Document Type

Article

Publication Date

Spring 2008

Department

History

Abstract

Readers of the Atlantic Monthly may have been taken aback when they received their December 2006 issue of that venerable journal of American arts and letters. In a pitch more appropriate to People or some other celebrity magazine, the Atlantic offered a list of "The 100 Most Influential Americans of All Time," and right there on the cover, posing as eye-candy for the intelligentsia was none other than #1 himself, Abraham Lincoln, the sexiest most dead American alive, or something like that. Had the high brow finally gone low brow? Had pop culture's fascination with list-making found a new frontier? What sort of cross promotion on the History Channel or (God forbid) the E! Network would we be seeing next-"America's Top Ten Recessions" or "The 100 Biggest Presidential Fashion Disasters"?

Fortunately, none of that has come to pass (at least not yet), but for those of us in the history business, the list did make for some interesting reading. As one might expect, the Founding Fathers were well-represented in the top ten: George Washington (#2), Thomas Jefferson (#3), Alexander Hamilton (#5), and Benjamin Franklin (#6) were all there, as was a dark horse candidate, the Federalist judge John Marshall (#7). But the farther along I read, the more disappointed I became. Where were all the great colonial Americans? Who was there to represent the era between Columbus and the Founding Fathers, almost two centuries' worth of American history? Some of the figures in the top ten were born in the colonial era, but they were obviously on the list because of their accomplishments in the Revolutionary and Early National periods. One had to read practically to the end of the list before coming to a figure whose claim to fame was undeniably anchored in the colonial experience: Jonathan Edwards at #90, sandwiched between two other names- Walter Lippman and Lyman Beecher- likely to elicit a yawn or shrug from today's John Q. Public. This indignity is compounded by the fact that the panel of experts who compiled the list included Gordon S. Wood and Joyce Appleby, two doyens of early American historians. [excerpt]

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