Who Are the Most Significant Americans in History? (part 1)

I’ve parlayed my graduate training in diplomatic/international and European history into a license to teach on everything from human rights to church history and to write on… well, pretty much anything I want. (Thanks, WordPress!) But I retain enough self-awareness to know that I am no U.S. historian.

Special issue of Smithsonian Magazine listing "100 Most Significant Americans of All Time"So when I saw that Smithsonian Magazine had put out a list of “The 100 Most Significant Americans of All Time,” I knew that I’d need to crowdsource a response.

I asked a few of fellow historian-bloggers possessing more expertise in this area to respond to a few questions about the Smithsonian list, which started with some “big data” analysis of “historical reputation” and then built in some editorial corrections for the biases of Wikipedia (with Google Books, the chief source of the data being analyzed).

Take it away Jonathan Den Hartog (Historical Conversations), John Fea (The Way of Improvement Leads Home), Devin Manzullo-Thomas (The Search for Piety and Obedience), and Miles Mullin (The Anxious Bench)!

In general, what you think about the idea of ranking Americans by historical significance? Is this a waste of time, or an instructive exercise that creates a teachable moment?

JF: Lists like this are not going to satisfy anyone, but I do think they create discussion among historians and students. This is good.

JDH: This approach strikes me as similar to the lists which rank the presidents. They might start a conversation, but they have little lasting value. Yes, data was gathered, but I don’t think this tells us much about significance in American history or about the United States in general. I suppose it could be used as a “conversation starter,” much the same way I use bad examples of historical research and writing in my classes. It might be interesting to get people to reflect on what “significance” means.

DM-T: If I’m wearing my fussy, critical academic historian’s hat, I might point out that such lists sort of misunderstand the very concept of “history,” which is about analyzing the past using the best sources available, placing people and events in context while paying attention to change and continuity over time.

MM: I think it is harmless and can generate conversation.  If we spend too much time arguing about who is on/off and who should be on/off, then we make it bigger than it should be, losing focus on the more important aspects of history and more significant items to discuss.

DM-T: But if I put on my audience-friendly, authority-sharing public historian’s hat, I’m much more likely to echo theSmithsonian‘s hope, expressed quite cogently in the closing paragraphs of their article:

Argument, of course, has been integral to American historiography from the beginning. When Andrew Gelman, a professor of statistics and political science at Columbia University, wrote that Who’s Bigger? “is a guaranteed argument-starter,” he meant it as a compliment. We hope our list will spark a few passionate discussions as well.

If all those year-end lists put out by the big media outlets — Best Movies, Best Albums, Best TV Moments — are any indicator, the general public loves a good list, so I, too, have hope for the value of lists such as this. I, too, hope that this list will spark lively, thoughtful debate among the readers of Smithsonian magazine (most of whom, I assume, are not​ academic historians). I, too, hope that these debates will stimulate vigorous conversation about the value of history, the relevance of the past to our everyday lives, and the sense of “difference” we can feel when we encounter the past in all its complicated, nuanced glory.

But perhaps I’m being naive.

What do you think of the Smithsonian‘s particular approach — in particular, the ways they use (and amend) “big data” analytics?

Skiena and Ward, Who's Bigger?
The Smithsonian issue draws on the methods of computer scientist Steven Skiena and Google engineer Charles Ward

DM-T: I might point out that ranking historical figures in this way — by using big data culled from crowd-sourced sites like Wikipedia — veers dangerously close to hagiography, to venerating “great men” while missing the complexities of the past and the role of everyday people — including women and racial/ethnic minorities — in the shaping of “significant” events, movements, and ideas.

MM: This aspect of their methodology — “Their rankings account not only for what individuals have done, but also for how well others remember and value them for it” — necessarily raises the troubling questions of memory and “heritage history” that we so often encounter.

JDH: The methodology strikes me as a reminder of why we need historians. Historians tell stories that make sense of data and experience. This list seems heavy on data but not on interpretation. I would suggest there is not a single category of “significance.” Rather, significance takes shape only when put into context of a specific story. Thus, someone extremely significant in one category might not make such an over-all listing. Significance is not currency that one acquires: it’s only relevant in relation to others. Further, “significance” might not be national or institutional. The single mother who struggles to allow her children to succeed may have attained a level of “significance” in a small circle much greater than many of these individuals. This raises the moral and even Christian question of what counts as significance.

JF: I am skeptical about the big data approach. History and historiography is always changing. This approach does not take into account the human decisions behind who appears most in books and who does not.

Devin, John, Jonathan, and Miles will be back tomorrow with their take on the actual list: the good, the bad, and the missing. But let’s first see what blog readers think. Browse the Smithsonian list and use the comments section to let me know which names you were pleasantly surprised to see make the cut, which names have no business being on such a list, and which should have been there but aren’t.

3 thoughts on “Who Are the Most Significant Americans in History? (part 1)

  1. I am enjoying this discussion and perused the list with interest. The name I truly don’t get is Marilyn Monroe. Really? Known, yes; significant, not so sure.

  2. At quick glance, Secretariat should not be on there. I can understand his listing as one of the top American athletes (which ESPN ranked him #35 in a top 100 list they did in 1999), but significant American? That’s a bit silly. Part of me would like to read this book to understand more about the methodology behind it, but I think I would end up being more annoyed than anything – and I have enough buzzfeed lists to annoy me already 🙂

  3. I believe that Williams and Penn should be one and two on the Religious Figures list. I would put Roger Williams first, but then I am a bit biased since I am a direct descendant of Williams.

    I would give priority to people who were significant to religion as a whole and not just one sect or denomination.

    I would put either Smith or Young in the top 10, but not both. Maybe Smith for Religion and Young for a Trailblazer who helped settle the West.

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