The most famous men and women in American history

He who criticizes should have constructive ideas of his own. In an earlier post, I scoffed at the results of a survey of school-age kids conducted by Sam Wineburg, which yielded a list of Americans that had as much to do with misplaced political correctness as actual fame. (To see that dubious list, see my post.)

But if the kids in Wineburg’s survey didn’t really select the ten most famous persons in American history, who should be on such a list?

In that survey, reported in the Smithsonian, American presidents and first ladies were ineligible. Let’s stick with that: no presidents, no first ladies.  But let me propose two lists, one for men, one for women.

Ten famous American men:

1. Benjamin Franklin
2. Martin Luther King Jr.
3. Babe Ruth
4. Albert Einstein
5. Mark Twain
6. Billy Graham
7. Elvis Presley
8. Lewis & Clark
9. Louis Armstrong
10. Charles Lindbergh

Their claims to fame?

Benjamin Franklin. Catalyst of the American Revolution; for a time during his lifetime, the most famous person in the world. Invented the Franklin stove, bifocals, the lightning rod. Printer, scientist, politician, diplomat, writer. Poor Richard’s Almanack. Ben Franklin impersonators. Picture on the hundred-dollar bill.

Martin Luther King Jr. Catalyst of the American civil rights movement, which led to lasting changes in laws and racial attitudes. Gave one of history’s best-known speeches (“I have a dream”). National holiday named after him.

Babe Ruth. The biggest name in America’s national game. Larger-than-life personality. Could pitch nearly as well as he could hit. A bigger sports figure even than Mohammed Ali or Joe DiMaggio. Candy bar named after him.

Albert Einstein. Physicist and discoverer of theory of relativity, supposed to be comprehensible by fewer than a dozen people.  Looked the part of a mad scientist, though he wasn’t one. A name synonymous with genius.

Mark Twain. Our greatest writer, creator of Tom Sawyer. Has the strongest claim of any author to having written the great American novel (Huckleberry Finn). Steamboat operator, humorist, lecturer, literary critic. Immensely popular during his lifetime. Mark Twain imitators.

Billy Graham. America’s best-known religious figure. Brought millions to faith in Jesus Christ at crusades around the world. Best-selling books. Prayed with presidents. Modest lifestyle, scandal-free life.

Elvis Presley. The King of Rock and Roll. “Jailhouse Rock,” “Love Me Tender,” “Suspicious Minds,” “Burning Love.” Star of B-movies. Las Vegas nightclub star. Legend cemented by early death. Graceland. Elvis impersonators.

Lewis & Clark. Captain Meriwether Lewis, Lieutenant William Clark, America’s best-known explorers. Paddled up the Missouri River, crossed the Rockies, reached the Pacific. Couldn’t have made it without Shoshone guide and translator Sacagawea (picture on dollar coin).

Louis Armstrong. America’s greatest jazz musician. Ebullient personality, unmistakable style on voice and trumpet. “Hello Dolly.” The ubiquitous “What a Wonderful World.”

Charles Lindbergh. “Lucky Lindy.” Unprecedented celebrity from solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927. Baby boy kidnapped and murdered in the crime of the century. “Spirit of St. Louis” in the Smithsonian.

If the list went up to 20 famous American men, it might include (11) Thomas Alva Edison (inventor), (12) the Wright brothers (aviators), (13) Walt Disney (moviemaker), (14) Frank Sinatra (singer), (15) Henry Ford (automobile tycoon), (16) Muhammed Ali (boxing champion), (17) Robert E. Lee (general), (18) Daniel Webster (statesman), (19) John D. Rockefeller (oil tycoon and philanthropist), and (20) Ralph Waldo Emerson (writer and philosopher).

Candidates for an even longer list of famous American men might include Nathan Hale (Revolutionary War hero), Daniel Boone (pioneer), Bill Gates (Microsoft billionaire and philanthropist), John Wayne (actor), Winslow Homer (painter), Alexander Graham Bell (inventor), Robert Frost (poet), Douglas MacArthur (general), John Glenn (astronaut), Norman Rockwell (painter and illustrator), Frederick Douglass (abolitionist and editor); Henry David Thoreau (writer and philosopher), Henry Clay (statesman), Jack London (writer), William Penn (Quaker founder of Pennsylvania), Howard Hughes (billionaire), Houdini (magician), Norman Vincent Peale (clergyman and author), Ernest Hemingway (writer), F. Scott Fitzgerald (writer), Andy Warhol (painter), Walt Whitman (poet), Horace Greeley (newspaper editor), Billy Sunday (Protestant evangelist), John C. Calhoun (statesman), Neil Armstrong (astronaut).

Ten famous women:

1. Oprah Winfrey
2. Marilyn Monroe
3. Pocahontas
4. Helen Keller
5. Emily Dickinson
6. Harriet Beecher Stowe
7. Susan B. Anthony
8. Betsy Ross
9. Edith Wharton
10. Amelia Earhart

Their claims to fame:

Oprah Winfrey. Fabulously rich, incredibly popular, remarkably influential television talk-show hostess, producer, magazine publisher, entrepeneur, book critic, philanthropist.

Marilyn Monroe. Actress, model. Posed for Playboy. Married Joe DiMaggio. Classic movies The Seven-Year Itch and Some Like It Hot. Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind.”

Pocohontas. Daughter of Powhatan chieftain. Saved Virginia colonists from starving, risked her own life to save John Smith’s. Married John Rolfe, died in England. Disney animated movie.

Helen Keller. Overcame dual disability. Author, suffragette, political activist. Academy award-winning “The Miracle Worker.”

Emily Dickinson. Relusive New England spinster, first-rate poet.

Because I could not stop for Death
He kindly stopped for me —
The Carriage held but just Ourselves —
And Immortality

Harriet Beecher Stowe. America’s single most effective enemy of slavery. History’s most influential novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Susan B. Anthony. Suffragette, orator, abolitionist, temperance advocate. Convicted in Rochester for voting illegally (and caught because she imprudently mentioned in a letter to a friend that she’d voted a straight Republican ticket!). American’s most influential proponent of legal rights for women; responsible for Frederick Douglass-Susan B. Anthony Bridgeeventual enactment of the Nineteenth Amendment. New bridge over the Genesee River in Rochester named after her and fellow Republican Frederick Douglass (known locally as the “Freddie-Sue”). Picture on dollar coin.

Betsy Ross. Fighting Quaker, Revolutionary War patriot. Reputed to have designed and made the stars-and-stripes flag, though she probably didn’t.

Edith Wharton. First-rate American novelist, landscape architect, war reporter. Authored The House of Mirth, The Age of Innocence. For every tenth grader, Ethan Frome.

Amelia Earhart. Pioneer woman aviator, feminist icon. First woman to fly the Atlantic solo. Disappeared in the Pacific trying to fly around the world.

Other famous women: Madonna (singer), Rosa Parks (civil rights catalyst), Lucille Ball (actress), Georgia O’Keefe (painter), Flannery O’Connor (writer), Aretha Franklin (singer), Sacagawea (Indian guide), Sandra Day O’Connor (Supreme Court Justice); Willa Cather (writer), Billie Jean King (tennis champion), Ida Tarbell (investigative journalist); Katharine Hepburn (actress), Harriet Tubman (hero of Underground Railroad); Carrie Nation (temperance crusader), Dorothy Parker (writer), Margaret Mead (anthropologist), Gertrude Stein (writer). Still more possible candidates are in the National Women’s Hall of Fame, mostly non-entertainers. Famous American women ineligible for our list, because they were wives of Presidents: Eleanor Roosevelt, Hillary Clinton, Abigail Adams.

Of course, being famous and deserving fame are different matters. These are famous people. Lists of men and women based strictly on merit and historical importance would be quite different.

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58 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Hard to believe I made such a blunder — or that you’re the first to notice!

  2. The blurb about Lewis & Clark should say that they reached the Pacific, not the Atlantic. After all, they were traveling west, not east

  3. I am seeing a lot of debate here about who is or isn’t famous or weren’t important people in American History.. I give no less credit to Little Johnny ( Fictitious ) Johnson who lived next door to me as a kid growing up and protected some skinny sickly nerd at the park across the street from the playground bullies as I do General / President George Washington, as being FAMOUS… Each and everyone of us are famous in our own ways, even people like Bonnie and Clyde, Capone, Elliott Ness, ( All Criminals ) were in a way Famous people… Little leagues Base Ball, and Peewee Hockey players and teams are famous. I do recognize the significance of ( Most Famous ) Kudo’s to the Author for his work.

  4. no one cares


  6. The candy bar wasn’t named after Babe Ruth. That has to be one of the most enduring myths ever.

  7. for the babe ruth part, it says that there is a candy bar named after him. It actually wasn’t named after him, the man who invented it had a nephew named Babe Ruth who lost her life to cancer.

  8. It’s amazing to think of those who have been left out! I can think of someone who should be on this list… he achieved so much by himself but represents mankind’s potential and unity. I don’t even need to mention his name, everyone reading this will know it… he simply took one small step.

  9. Frank Sinatra should be higher up…

  10. Baseball is very important in American history for ex Jackie Robinson was the first black baseball player who later became an American citizen.

  11. some of these are not important people in history. Some of them just wasted there time playing baseball or playing Jazz. None of those is important to the US history. I came on this website to try to find important people like George washington, Martin Luther King Jr., Albert Einstein, and others like them. people who really did make a difference and not idiots on a trombone and dancing and who gives a shit of baseball. Yea baseball is fun but it is not important history in our country.

  12. Six feet nine inches tall, brilliant economist, author and ambassador: John Kenneth Galbraith

  13. I think Rosa Parks should receive more than a passing mention. After all she is the ONLY women EVER to lie in state in the US Capitol Rotunda.

  14. louis armstrong is the best i always loved the way trumpet sounds, calm, jazzy, and smooooth yeaaaa!

  15. For all those people who whined about Albert Einstein not being an American…he was an American. While its true he wasn’t born in America, he definitely was a citizen. Doesn’t that make him an American? If it doesn’t, then your first president and many heroes of the Revolution don’t deserve to be considered “famous Americans” – such as George Washington who was born in England. Now wether or not his achievements garner him top ten billing on famous Americans is another thing, however let’s save that for another time.

  16. Did ya’ll include Marie Curie in the famous women list? She was a scientist or something along those lines. Annie Okley was also pretty cool.

  17. Lady:
    If Babe Ruth thought the candy bar was named after him, that’s good enough for me.

  18. For starters the mystery around how the Baby Ruth candy bar came to be named has never been confirmed. Some say it was named after President Grover Cleveland’s daughter Ruth; others maintain that it was named for the granddaughter of the president of the candy company. The only reason why people seem to think that it was named after the baseball player Babe Ruth is because he accused the company of stealing his name and wanted royalties.

    Please don’t rely on “Wikipedia” for information, it greatly insults your intelligence.


  20. like omg this is so cool it help me out alot for my project

  21. morons!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  22. love this web site helped me in my project…

  23. Jesus is the very core of mankind that created all things. Set the coarse of nature and enable men to be dreamers, inventors, famous above the famous. He gave men dreams to dream reality into existence. Ideas to put light into motion. Enery to move mountains and seeds to bring life where there was no life. He is the all time high that should never be overlooked. He created the famous and gave them there gifts. Jesus Christ should always be mentioned above the mentioned.

  24. albert einstein is not american

  25. I enjoyed the post but wish there had been a few more women on the list. Sylvia Plath, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and Gloria Steinem are a few that come to mind. I’m not sure why Virginia Woolf is listed here as she is English not American?

  26. reading through these comments i get the feeling these people just enjoy complaining. its funny though some of them are pretty old. thanks for the info, twas helpful.

  27. this info really helped me for my project on who to do my report on. oprah rocks!! ^0^

  28. this is all jank, im mean the info was extremely helpful to me for my project and all but you all are fighting over who was american and who should be included, if you think they should be included then include them on your project people! the person who wrote this has a right to their opinion and you all are bashing on them for what they think. sure your trying to correct them politley but then in turns into a healthy debate then a frustrating arguement. so if you know your right then great and if your wrong who cares?! everyone who made a difference in anyones life, even one person, is a part of history because history either helped or was an important part in a culture. so there i said it i just think people are self ritious and need to step off their high horse sometimes. thank you so much whoever wrote this, helped me in school and so much more.
    -mira :)

  29. l love oprah winfrey…………….oprah’s show.

  30. Yes, I suppose he’d have to be considered too, on a longer list. Not top ten, though.

  31. What about Micheal Jackson?

  32. that first comment is so sexist! Whats up with that?

  33. Dear N. Thomas:
    Your enthusiasm for your religion and its founder is duly noted, but this was a list of famous Americans, and Muhammad is not eligible. He was from Arabia, not the United States. In fact, he lived and died hundreds of years before American can to be.

  34. One should include Muhammad(the last prophet) according to Islam and the bible where Jesus made reference to the “Comforter” who would come and who would recite what he hears and who would not come unless he “went away”. Muhammad was a sucessful statesman and religious teacher who changed Arabia for the better. They went from a primitive state to an intelligent,God-minded state in a short period of time.The message that was relayed to him that formed the Holy Qu’ran(Via the angel Gabriel)is changing the world even today. He was the “seal of the prophets” foretold in the Bible (Deut. 18:18). Muhammad left the perfect religion; a religion for all humanity. See for your self! I recommend you read about Muhammad- How he is mentioned in the Bible and What he has to day about the purpose of life and what we can expect in this last days! Peace be upon you!

  35. Anon:
    It’s just a figure of speech! Lighten up!

  36. @ emsworth
    so.. you guys have t he right to “CLAIM” him?!??!?!!
    wth is up with that

  37. Miss Clark:

    True, Einstein wasn’t born in the United States and did a lot of his best work in Europe, but he spent the last 22 years of his life in the United States, and it became his adopted country. So I think we can claim him.

    As for Elvis, please remember that this was NOT a list of the most IMPORTANT people in American history, or the ones who changed history the most, or the greatest Americans. It was simply a question of being famous, whether deserved or not. That was Elvis, without a doubt.

    I’m sure you were riveting as Emily Dickinson!

  38. We did a play on american history and I was emiliy dickinson

  39. Krazy:
    You make a good case as to why Deborah Sampson OUGHT to be famous. But this list was limited to Americans who actually ARE famous.
    P.S. Even if you do write like crazy, you really ought to use the spell-check feature. It would have caught such words as “receive,” “honorary,” and “disguising.”

  40. Hi,
    What about Deborah Sampson? She was the first woman to ever recive an Honorry Discharge from the army, and she is the State Heroine of MA. She risked her life by disgising herself as a man and joining the army in the Revolutionary War. Isn’t she worth mentioning on your list of famous women?

  41. i hate homework i have to choose an american woman who changed history this did not help

  42. hate homework

  43. i love this website because it helps children get to know the people who did stuff for our country

  44. Scot:
    Not according to Wikipedia, which notes, “the bar first appeared in 1921, as Babe Ruth’s fame was on the rise—long after Cleveland had left the White House, and 17 years after his daughter had died.” You haven’t checked your facts till you check Wikipedia.

  45. The Baby Ruth was not named after Babe Ruth. It was named after President Cleveland’s daughter, Ruth Cleveland. FYI. Probably should double check your facts.

  46. Well why didn’t they include Marian Anderson??????
    I mean come on you people don’t like music or some thing? OK comment back to me my real name is Jalen Powtationsz

  47. Responding to Jennifer’s question, Abraham Lincoln is not included in the list because the person who wrote this list chose not to include American presidents or first ladies. Although it would have been nice to see where certain presidents rank on the list, they probably have a separate list of their own.
    It’s kinda funny because I can see myself making the same list of famous American figures as the one the school kids made in the survey (well i’m still in school myself). Every kid just has to put Harriet Tubman on the list because the same stuff is repeated every year on black history month.

  48. ha ha you cant claim Albert Einstein!! He’s about as American as i am ha ha (im not). Are you telling me you couldnt think of another famous American that you had to include a German scientist on your list? Bad list mate….

  49. omg thanks ha i needed this for a project (American HIstory) this helped loads . :)

  50. paris hilton should be on it ;)….byt the way albert einstein lives in america for the last part of his life

  51. OMG…
    thanx im doing a project about wax museum or soemthing.
    and like in Ms.Robersons class..
    Like yah and it helped me alott
    Who else is doing this wax museum project.

  52. thx you really helped me in the wax museum

  53. albert einstein is deffinitely not american.

  54. She might be famous, but nobody likes her.

  55. Oprah Winfrey????
    How weird are you people???

  56. Is it just me, or am I the only one mad that they didn’t even mention Abraham Lincoln on the top 20? In my opinion he should have been on the top 10, but to not even have him on the top 20?! I am sorry, but maybe I am just one of those highly-opinionated U.S. History buffs that not many pay attention to. However, the fact that people such as Louis Armstrong and Charles Lindberg come before the man who saved our country from falling to pieces…that just kills me. Sorry if you don’t agree.

  57. Well, now, Emsworth, as for the “gentler” sex (Janet Reno notwithstanding)…fair or not, history is what it is. Until relatively recently, women simply have not had the same opportunities to make significant contributions to American life–and thus, to achieve lasting fame–at least not in the areas of politics, industry, science, etc. Of course there are notable exceptions. However, in a list of, say, the top 100 Americans of both sexes, ranking overall historical importance, I suspect that a truly honest assessment could include no more than ten women–and even that might be too many. I hasten to add that, as a card-carrying liberal democrat, I do not believe that women are in any sense inferior to men, or any less capable of achievement, but only that the “playing field,” as it were, has not been level. I imagine that, over time, women will close this gap, as they have closed many others. Indeed, on a list of the 100 most important Americans today, I would expect that much closer to half of the entries would be women. But there’s no reason to sugarcoat history. I am bumused that you appear to be taking the other side of this argument. You must be trying to expand your audience.

  58. Great discussion. Is the question famous today, or famous over time? I have no quibble with the men, except for Louis Armstrong. For at least the last 30 years, it has been possible to grow into adulthood as a reasonably well-educated person and still not know who he was. Jazz afficinados always overstate the importance of their favorite musicians, who are totally irrelevant to the vast majority of Americans who don’t listen to or care about jazz. I’d replace Armstrong with John Glenn, Thomas Edison, or John D. Rockefeller. Charles Lindbergh was America’s first true celebrity; it’s too bad he was a closet Nazi. Which reminds me–I suppose you could throw Walt Disney in there, too. It must suck to be Lewis & Clark, always having to share. They probably had only one wife between them (figuratively speaking, of course). As for the women…eh, whatever. I suspect that most people know the names, but have no clue what they did. Winfrey only makes the list because the lineup is so weak.

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