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.

Hardly the most famous men or women in American history

Last month’s Smithsonian magazine included a startling article on a recent survey by Sam Wineburg to determine the most “famous” Americans since the time of Columbus, other than presidents and first ladies. According to a survey of school-age children, six of the most famous Americans are women, and four are African-Americans.

In order, these were the top ten:

  1. Martin Luther King Jr.
  2. Rosa Parks
  3. Harriet Tubman
  4. Susan B. Anthony
  5. Benjamin Franklin
  6. Amelia Earhart
  7. Oprah Winfrey
  8. Marilyn Monroe
  9. Thomas Edison
  10. Albert Einstein

On its face, this is not a list of either the ten most famous Americans or the ten most important Americans. (Mr. Wineburg felt he would have gotten the same results if he had asked participants to name “important” Americans.)

Emsworth offers his own list of the most famous men and women in American history, other than Presidents and their wives, at this post. At any rate, from Mr. Wineburg’s survey we learn (or are reminded of) three things.

First, children usually tell grown-ups what they think they’re supposed to. That’s why no rappers or studio wrestlers made the list. Any kid who’s heard of “diversity” knows he won’t go wrong by identifying Martin Luther King or Susan B. Anthony as a person of fame.

Second, political correctness has triumphed in our history classes. This survey makes clear that history teachers (now, regrettably, “social studies” teachers) are now giving as much time to the better-known women in American history as they are to men, and as much time to African-Americans as to Caucasians. What else can explain the name of Harriet Tubman on this list? Hers is a great story that schoolchildren ought to know. But who would seriously argue that she had more than a very modest impact on American history – even on the history of abolition? And what else can explain the name of a woman aviator best known for failing to fly around the world?

At any rate, my concern is with the third lesson that I draw from this list: History teachers are giving pre-eminence to those strands of American history that deal with the struggle for equal rights, at the expense of all the rest.

Where are the pioneers and explorers on this list? Don’t schoolchildren learn about Lewis and Clark anymore? Or even about Sacagawea? Fifty years ago there were television shows about Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, and the boys all wanted coonskin hats. I wonder if boys today even know who they were. Not the Wright brothers? Or Charles Lindbergh? What about John Glenn and Neil Armstrong? Are teachers today embarrassed that Americans conquered the wilderness, learned to fly, orbited the Earth, and walked on the moon?

Where are the generals and admirals? General Washington and General Grant were ineligible for the list because they became presidents, but what about Commodore Perry? General Robert E. Lee? General Douglas MacArthur? Surely we’re not ashamed of the military accomplishments that have kept us free and democratic for 200 years! Rosa Parks was a bona fide hero and a catalyst for the civil rights movement, but what about Revolutionary War catalysts Paul Revere (the midnight rider) or Nathan Hale (“I only regret that I have but one life to give my country”). Do we think that the Revolutionary War didn’t count for much because the Founding Fathers left slavery in place?

What of giants of industry and finance like Andrew Carnegie, J. P. Morgan, Andrew Mellon, John D. Rockefeller, George Eastman, and John Paul Getty? If political correctness is de-emphasizing military figures in our history curricula, I suppose it should be no surprise if kids aren’t being taught about the men who built modern America, either. When I was a boy, we all knew about the only two billionaires in the world (Getty and Howard Hughes). In 2008, shouldn’t Bill Gates be on a list of famous Americans?

Where are the giants of American philanthropy (essentially the same names as the giants of industry and finance)?

Where are the religious leaders? For 50 years, Billy Graham’s name sat at the very top of surveys of most-admired Americans while other names came and went. One can only conclude that decades of muddled ideas about “separation of church and state” in the schools are making people shy away from mentioning this man of God in the same breath with such secular saints as Dr. King and Susan B. Anthony.

Where on this list are any of America’s novelists, poets, musicians, artists? Harriet Beecher Stowe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, or Ernest Hemingway? Scott Joplin, Duke Ellington, or Leonard Bernstein? Surely Mark Twain, America’s greatest writer and a celebrity of the first order in his day, or Louis Armstrong, the world’s greatest jazz musician, achieved enough fame for such a list.

The survey does show, at least, that the kids are learning something about American’s technological and scientific accomplishments, with Franklin, Edison, and Einstein each making the cut.

The real proof that the kids told the survey-takers what they thought they were supposed to say is that there are only two entertainers on the list (Marilyn Monroe and Oprah). No Babe Ruth? Or Madonna? Sinatra? Elvis?

Millions flock to Graceland, Elvis records are still sold by the millions, and Elvis impersonators still proliferate. Here in Rochester, though, a tiny nonprofit organization struggles to keep Susan B. Anthony’s modest inner-city home open to the public as a museum. My recent visit was well worth the time, but I wonder if even five thousand souls visit the Susan B. Anthony House in a year. Are we really to believe that this remarkable American woman is more famous than Elvis?

We can be sure of one thing: our children are being taught that our nation’s greatest heroes are not pioneers, soldiers, writers, or preachers, but instead those who crusaded for civil rights. Four of the names on the list represent the struggle for racial equality (King, Parks, Tubman, and Winfrey); two of the names are identified with the struggle for women’s rights (Anthony, Earhart). Civil rights are all well and good, but they are not America’s only story.

Update: Emsworth humbly suggests two lists of the most famous American men and the most famous American women at this post. (Presidents and their wives are excluded.) Not everyone who’s famous deserves to be, and some men and women who richly deserve fame don’t have it, so don’t shoot the messenger!