Friday, August 20, 2010

Best of the Best (American Edition)

Last week, John Hawkins of Right Wing News polled bloggers for 20 nominations as the "worst" American. I thought the resulting list was absurd and un-serious--FDR was ranked third worst! My list, I modestly believe, was far more reflective of mainstream conservative principles.

This week, Hawkins solicited a different list of the 20 "greatest figures in American history." His results are here; George Washington came in first, Thomas Jefferson second and Martin Luther King third.

I was among the bloggers polled. My list (approximately ranked) was:
Abraham Lincoln
George Washington
Alexander Hamilton
James Madison
John Marshall
Ronald Reagan
Teddy Roosevelt
Franklin D. Roosevelt
Martin Luther King Jr.
James K. Polk
Thomas Edison
Norman Borlaug
John Adams
J.P. Morgan
Ben Franklin
Dwight D. Eisenhower
Thomas Jefferson
Orville & Wilbur Wright
Milton Friedman
My "also-rans" included Nikola Tesla, Alexander Graham Bell, George W. Bush, Ulysses Grant, Kenneth J. Arrow, Richard Feynman, Robert E. Lee, Harry Truman, Louis Brandeis, Bill Gates, and Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. I decided that too many of the achievements of Einstein and Hayek occurred when they were not "Americans."

Even though my list departs from the consolidated outcome -- Jefferson before Lincoln?? no T.R. or F.D.R.?? -- these results are much more reasonable than Hawkins' earlier "worst" poll. BTW, Hawkins ran the same "greatest Americans" poll four years ago--compare the results here.

As always, thoughts, critiques and suggested substitutions welcome in comments. I recommend readers interested in disputing my inclusion of President Polk first research the amount of U.S. territory acquired during his one term (or according to his wishes when he was President-elect). See generally Walter A. McDougall, Let the Sea Make a Noise: Four Hundred Years of Cataclysm, Conquest, War and Folly in the North Pacific (1993) (discussed here).


Geoffrey Britain said...

Gotta rank Lincoln and Washington in the top three but Jefferson 17th? With Hamilton as your third choice? Yes, Ive read his biography, he's noteworthy and certainly unappreciated but the 3rd greatest American?

OBloodyHell said...

I have issues with Hamilton based on the fact that he was very much a believer in centralized power. I think it's probably good he did not last to become an elder statesman. I don't consider my knowledge of him sufficient to really debate that point seriously, however.

However, I strenuously disagree with FDR just because many of the chief problems we face today (SS and Big-Government-as-solution in particular) are outgrowths of stupid policy decisions of his era, many of them originating more from his admin than from the legislature. Further, when faced with resistance, he attempted a blatant power grab at the SCotUS. He did do well by pushing us towards the war, and by assisting those in it until we did get involved, but he chose to remain PotUS in 1944 despite his self-evidently failing health and wound up giving up a lot to the USSR that set the stage for 50 years of Cold War. He also didn't properly keep Truman in the general loop so that Truman could at least have recognized what issues he needed to deal with when he did take over (notably Stalin and the USSR, again). In short, his actions extended the Depression, then created the Cold War and relegated two generations of people around the world to the subjugation of the Soviet Bloc. Further, the early successes of the Soviet bloc almost certainly contributed to the events in Southeast Asia in which more than a billion people wound up under the thumb of communist dictatorships.

All in all, that qualifies as a Great Big FAIL for FDR. For every good thing he did, there was a lot more bad.

Finally, your argument about Polk has some interesting merit, but what arguments could you make that such acquisitions were inevitable -- that most any reasonably smart and aggressive PotUS would not follow the dictates of "Manifest Destiny", as well as the obvious example set by Jefferson with the Louisiana Purchase? In other words, why was Polk so special, just because it (conceivably) all fell together on his watch?

Carl said...

GB--Not sure why I dislike Jefferson as much as I do. He gets credit for the Declaration and the LA Purchase, but not much else in my book. At best, I'd move him up below Adams.

OBH: Hamilton better predicted how this country would look today than any other Founder. I agree with what you say about FDR, yet, I can't discount his conduct of WWII (picking Marshall as Chief of Staff alone was brilliant.

As for Polk, I'm standing on my draw. Polk practically invented "Manifest Destiny." Partly that was through war (the Mexican War), but partly through negotiation (Oregon territory). Polk did it all, and took only 4 years.