I have loved magazines since I realized they existed.
My childhood home subscribed to several, among them LIFE and LOOK, both now long gone, along with TIME and Newsweek, which tried to weather the Internet age by morphing into who knows what. The one slick vestige of my childhood that still arrives at my door with relentless regularity is the much-treasured New Yorker, a publication which has cut edges since it was born in 1925.
Also in the mailbox are Our State, Garden and Gun, the always-glamorous Vanity Fair, Yoga Journal, along with various trade, professional and special interest publications, and the occasional fashion mag.
Some get read. Others do not. I often feel guilty loading my City of Fayetteville-issued blue recycling can.
One that almost always makes the cut is The Atlantic, an American magazine first published in 1857. Always smart and current, it focuses on politics, foreign affairs, the economy and cultural trends and has won more National Magazine Awards than any other monthly. It also boasts a terrific website with provocative stories that do not appear in the actual magazine and hard-to-resist — at least for me — archived pieces.
One of those is “The 100 Most Influential Figures in American History” chosen in 2006 by what The Atlantic describes as “10 eminent historians.” The list is, of course, highly subjective, which made me think about who I would have put on such a ranking, dead or alive.
Here at the historians’ top 10 and how they describe them, beginning with number one.
Abraham Lincoln. “He saved the Union,
freed the slaves and presided over America’s second founding.”
George Washington. “He made the United States possible — not only by defeating a king, but by declining to become one himself.”
Thomas Jefferson. “The author of the five most important words in American history: ‘All men are created equal.’”
Franklin Roosevelt. “He said, ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,’ and then he proved it.”
Alexander Hamilton. “Soldier, banker and political scientist, he set in motion an agrarian nation’s transformation into an industrial power.”
Benjamin Franklin. “The founder-of-all trades — scientist, printer, writer, diplomat, inventor and more; like his country, he contained multitudes.”
John Marshall. “The defining chief justice, he established the Supreme Court as the equal of the other two federal branches.”
Martin Luther King. “His dream of racial equality is still elusive, but no one did more to make it real.”
Thomas Edison. “It wasn’t just the light bulb; the Wizard of Menlo Park was the most prolific inventor in American history.”
Woodrow Wilson. “He made the world safe for U.S. interventionism, if not for democracy.”
Obviously, this top 10 list includes only men, mainly political ones, most of them from the more distant past, and I get that. Men have been totally in charge until the last part of the 20th century, and it is not really possible to assess and understand the relative importance of most living people or the more recently departed. Only time can tell us how Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama will remembered.
Only one living person, Bill Gates, made the list. He came in at number 54 and is described as the John D. Rockefeller of the Information Age, meaning that he has both made a gigantic fortune and is giving it away.
Only nine women made the list, most of them for supporting the rights of women or of black Americans. They are Elizabeth Cady Stanton (#30), described as one of the first great American feminists, a supporter of social reform and women’s right to vote; Susan B. Anthony (#38), also a feminist and supporter of women’s equality under the law; Harriet Beecher Stowe (#41) who “inspired abolitionists;” Margaret Sanger (#51), a champion of birth control and the freedom that came with it; Jane Addams (#64), described as the “secular saint of social work;” and Betty Freidan (#77) who wrote a book about unhappy housewives and “inspired a revolution in gender roles.” The three other women are Rachel Carson (#39) whom the historians called “the godmother of the environmental movement;” Margaret Mead (#81) who taught us about the anthropology of other people; and Mary Baker Eddy (#86), who founded a religion, Christian Science.
I do not believe that women’s contributions to our nation clock in at merely 9 percent.
There are some names among the 100 that many of us will have to Google — John Dewey, John Brown, Robert Oppenheimer, Horace Mann, Samuel Gompers and Enrico Fermi. We can also quibble about some of the rankings. Is Walt Disney (#27) with his “unmatched influence over childhood,” more important than James D. Watson (#68), who discovered DNA, the “code of life?” Are P.T. Barnum (#67) whose “taste for spectacle paved the way for blockbuster movies and reality TV” and Sam Walton (#72) who promised “’Every Day Low Prices’ and we took him up on it” really more influential than Ralph Nader (#96) “who made cars safer and 30 years later made George W. Bush President?”
Did the 10 eminent historians nail it or are they living in ivory towers?