20 GREATEST AMERICANS II

As promised this morning, my entries in John Hawkins’ poll:

In no particular order. I cheated in a couple of instances by listing two for the price of one but am still under 20.

George Washington
John Adams
Thomas Jefferson
James Madison
Theodore Roosevelt
Dwight Eisenhower
Ronald Reagan
Ben Franklin
Thomas Edison
Orville and Wilbur Wright
Henry Ford
James Watson & Francis Crick
Mark Twain

Other than perhaps Watson and Crick, none of these choices are particularly original, judging by their overlap with the consensus.

“Great” is a tough one because it includes so many facets. I considered sports figures, notably Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson, but don’t think their contributions exactly ranked up among the others. Other than Twain, who is the quintessential American storyteller, I couldn’t think of anyone in the fine arts that merited such inclusion, either. Certainly, more inventors or businessmen could have made the list, but most inventions nowadays are group efforts. I considered Bill Gates, but he’s really more a marketing genius than anything else.

I considered several military leaders–Patton and MacArthur, most notably–but decided they were both deeply flawed and made little contribution outside their profession. Ultimately, I only included Washington, Teddy Roosevelt, and Eisenhower, who wound up being excellent presidents afterward. Eisenhower wouldn’t have made the list just as president, although he was a good one, but the task of Supreme Allied Commander during WWII has been unparalleled.

The politicians were a hard list to make once one got past the most important of the Founders. Leading the Revolution, drafting the Declaration of Independence, and being the chief architect of the Constitution are hard to beat. Two soldier-statesmen, Ike and TR, joined the group.

Reagan is a difficult selection but was the formative influence in my political life. He helped win the Cold War in a substantial way, although a string of presidents of both parties deserve a lot of credit as well. He also deserves a lot of credit for getting us out of the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, Jimmy Carter malaise funk we’d been in for so long. He doesn’t belong on Mount Rushmore but, like the other great presidents, he was the right man for the right time.

Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt are the other two “great” presidents on most lists but I exclude them from this compilation. Both were great men and great leaders during trying times. But Lincoln waged a war that killed half a million Americans and subverted the Constitution while doing it. Preserving the Union was a great goal but the cost was too dear. FDR exploited a Depression and a World War to radically restructure the political landscape, permanently changing the inter-branch checks and balances system. Presidents are now too powerful, requiring Congress to resort to nasty stalling tactics to exert their rightful power. FDR also put us on the road to socialism.

Guys not on my list that should have been: Alexander Hamilton and George Marshall. Hamilton never occurred to me and I excluded Marshall for some reason that now escapes me.

Update (2232): A commenter points out that half of the DNA team of Watson and Crick was British. Heh. I just think of them as a pair, I guess.

And to think I excluded Albert Einstein, who would have definitely made even a much shorter list, because most of his accomplishments came before he became an American citizen.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Brian says:

    One reason selecting Crick may seem “original” is that he’s, uh, British. (http://encarta.msn.com/encnet/refpages/refarticle.aspx?refid=761568380)

  2. Doug says:

    How about Thomas Eddison?

  3. John Lemon says:

    Hmmmm… me suspects bias in your perspective. By only looking at so-called “greatness” as defined by people who did great things, you necessarily exclude average and below-average people who didn’t do very much. These are “people without a history” and their history needs to be told even though it isn’t recorded. Here is who I would add to you list (and I’ll just give you the recorded ones):

    Lenny Kravitz
    Lenny Bruce
    Lenny & Squiggy
    Michael Kinsley
    Carole Mosley-Braun
    That guy who hit the padded weiner
    Those guys who got arrested sodomizing each other and went on to the Supreme Court
    The Flaming Lips
    KISS
    …and of course, John Lemon.

  4. John Lemon says:

    Ooops, I noticed my list (and your original one) is highly male-centric. And since history is written by the winners and men always win, we need to correct this by writing about women. So here is my list of Great Women.

    Courtney Love
    Courtney Cox
    Tia Carrere
    Princess Di and her Beanie Baby Parade
    Baywatch (minus Hasselhoff)
    Liberace
    Donald McCloskey

  5. James Joyner says:

    Doug: What about Edison? He’s on my list between Franklin and the Wright Bros. He was born, lived, and died in the USA, too.

    JL: True. So true.