Still, certain patterns are evident. The list tells us, for instance, that though we may be a nation of immigrants, it’s the native-born who are likely to shake things up the most: just seven of the final 100 were born outside the continental United States. It tells us that the East Coast states have made the most of their head start: sixty-three of the 100 were born in the original thirteen colonies, and twenty-six in New England alone. It tells would-be influentials not to be afraid of family commitments: ninety-one of the 100 were married at least once, and two—Joseph Smith and Brigham Young—had more than fifty wives between them. The list also suggests that contemporaries are sometimes good judges of whose influence will last: nine of Time magazine’s “People of the Year” show up on the historians’ list.
A political career (or a legal one) is the surest ticket to a historical legacy (twenty-six of the 100 held a judgeship or high political office). Aspiring influentials might also consider trying to invent something (like the lightbulb, or the airplane, or the atomic bomb), or discover something (the polio vaccine, the double helix)—though Gordon S. Wood remarked, after the list was finished, “We put too much emphasis on inventors. Someone sooner or later would have come up with the cotton gin … the lure of profits was too great. The same was true with the airplane and the telephone.”
Founding a religion landed Joseph Smith and Brigham Young on the list, as well as Christian Science’s Mary Baker Eddy (86). Fomenting a revolution also leaves an impression, whether you succeed, as the Founders did, or fail, but with long-lasting repercussions, as Nat Turner and John Brown (78) did. And we at The Atlantic were pleased to see that twenty-one of the figures in the Top 100 are especially famous for their writing, from Walt Whitman (22) to Margaret Mead (81)—and that more than thirty (!) of the figures on the list have been published in this magazine.
The final 100 also suggests that men still rule, at least in many historians’ eyes—oh, and make that white men. Ten women are on the list (the highest-ranked is the feminist pioneer Elizabeth Cady Stanton, at No. 30), and eight African Americans, but the Top 100 is heavily WASPish. Martin Luther King Jr. (8) was among the top vote getters, but there isn’t another African American on the list until Jackie Robinson (35). And there are no Hispanics, Asian Americans, or Native Americans.
“It’s fun and challenging,” Ellen Fitzpatrick said of the exercise, but she called the rank order “an exercise in absurdity.” Noting that Walt Disney (26) finished ahead of Stanton in the balloting, she wondered: “Does a cartoonist deserve a place above someone who most powerfully advanced the case that half the people deserved equality before the law?” [Yes.] Or again, “Are we to conclude that not a single Native American Indian influenced our past?”
By the way, James D. Watson was #68 on the list, which didn't keep him from getting Watsoned for heresy.