July 25, 2003

Sound and Fury Prevails in Talk About Great Americans

When one looks at the brouhaha that has erupted around John Hawkins' survey of the twenty greatest Americans in our nation's history, one is tempted to consider Kissinger's dictum about academia: the infighting is so fierce because the stakes are so small.

For Mr Hawkins' survey is small both in scale and scope. That is not to say it was not a worthy endeavour. However, as Mr Hawkins himself notes, it only draws from a survey pool of 49 blogs and only hopes to list 20 of the greatest Americans, when our nation could easily list 300 to 500 people who have truly changed the course of history. As such, it should be taken for what it is: a survey of historical greatness, true, but most definitely a survey of popular opinion.

Still, we here at The Rant must admit surprise at the vociferous reaction in some quarters to Mr Hawkins' survey, and the ensuing brouhaha that erupted after Mr Hawkins responded to that reaction.

For instance, Meryl Yourish complained bitterly that there were no women listed among the twenty honorees. Mr Hawkins then took issue with Ms Yourish's complaint, and fired back that there were no women in American history deserving of mention on the list. In short order, Mr Hawkins learned that it is most unwise to dismiss the fairer sex's contributions to American life, as evidenced in this post from Moxie and this post from Venemous Kate. There are trackbacks-a-plenty at Mr Hawkins' site and elsewhere, so have a gander.

Now we here at The Rant have our own issues with Mr Hawkins' list. We note with displeasure that Thomas Jefferson and Ronald Reagan share the coveted No. 1 spot upon it. We think very highly of both men, but ranking them as the greatest Americans of all time is a bit silly.

The greatest American of all time, of course, was Abraham Lincoln. This really shouldn't be a matter for debate. Yet Lincoln ranks only fourth, a result which we attribute to lingering Southern prejudice against our nation's greatest leader.

George Washington is given a rank of third, when he should rightfully be given the second-place award. We here at The Rant would personally put Jefferson in the top 20, although we are not sure where; and others we would include, such as Monroe, are nowhere to be found at all. We will say we believe Hamilton's inclusion at No. 13 to be about right, although we find Henry Ford's No. 12 ranking to be ridiculous in the extreme. Mr Ford's contributions to industry were great, true, but his outlook on life (virulent anti-Semitism, dismissal of learning) proved that he was a bumpkin and a rube. Only his development of mass production would merit him a spot in the top 100, and even there we would suggest he would be lower down on the list.

It is in the lower levels of the list, naturally, where we find much with which to take issue. Consider that Ulysses Grant -- Grant, for God's sake -- ranks above Eisenhower, Douglass and Truman. This is an appalling state of affairs. Just look at the official biography of Grant's tenure as President:

"When he was elected, the American people hoped for an end to turmoil. Grant provided neither vigor nor reform. Looking to Congress for direction, he seemed bewildered. One visitor to the White House noted "a puzzled pathos, as of a man with a problem before him of which he does not understand the terms."

Grant. Gad!

Now, that said, we must say we also take issue with the scholarship present in the work of Ms Yourish, Moxie, and other writers. This is not to say we are not sympathetic to their concerns, but we have our own complaints that we would like to register.

For instance, we note that Moxie suggests that Elizabeth Cochrane (Nellie Bly), a 19th century female investigative reporter, or Pearl S. Buck, the writer on China, should take the place of Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain). While we certainly must say we consider both women's accomplishments to be quite noteworthy, we just can't see either replacing Mr Clemens on the list. Mr Clemens still remains the best writer this nation has produced, and until he is dethroned from that lofty post, he should by rights outrank them.

Also, Moxie created an all-female list which had many good points to it. Unfortunately, it also included Margaret Sanger, whose mention so appalled us we about had to call the kitchen boy to bring us our laudanum.

Ms Yourish included Gloria Steinem on her list, which we would note as a sign that such surveys are public-opinion polls and not serious scholarship. If one is to give credit for the feminist movement to anyone, one ought to give it to Betty Friedan. We also don't agree with the inclusion of Eleanor Roosevelt. She was a nice lady, we are sure, but if you want real power, you need to go back a few decades: to Edith Wilson. It seems pretty clear to us that she was the one calling the shots after Woodrow had his stroke.

But ah well. In any event, this whole exercise has made two things clear to us. The first is that diplomacy would suggest it wise to qualify such lists: for instance, ranking the best American writers, or best American musicians. The second is that while we find such quibbling a bit academic, we also find it invigorating that people care enough about history to find it worth arguing about.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at July 25, 2003 03:00 PM | TrackBack

Well, the case could be made that without Grant, Lincoln would not have been the greatest American, but rather the man to be president when the country broke up.

Posted by: John Thacker at July 26, 2003 12:05 PM

Grant earned his place on the strength of his record as a general, rather than on his strength as a politician. As a general, any honest ranking will place him in the forefront of military leaders from any time and any place. As a politician, he was a babe in a world of adults.

And in regards to Lincoln, as a Southerner, all I can say is that any list of the top Americans that does not have him at the top, is simply bogus. I would most likely be posting from a foreign country save for his resolute strength. Lincoln is the mark all American Presidents have to be measured against, with very very few coming any where near his quality of leadership.

Posted by: Leroy at July 26, 2003 04:43 PM

Re: Ford. I have been randomly following threads about this topic, and it seems to me that there are different descriptions of the qualifier at each site: the Most Influential Americans, the Greatest Americans, Favorite Americans that aren't Men, etc. First, it must be more clearly stated what the conditions are.

That aside, to relegate Ford to a lower caste for being "a bumpkin and a rube" is ridiculous. He may have been an anti-semite, but the founding fathers OWNED SLAVES!

Speaking of which, are we willing to argue that Washington was a better president than Grant? Perhaps we should simply judge each man as a general. But I digress..

To casually mention that the implementation of the assembly line and the "development of mass production would merit him a spot in the top 100" seems like the greatest of understatements. Whether for good or ill, this country has transformed itself around the ideal of mass production. Everything is mass produced. If "Greatest" American refers to best-liked, or Hero, Ford does not deserve a spot anywhere on the list. However, if greatest implies influential, then Ford should be near the top.

Posted by: Paul Morris at July 29, 2003 05:05 PM