The votes are in and, according to the Discovery Channel, these are the top ten Americans of all time:
1) Ronald Reagan
2) Abraham Lincoln
3) Martin Luther King
4) George Washington
5) Benjamin Franklin
6) George W. Bush
7) Bill Clinton
9) Oprah Winfrey
10) Franklin D. Roosevelt
The only problem I have with the top 5 is Ronald Reagan winning the title of “Greatest American.” This is nuts. If Reagan hadn’t lived, I imagine things would have turned out differently with the fall of Communism and domestic policies would be skewed decidedly more to the left, but the fact is the United States would probably still be here and prospering nicely.
The same cannot be said about George Washington. I daresay that without Washington, there quite simply would be no United States – or at least a United States that we’d recognize as such. Therefore, I’d drop Reagan out of the top ten altogether (as I did here in this post) and put Washington in the top spot. Other than that, I have no quarrel with the top 5. Franklin may be a stretch but I’m comfortable with putting someone who’s impact on American life is still being felt today.
What is truly shocking and troubling is the fact that Thomas Jefferson isn’t in the top 5 or the top 10. Jefferson rolls in at #12. Here’s another individual that one can say if he didn’t live, America would be a very different place (if it existed at all). His impact on the formation of our Republic cannot be overstated. It can truly be said that he was not only the author of the Declaration of Independence, but that he is largely responsible for the Constitution, even though he was in Paris during the Summer of 1787. The reason? His disciples George Mason and James Madison more than any others were responsible for both the thinking behind the document and the writing of it. And he was the leader of the oldest political party in history; the Democratic Party. His ideas dominated American politics for the Republic’s first 50 years and his influence is felt down to this day.
Not including him was a travesty.
As for numbers 6 through 10 I’ll only say this: What. A. Crock.
George Bush? Bill Clinton (“Greatest” what? Serial adulterer?) Elvis? Oprah?
What this goes to show is that we Americans are not very interested in our past. There are cultural and traditional reasons for this. It’s part of our schizophrenic relationship with our ancestors. The fact that these ancestors wrote slavery into the Constitution (giving slaves a “value” of 3/5 of a human being) and practiced the deliberate and systematic genocide of Native Americans as well as performing heroic feats of settlement and exploration cannot be reconciled by most Americans.
In addition to this, we’ve embraced a political tradition that ignores the past in favor of looking toward the future. Politicians evoke images, events, and people from the past not to educate us but rather to connect to the future in a way that’s not done in any other democratic society. Reagan was a master of this. Clinton could also turn the trick on occasion. President Bush tries it and falls flat because his allegories inevitably seem to mix in religion. While the President’s piety is a strength both personally and politically, his major speeches that seek to invoke the past do so in order to illustrate a faith in God. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, it’s just as political theater, it doesn’t go over well.
This ignorance of history is nothing new. It’s been remarked on by observers of America from it’s founding. Here’s Alexis de Tocquville:
“Not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but also clouds their view of their descendants and isolates them from their contemporaries. Each man is for ever thrown back on himself alone, and there is danger that he may be shut up in the solitude of his own heart.”
The oft quoted Santayanna whose “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it” is used by both liberals and conservatives as a political talisman from which American’s are supposed to draw a lesson. The problem is American’s are not only ignorant of the past, they are unconcerned with it.
Is this good or bad? Well, it’s worked so far. As long as Americans never forget really big things like the Bill of Rights or Adolph Hitler, I doubt whether it will affect us one way or another.
I see where John Hawkins and I are thinking along the same lines (mostly). Here’s John’s top 10:
1) George Washington
2) Abe Lincoln
3) Thomas Jefferson
4) Ben Franklin
5) James Madison
6) Ronald Reagan
7) Andrew Jackson
9) Teddy Roosevelt
10) Alexander Hamilton
I like Tom Paine, but I don’t think he’s anywhere near top 10 material. And Hamilton was a scheming son of a gun who allowed personal ambition to almost ruin the young Republic.
Teddy Roosevelt is an interesting choice and good arguments can be made in his favor. He pretty much invented the modern presidency. And his personna dominated American politics for a long time. Madison is an excellent choice seeing that he was largely responsible for sheperding the Constitution through the convention in 1787. And John has Jefferson right up front where he should be.
All in all, good choices, good rankings.