February 7, 2008

Demographics of The Atlantic's 100 Most Influential Americans list

In The Atlantic's recent list of 100 most influential Americans, which was voted on mostly by historians who have written for The Atlantic, Ross Douthat does the math:

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.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer


William said...

In the past Americans could become great by speaking to what was, to a large extent, a common American sulture: white, Protestant, Northern European. In order to gain the power or influence to become great today you have to speak across cultures, which to me means dropping appeals to culture and speaking to the only common motive - materialism.

Maybe that's why greatness in our leaders has been getting less and less common since Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower. You can't appeal to common sentiments when they are none except for the need to pay the bills.

Eric said...

These lists always say more about the people making the list than they do about historical figures. I guess it all depends on what you consider influential.

The history coming out of universities these days is quite a bit different than I remember it. I'm guessing it's been changed as a result of research or polluted with PC. I'm guessing mostly the latter.

bellarush said...

The current Harvard alumni magazine has an excellent and positive review of watson's latest book:


Book Review
Chairman of the Bored
"Lucky Jim" Watson's unlikely book of academic manners

jan said...

These lists always say more about the people making the list than they do about historical figures. I guess it all depends on what you consider influential.

Agreed. As was mentioned here earlier I think, Charles Murray of "The Bell Curve" fame recently tried to quantify human achievement in his latest book Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 BC to 1950 .

Murray lists that are virtually entirely of European Caucasian individuals.

dearieme said...

"(like the lightbulb, or the airplane, or the atomic bomb)": the atomic bomb was invented by Leo Szilard, with the patent going to him and the Admiralty in London. Mr Edison lost his patent case on the light bulb. I'll grant you the airplane, though.

none of the above said...

I think public school history is pretty much always teaching the myths we want people to believe, rather than truth. The myths may track reality more or less, depending on what's needed. Needing to find evidence of highly accomplished blacks and women in US history requires a big distortion of reality, since for most of that history, neither blacks nor women had much opportunity to accomplish a lot in politics or the military or science. It's probably no bigger a distortion than either the "white men civilizing the nekkid savages" view that once prevailed, or the "innocent noble eco-friendly Native Americans brutally pushed aside by evil white male soldiers and rich ranchers" view I think gets taught more now.

David said...

jan said

Murray lists that are virtually entirely of European Caucasian individuals.

That's no proof Murray is biased. The premiss of egalitarianism - that intelligence and other qualities are naturally distributed evenly - is groundless.

If he were to show who was most influential (worldwide) in the native literature of Africa 0 AD to 1950 AD (for instance), then...?

Desmond Jones said...

Prof. Kevin MacDonald sheds light on the reason why New England is disproportionately represented:-

"The great majority of the Puritan founders of Massachusetts arrived with their families (Fischer 1989,25). Most were middle-class or above, but only a few were true aristocrats. Even fewer were poor: "Less than five percent were identified as laborers—a smaller proportion than in other colonies. Only a small minority came as servants—less than 25 percent, compared with 75 percent for Virginia," and "nearly three-quarters of Massachusetts immigrants paid their own passage—no small sum in 1630" (p. 38).

By comparison with other colonies, "households throughout Massachusetts and Connecticut included large numbers of children, small numbers of servants and high proportions of intact marital unions. . . ."

The high percentage of intact families in the Puritan migration to America meant that they engaged in a much lower incidence of exogamy with the native Amerindian population (as was the case in the Spanish and especially the Portuguese colonies in the Americas), or with Black slaves (as in the Southern states), or even other European ethnic and religious groups (as in the Mid-Atlantic states). The leading Puritan families of East Anglia "intermarried with such frequency" that one historian dubbed them "a prosopograher's dream" (Fischer 1989, 39). . . .

Puritan child rearing practices were strict and involved rigorous supervision, yet emphasized maintaining warm family bonds throughout life. The importance of a well-ordered family life was surely not unique to the Puritans in colonial American, but the Puritans continuously and vigorously "harped on the subject in sermons, pamphlets, laws, and governmental pronouncements" (Vaughn 1997, xv). While mothers cared for infants, fathers played a major role in rearing both sons and daughters, often teaching them to read and write, instructing them in religion, and even in adulthood advising them in their decisions about work and marriage. Puritan sexual mores emphasized sexual love within marriage but strongly forbade fornication and adultery. . . .

Another indication of high-investment parenting strategy characteristic of the Puritans is that education was prized as the key to insuring the survival of their community. Two Puritan East Anglian counties had the highest rates of literacy in England during the 17th century— around 50 percent. Puritans also distinguished themselves by their strong support of public libraries and public schools (Phillips 1989,27). Massachusetts law required every town of 50 families to hire a schoolmaster, and every town of 100 to maintain a grammar school that taught Latin and Greek (Fischer 1989,133). Even illiterate New England farmers voluntarily contributed some of their harvest to support university faculty and students. Educational institutions developed by Puritans in New England were much more widespread and sophisticated than in other colonies during the same period (Vaughn 1997, xiv) At least 130 of the original settlers had attended universities in Europe. Harvard University was founded within 6 years of the founding of the Massachusetts Bay colony. Those admitted to Harvard were required to be able to read and speak classical Latin and know the declensions of Greek nouns and verbs. . . .

Puritan family names indicate a disproportionate number of tradesmen and craftsmen—names such as "Chandler, Cooper, Courier, Cutler, Draper, Fletcher, Gardiner, Glover, Mason, Mercer, Miller, Sawyer, Saddler, Sherman, Thatcher, Tinker, Turner, Waterman, Webster, and Wheelwright" (Fischer 1989,26). Puritans were also especially prominent in law and commerce. East Anglian historian R. W. Cretton-Cremer described them as "dour, stubborn, fond of argument and litigation" (in Fischer 1989, 49). Interestingly, Havelock Ellis's A Study of British Genius found East Anglia to have the highest average intelligence in Britain and "a larger proportion of scholars, scientists, and artists came from East Anglia than from any other part of England" (in Fischer 1989,49). . . . "

Chinaman said...

3 Catholics
1 Arab (Nader)

There is a near monopoly of white Protestants (but we already knew that).

Anonymous said...

There aren't nearly enough cartoonists on the list.