Who Are the Most Significant Americans in History? (part 2)

In part one of their response to Smithsonian Magazine’s attempt to list “The 100 Most Significant American of All Time,” historians Miles Mullin, John Fea, Devin Manzullo-Thomas, and Jonathan Den Hartog evaluated the methodology of the project. Today, they pick apart the actual list itself…

Which name were you most pleasantly surprised to see? (i.e., someone who might not normally make this kind of cut but whom you think is highly significant)

1871 Nast Cartoon of Boss Tweed
1871 Nast cartoon of Tweed (“The ‘Brains'”) – Wikimedia

JDH: How about Boss Tweed? He inspired great Thomas Nast political cartoons and helped inspire Civil Service reform. He incited others to good by acting badly.

DM-T: Jane Addams and/or Anne Hutchinson

JF: W.E.B. DuBois.

Which was the worst choice, in your judgment?

JF: Hard to tell. Toss up between Sarah Palin, Hulk Hogan, and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

JDH: I’m torn between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Hulk Hogan. Ahnold was a body-builder before becoming an actor and politician, but he left little mark on any of those fields. I realize the Hulk inspired many Hulksters and Hulk-amaniacs, but he, too, will soon become a footnote to history, if that (unless, you are writing a story about the WWF/WWE, then he might loom large — see the second question above).

DM-T: Secretariat. Only 100 Americans of “historical significance,” and one of them is a horse?

Give us one or two names that are missing but ought to be somewhere on the list.

JDH: Only 1 or 2?

MM: Coming up with just one or two is difficult…

JF: George Whitefield, Jerry Falwell, Henry Ward Beecher. [ed. – Yes, “Coming up with just one or two is difficult”]

Dorothy Day in 1934
1934 photo of Dorothy Day, one year into the run of The Catholic Worker – Wikimedia

DM-T: I’d love to see a few radical leftists on the list: someone like Dorothy Day, the Catholic social activist and pacifist, or A. J. Muste, the labor organizer and leader of the pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation, or Bayard Rustin, the gay civil rights activist and pacifist. But that probably betrays more about my own areas of research interest than it does about big data hauls…

JDH: Francis Asbury inspired and oversaw the rise of the Methodist Movement during the 2nd Great Awakening. The Methodists were the leading group in furthering a democratized version of Christianity in America–a development which continues to both help and hinder Christians to this day.

MM: I’ll say that my short list from the longer one below is Walton (how not?) and Ashe, who succeeded in becoming the best athlete in the world in a sport dominated by white Country Club types — at least in America. Further, I’m certain that someone in the country music genre should have made the list somewhere.

Rebels: Cesar Chavez

Presidents: Harry Truman, George H.W. Bush, Barack Obama

Women: Antoinette Brown

Religious Figures: James Cone

Empire Builders: Sam Walton

Athletes: Arthur Ashe

JDH: Alexander Hamilton contributed to the ratification of the Constitution and then helped lay the groundwork for the financial, industrial America that would develop across the 19th century. Although never a president, he left a lasting impression on American politics and economics.  John Jay is the most important founder people usually forget about. Jay may have been even more important than Hamilton in securing the Constitution’s ratification. As the First Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, he effectively over saw its establishment and functioning. Jay also was one of the most able diplomats in the new nation, helping secure territory in the 1783 Peace of Paris and averting a disastrous war with Britain in 1794.

Hall, Arthur AsheFor readers who might want to learn more about the people who didn’t make the Smithsonian list… Can you pick one and recommend a good biography of her or him? (Perhaps even a book you yourself have written or are writing…)

MM: Eric Allen Hall, Arthur Ashe: Tennis and Justice in the Civil Rights Era (Johns Hopkins, 2014)

JDH: For Francis Asbury, see John Wigger’s book American Saint (Oxford, 2009). For Alexander Hamilton, the most popular recent book is Ron Chernow’s big Alexander Hamilton (Penguin, 2004). (I also appreciate the way Hamilton shows up in Joseph Ellis’s Founding Brothers.)

On John Jay, I might immoderately suggest that he plays a large role in the forthcoming Patriotism and Piety: Federalist Politics and Religious Struggle in the New American Nation (U. Virginia, January 2015).

<<Read the first half of this two-part post


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