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Famous Americans: the Greatest Americans of All Time

Who were the most famous Americans? This is one man's list of the Americans who had the greatest impact on their nation and the larger world ...

by Michael R. Burch, an editor and publisher of Holocaust and Nakba poetry

The Ten Greatest Americans

#10) Thomas Paine ― Paine was the foremost voice of the American Revolution, and the first great American radical.
        Sitting Bull ― If Andrew Jackson had been half as wise as the great Lakota Sioux chief, the Trail of Tears and massacres on both sides could have been avoided.

#9) Harriet Beecher Stowe ― Uncle Tom’s Cabin inspired a generation of abolitionists; when Abraham Lincoln met Stowe, he allegedly said: "So you're the little lady who started this great big war!"
#8) Walt Whitman ― Whitman was America's greatest poet, and still is; he created modern free verse and shaped his country’s conception of itself while promoting diversity and tolerance.
#7) Mark Twain ― Twain may well have been our greatest novelist, our greatest humorist, the greatest critic of the Bible and Christianity, and our first stand-up comedian and performance superstar.
#6) George Washington ― Washington made the earth's first modern democracy possible, initially by defeating a king, then by declining to become one himself.
#5) Thomas Jefferson ― Jefferson may have written the most important phrase in the English language: "all men are created equal."
#4) Ben Franklin ― An important scientist, inventory, printer, writer and diplomat, Franklin lived up to his stated ideals by freeing his slaves, so he is a notch above Thomas Jefferson. 
#3) John F. Kennedy ― Kennedy had the vision and the courage to defend the Freedom Riders, to support the American Civil Rights Movement, and defuse the Cuban missile crisis.
#2) Martin Luther King Jr. ― Dr. King was an American Gandhi who showed millions of his brothers and sisters the nonviolent path to equality, justice and reconciliation.
#1) Abraham Lincoln ― Lincoln preserved the Union, emancipated the slaves and led his country through its darkest hour with virtue and courage.

Poets: Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Edgar Alan Poe, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, e. e. cummings, Louise Bogan, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Conrad Aiken, Archibald MacLeish, Anne Sexton, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Maya Angelou, Eminem
Songwriters: Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Stephen Foster, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Pete Seeger, Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Hank Williams Sr., Willie Nelson, Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, Johnny Cash, Beck
Musicians: Louis Armstrong, Jimi Hendrix, W. C. Handy, Robert Johnson, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Muddy Waters, Miles Davis,
Novelists: Mark Twain, Herman Melville, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, Louisa Mae Alcott, Toni Morrison, Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Harper Lee, Harriet Beecher Stowe
Publishers: William Randolph Hearst, Hugh Hefner, Oprah Winfrey
Humorists: Mark Twain, Will Rogers, Bob Hope, Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby, Jonathan Winters, Robin Williams, Johnny Carson, Dr. Seuss, Woody Allen, George Carlin
Singers: Elvis Presley, Madonna, Billie Holliday, Janis Joplin, Aretha Franklin, Frank Sinatra, Little Richard, Michael Jackson, Prince, Barbara Streisand, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel
Artists: Andy Warhol, James Whistler, Edward Hopper, Jackson Pollack, Winslow Homer, Andrew Wyeth, Norman Rockwell
Actors: Marlon Brando, James Dean, Paul Newman, Jack Nicholson, Humphrey Bogart, Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Steve McQueen, John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Tom Hanks
Actresses: Katherine Hepburn, Meryl Streep, Jane Fonda, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly, Jodie Foster, Judy Garland, Faye Dunaway, Jessica Lange, Nicole Kidman, Glenn Close, Greta Garbo
Architects: Frank Lloyd Wright, Philip Johnson, Louis Khan, Daniel Libeskind, Louis Henry Sullivan
Explorers: Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, Sacagawea, Daniel Boone, Davey Crockett, Kit Carson, Robert Edwin Peary, Richard Byrd
Scientists: Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Nikola Tesla, James Watson, George Washington Carver, Edward Teller, Richard Feynman, Edwin Hubble
Inventors: Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, Alexander Graham Bell, Robert Fulton, Orville and Wilbur Wright, Charles Goodyear, Steve Jobs, Jonas Salk
Industrialists: Henry Ford, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Sam Walton, Ray Krok, Howard Hughes, Bill Gates
Aviation: Orville and Wilbur Wright, Neil Armstrong, Amelia Earhart, Charles Lindberg, John Glenn, Chuck Yeager
Environmentalists: Rachel Carson
Presidents: Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, John Adams, James Madison, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Woodrow Wilson, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama
Statesmen: Alexander Hamilton, George Marshall, William Jennings Bryan, Henry Kissinger
Judges: John Marshall, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Earl Warren, Thurgood Marshall
Generals: Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur, George Patton
Philosophers: Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson
Civil Rights: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Robert F. Kennedy, Rosa Parks
Native American: Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Geronimo, Sacagawea, Pocahontas
Women's Rights: Susan B. Anthony, Helen Keller, Eleanor Roosevelt, Margaret Sanger, Jane Addams, Betty Friedan
Activists: Eugene Debs, Ralph Nader, Ron Paul
Movies: Walt Disney, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas
Men's Sports: Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Jackie Robinson, Pete Rose, Muhammad Ali, Jesse Owens, Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods
Women's Sports: Billie Jean King, Chris Evert
Creeps: Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, George Patton, George W. Bush, Dick "the Penguin" Cheney, Bishop Willard Mitt Romney, Andrew Jackson

Paul Robeson was perhaps the most all-around talented American of the twentieth century. He was an internationally renowned concert singer, actor, college football star and professional athlete, writer, linguist (he sang in twenty-five languages), scholar, orator, lawyer and activist in the civil rights, union and peace movements. Though he was one of the century's most famous figures, his name was virtually erased from memory by government persecution during the McCarthy era. The son of a runaway slave, Robeson won a four-year academic scholarship to Rutgers, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and graduated as valedictorian. Despite violence and racism from teammates, he won fifteen varsity letters in sports (baseball, football, basketball and track) and was twice named to the All-American Football Team. He attended Columbia Law School, then took a job with a law firm but quit when a white secretary refused to take dictation from him. He never practiced law again. In London, Robeson earned international acclaim for his lead role in Othello (1944). He starred in many plays and musicals and made eleven films, many with political themes. He promoted African independence, labor unions, friendship between the United States and the Soviet Union, African-American culture, civil liberties and Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler's Germany. In 1945 he headed an organization that challenged Truman to support an antilynching law. Because of his political views, his performances were constantly harassed. In the late 1940s he was blacklisted. Most of his concerts were canceled, and his passport was revoked in 1950.

Pete Seeger wrote or popularized "We Shall Overcome," "Turn, Turn, Turn," "If I Had a Hammer," "Guantanamera," "Wimoweh," "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" and other songs that inspired people to take action, including the songs of his friend Woody Guthrie, whose "This Land Is Your Land" is considered America's alternative national anthem.. On his own and as a member of the Almanac Singers and the Weavers (which had several top-selling hits, including "Good Night, Irene," despite their opposition to commercialism), Seeger sang for unions, civil rights and antiwar groups, and other human rights causes in the United States and around the world. He introduced Americans to the music of other cultures and catalyzed the "folk revival" of the late 1950s and '60s. He was a founder of the Newport Folk Festival and Sing Out! magazine. He was also an environmental pioneer, founding the sloop Clearwater and raising consciousness and money to push government to clean up the Hudson River and other waterways. Many of his songs have been recorded by other artists and have influenced generations of performers, including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, the Birds, Bruce Springsteen, and Tom Morello.

Betty Friedan's book The Feminine Mystique (1963) helped change American attitudes toward women's equality, popularized the phrase "sexism" and catalyzed the modern feminist movement. In the 1940s and 1950s she worked as a left-wing labor journalist before focusing her writing and activism on women's rights. She co-founded the National Organization for Women in 1966, which she viewed as a civil rights movement for women. Five years later she (along with Gloria Steinem, Fannie Lou Hamer, Bella Abzug and Shirley Chisholm) created the National Women's Political Caucus to expand women's participation in politics, including running for public office.

Building on his experiences as a farmworker and community organizer in the barrios of San Jose, Oakland and Los Angeles, Cesar Chavez did what many thought impossible--organize the most vulnerable Americans, immigrant farmworkers, into a successful union, improving conditions for California's lettuce and grape pickers. Founded in 1960s, the United Farm Workers pioneered the use of consumer boycotts, enlisting other unions, churches and students to join in a nationwide boycott of nonunion grapes, wine and lettuce. Chavez led demonstrations, voter registration drives, fasts, boycotts and other nonviolent protests to gain public support. The UFW won a campaign to enact California's Agricultural Labor Relations Act, which Governor Jerry Brown signed into law in 1975, giving farmworkers collective bargaining rights they lacked (and still lack) under federal labor law. Barack Obama adopted the UFW's slogan, "Si Se Puede" - "Yes, We Can" - in his 2008 presidential campaign. 

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. helped change America's conscience, not only about civil rights but also about economic justice, poverty and war. As an inexperienced young pastor in Montgomery, Alabama, King was reluctantly thrust into the leadership of the bus boycott. During the 382-day boycott, King was arrested and abused and his home was bombed, but he emerged as a national figure and honed his leadership skills. In 1957 he helped launch the SCLC to spread the civil rights crusade to other cities. He helped lead local campaigns in Selma, Birmingham and other cities, and sought to keep the fractious civil rights movement together, including the NAACP, Urban League, SNCC, CORE and SCLC. Between 1957 and 1968 King traveled more than 6 million miles, spoke more than 2,500 times and was arrested at least twenty times while preaching the gospel of nonviolence. The struggle for civil rights radicalized King into a fighter for economic and social justice. During the 1960s King became increasingly committed to building bridges between the civil rights and labor movements. He was in Memphis in 1968 to support striking sanitation workers when he was assassinated. In 1964, at 35, King was the youngest man to have received the Nobel Peace Prize. Some civil rights activists worried that his opposition to the Vietnam War, announced in 1967, would create a backlash against civil rights, but instead it helped turned the tide of public opinion against the war.

Billie Jean King, like Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali, used her celebrity as an athlete as a platform to agitate for broader social changes. She was at the top of women's tennis for nearly two decades. She won her first Wimbledon singles title in 1966, piled up dozens of singles and doubles titles before retiring in 1984 and was ranked number one in the world for five years. She founded the Women's Tennis Association, the Women's Sports Foundation and WomenSports magazine. She championed Title IX legislation, which equalized opportunities for women on and off the playing field and has revolutionized women's sports. In 1972 she signed a controversial statement, published in Ms., that she had had an abortion, putting her on the front lines of the battle for reproductive rights. In 1972 she became the first woman to be named Sports Illustrated "Sportsperson of the Year." In 1981 she was the first major female professional athlete to come out as a lesbian. She has consistently spoken out for women and their right to earn comparable money in tennis and other sports as well as in the larger society.

Edgar Alan Poe invented science fiction and the modern detective novel; he was also an important poet and critic.
Albert Einstein's greatest scientific work was done in Europe, but his humanity earned him undying fame in America.
John Adams with his leadership helped make the American Revolution possible; his devotion to republicanism helped made it succeed.
James Madison fathered the Constitution and wrote the Bill of Rights.
Alexander Hamilton was a soldier, banker and political scientist who helped set in motion an agrarian nation’s transformation into an industrial power.
Franklin D. Roosevelt He said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” and then he proved it.
Susan B. Anthony was her country’s most eloquent voice for women’s equality.
Walt Disney was the Moses of the imagination.
Thomas Edison, known as the "Wizard of Menlo Park" was the most prolific inventor in American history.
Henry Ford gave us the assembly line and sparked America’s love affair with the automobile.
Jonas Salk with his vaccine for polio eradicated one of the world’s worst plagues.
Ronald Reagan was the "amiable architect" of the conservative realignment and the Cold War’s end.
John Marshall helped establish the Supreme Court as the equal of the other two federal branches.
Rachel Carson, the author of Silent Spring, became the godmother of the environmental movement.
Theodore Roosevelt, whether busting trusts or building canals, embodied the “strenuous life” and blazed a trail for twentieth-century America.
Woodrow Wilson made the world safe for U.S. interventionism, if not for democracy.
Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier and embodied integration’s promise.
Andrew Jackson, the first great populist, found America a republic and left it a democracy, except for slaves and Native Americans, unfortunately.
John D. Rockefeller, the man behind Standard Oil, set the mold for American tycoons—first by making money, then by giving it away.
Ulysses S. Grant was the general Lincoln needed to win the Civil War; he also wrote the greatest political memoir in American history.
Andrew Carnegie, the original self-made man, helped forg America’s industrial might, then became one of the nation’s greatest philanthropists.
Harry S. Truman ushered in the Atomic Age, then the Cold War.
Orville and Wilbur Wright ushered in the era of flight.
Alexander Graham Bell, by inventing the telephone, opened the age of telecommunications and shrank the world.
Dwight D. Eisenhower won a war and two elections, and made everybody like Ike.
Eli Whitney with the invention of his gin helped make cotton king in the South, and set the stage for slavery.

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