09) and the author of the five most important words in American history: "All men are created equal."

4. Franklin D. Roosevelt
President (1933-45) during the Depression and World War II. He said "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," and then proved it.

5. Alexander Hamilton
Soldier, banker, and political scientist, he set in motion an agrarian nation's transformation into an industrial power.

6. Benjamin Franklin
The Founder-of-all-trades: diplomat, scientist, printer, writer, inventor, and more.

7. John Marshall
The defining Chief Justice (1801-35), he established the Supreme Court as the equal of the other two federal branches.

8. Martin Luther King Jr.
His dream of racial equality is still elusive, but no one did more to make it real.

9. Thomas A. Edison
It wasn't just the light bulb; the Wizard of Menlo Park (N.J.) was the most prolific inventor in U.S. history.

10. Woodrow Wilson
This President (1913-21) made the world safe for U.S. interventionism, if not for democracy.

11. John D. Rockefeller
The man behind Standard Oil set the mold for American tycoons—first by making money, and then by giving it away.

12. Ulysses S. Grant
A poor President (1869-77), but the general Lincoln needed in the Civil War.

13. James Madison
Before becoming the fourth President (1809-17), he fathered the Constitution and wrote the Bill of Rights.

14. Henry Ford
He gave us the assembly line and the Model T, and sparked America's love affair with the automobile.

15. Theodore Roosevelt
Whether busting trusts or building canals, this President (1901-09) blazed a trail for 20th-century America.

16. Mark Twain
Author of our national epic, Huckleberry Finn, and the most unsentimental observer of American life.

17. Ronald Reagan
As President (1981-89), he made conservatism mainstream and helped end the Cold War.

18. Andrew Jackson
President (1829-37); the first great populist, he found America a republic and left it a democracy.

19. Thomas Paine
Our first great radical; his 1776 treatise, Common Sense, urged immediate separation from England.

20. Andrew Carnegie
The original self-made man forged America's industrial might and became one of our greatest philanthropists.

21. Harry S. Truman
An accidental President (1945-53) who ushered in the Atomic Age and then the Cold War.

22. Walt Whitman
His poetry sang of America and shaped the country's conception of itself.

23. Wright Brothers
Orville and Wilbur got us all off the ground.

24. Alexander Graham Bell
With his invention of the telephone, he opened the age of telecommunications.

25. John Adams
The second President (1797-1801); his leadership made the American Revolution possible.

26. Walt Disney
The quintessential entertainer-entrepreneur wielded unmatched influence over our childhood.

27. Eli Whitney
His cotton gin, patented in 1794, made cotton a money crop and helped sustain an empire for slavery.

28. Dwight Eisenhower
He won a war and two elections as President (1953-61), and made everybody like Ike.

29. Earl Warren
As Chief Justice (1953-69), he and his Supreme Court transformed American society.

30. Elizabeth Cady Stanton
One of the first great American feminists, she fought for social reform and women's right to vote.

31. Henry Clay
One of our greatest legislators and orators, he forged compromises that held off civil war for decades.

32. Albert Einstein
His greatest scientific work was done in Europe, but his humanity earned him undying fame in America.

33. Ralph Waldo Emerson
The bard of individualism, he relied on himself—and told us all to do the same.

34. Jonas Salk
His vaccine for polio eradicated one of the world's worst plagues.

35. Jackie Robinson
He broke baseball's color barrier and embodied integration's promise.

36. William Jennings Bryan
"The Great Commoner" lost three presidential elections, but his populism transformed the country.

37. J. P. Morgan
The great financier was the prototype for all the Wall Street barons who followed.

38. Susan B. Anthony
She was the country's most eloquent voice for women's equality under the law.

39. Rachel Carson
The author of Silent Spring was godmother to the environmental movement.

40. John Dewey
He sought to make the public school a training ground for democratic life.

41. Harriet Beecher Stowe
Her Uncle Tom's Cabin inspired a generation of abolitionists and set the stage for civil war.

42. Eleanor Roosevelt
She used the First Lady's office and the media to become "First Lady of the world."

43. W. E. B. DuBois
One of America's great intellectuals, he made the "problem of the color line" his life's work.

44. Lyndon B. Johnson
President (1963-69); his brilliance gave us civil rights laws; his stubbornness gave us Vietnam.

45. Samuel F. B. Morse
Long before the Internet, there was the Morse code.

46. William Lloyd Garrison
Through his newspaper, The Liberator, he became the voice of abolition.

47. Frederick Douglass
After escaping from slavery, he pricked the nation's conscience with an eloquent accounting of its crimes.

48. Robert Oppenheimer
The father of the atomic bomb and the regretful midwife of the nuclear era.

49. Frederick Law Olmsted
The genius behind New York's Central Park, he inspired the greening of America's cities.

50. James K. Polk
President (1845-49); his Mexican War land-grab gave us California, Texas, and the Southwest.

51. Margaret Sanger
The ardent champion of birth control.

52. Joseph Smith
The founder of Mormonism, America's most famous homegrown faith.

53. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.
This Supreme Court Justice wrote opinions that still shape American law.

54. Bill Gates
The Rockefeller of the Information Age, in business and philanthropy alike.

55. John Quincy Adams
The Monroe Doctrine's real author, the sixth President (1825-29) set 19th-century America's diplomatic course.

56. Horace Mann
His advocacy of universal public schooling earned him the title "the father of American education."

57. Robert E. Lee
He was a good general but a better symbol, embodying conciliation in defeat.

58. John C. Calhoun
The voice of the antebellum South, he was slavery's most ardent defender.

59. Louis Sullivan
This architect shaped the defining American building: the skyscraper.

60. William Faulkner
The most gifted chronicler of America's tormented and fascinating South.

61. Samuel Gompers
America's greatest labor organizer made the golden age of unions possible.

62 William James
The mind behind America's most important philosophical school, Pragmatism.

63. George Marshall
As a general, he organized the American effort in World War II; as a statesman, he rebuilt Western Europe.

64. Jane Addams
The founder of Hull House, she became the secular saint of social work.

65. Henry David Thoreau
The author of Walden has inspired seekers of authenticity for 150 years.

66. Elvis Presley
He melded country, blues, and gospel, and became the king of rock 'n' roll.

67. P. T. Barnum
The circus impresario's taste for spectacle paved the way for blockbuster movies and reality TV.

68. James D. Watson
He co-discovered DNA's double helix, revealing the code of life.

69. James Gordon Bennett
As the founding publisher of The New York Herald, he invented the modern American newspaper.

70. Lewis and Clark
They went west to explore, and millions followed.

71. Noah Webster
He didn't create American English, but his dictionary defined it.

72. Sam Walton
The founder of Wal-Mart promised us "Every Day Low Prices," and we took him up on the offer.

73. Cyrus McCormick
His mechanical reaper signaled the beginning of industrial agriculture.

74. Brigham Young
What Joseph Smith founded, Young preserved, leading the Mormons to their promised land, Utah.

75. Babe Ruth
He saved the national pastime in the wake of the Black Sox scandal—and permanently linked sports and celebrity.

76. Frank Lloyd Wright
America's most significant architect.

77. Betty Friedan
She spoke to desperate housewives everywhere, and inspired a revolution in gender roles.

78. John Brown
Whether a hero, a fanatic, or both, he provided the spark for the Civil War.

79. Louis Armstrong
His talent took jazz from New Orleans to Broadway, TV, and beyond.

80. William Randolph Hearst
The press baron who perfected yellow journalism and helped start the Spanish-American War.

81. Margaret Mead
Her Coming of Age in Samoa made anthropology relevant, and controversial.

82. George Gallup
His polls asked Americans what they thought, and the politicians listened.

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

84. Thurgood Marshall
As a lawyer and the first black Supreme Court Justice, he was the legal architect of the civil rights revolution.

85. Ernest Hemingway
With novels like The Sun Also Rises, he influenced generations of writers.

86. Mary Baker Eddy
She got off her sickbed and founded Christian Science, which promised spiritual healing to all.

87. Benjamin Spock
With one book, he changed American parenting.

88. Enrico Fermi
A giant of physics, he helped develop quantum theory and was instrumental in building the atom bomb.

89. Walter Lippmann
The last man who could swing an election with a newspaper column.

90. Jonathan Edwards
His eloquence made him America's most influential theologian.

91. Lyman Beecher
Harriet Beecher Stowe's father earned fame as an abolitionist and evangelist.

92. John Steinbeck
In his novel The Grapes of Wrath, he chronicled Depression-era misery.

93. Nat Turner
The most significant rebel slave; his specter stalked the white South for a century.

94. George Eastman
The founder of Kodak democratized photography with his handy rolls of film.

95. Sam Goldwyn
A producer for 40 years, he was the first great Hollywood mogul.

96. Ralph Nader
He made the cars we drive safer—and George W. Bush President in 2000.

97. Stephen Foster
America's first great songwriter, he brought us "O! Susanna" and "My Old Kentucky Home."

98. Booker T. Washington
As an educator and self-help champion, he tried to lead blacks up from slavery.

99. Richard M. Nixon
President (1969-74); after breaking up the Democrats' New Deal majority, he broke his presidency on a scandal that still haunts America.

100. Herman Melville
Moby Dick was a flop at the time, but Melville is remembered as the American Shakespeare.