Ten Lives That Explain America

Rod over at Crunchy Con asks this question:

Which ten American historical figures would you cite that would give a high school student a decent, if incomplete, grounding in American history?

Also thrown in as criteria:

  • No presidents or first ladies
  • “reasonably well-known people whose biographies convey something essential about the American character and experience
  • “exemplifies something critical to understand about the kind of nation we are, or were”>

Here’s my picks (in chronological order, more or less) and why:

  1. Jonathan Edwards – exemplifies the early religious spirit of America, especially Puritanism; if you’re a fan of Max Weber (“Protestant work ethic”), Edwards certainly can be seen as a reason for the strength of capitalism in America; America’s first homegrown theologian; shows that America is not supposed to be so “secular” after all.
  2. Thomas Paine – not only are his writings a shining example of the principles which led to the American Revolution, but the story of his life could also be used to tell the story of America’s early years as a nation.
  3. Dred Scott – this choice falls under that “exemplifies something critical to understand about the kind of nation we are, or were” category; his story and the outcome of the case he gave his name to truly exemplify the lowest point America has hit in its history; demonstrates that the rights we take for granted today were not always easily attained.
  4. Chief Sitting Bull – once again demonstrates that even a nation which such high principles as our own can have those principles compromised; in addition, his story covers the history of much of post-Civil War America.
  5. Homer A. Plessy – ties in with Dred Scott above; opens a new chapter in American history as this list comes into the 20th century; demonstrates that even the greatest nation on earth can be the home of injustice.
  6. Andrew Carnegie – to put it very simply: Andrew Carnegie is the American Dream; the child of immigrants who worked his way up from a minimum wage messenger boy to, at one time, the richest man in America; and then gave away his entire fortune to help those who hadn’t made it as far as himself; if this was a list of one, he’d be the one.
  7. Audie Murphythe American hero; the most decorated soldier of WWII and an example of everything Americans love about their men in the military; demonstrates American values, including bravery, self-sacrifice, patriotism, love of freedom and hatred of tyranny.
  8. Malcolm X – some would probably be very surprised at this choice; most would choose Martin Luther King, Jr., to represent the Civil Rights era, but I think that Malcolm X better demonstrates the level of anger and frustration, even desperation, that African Americans and others had reached by the 1960’s; it was no longer the days of Booker T. Washington’s “eventual” “equality,” it was “the ballot or the bullet,” now and not later. His life story, for those who haven’t read his autobiography (which I highly recommend!), also covers a wide range of events in American history, including the Great Depression and the terror propagated against minorities by groups like the KKK.
  9. Ron Kovic – while Audie Murphy exemplifies the American hero, the story of Ron Kovic, a paralyzed Vietnam War veteran, shows the other side of things, a reality which America has yet to truly face up to; demonstrates what happens when America fails to live up to its principles.
  10. Cesar Chavez – exemplary of the “new immigrant” and America’s continued struggle to live up to the high standards it has set for itself.

My choices are probably surprising to many, and may very well be indicative of my own political leanings (slightly left of center, I estimate), but I think that the overall theme of them is summed up in that last entry: America’s continued struggle to live up to the high standards it has set for itself. I think that American history is probably best summed up by saying that America is a land of great diversity in unity. The United States is the whole world all in one nation; we have people of every religion, every race, every culture, creed, political leaning, etc. and our story is one of all of us trying to live together and, more importantly, together live up to our standard as a nation, the highest standard a nation has ever set for itself: that all men are created equal and that they each and every one have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is not our military might or our great wealth or our scientific achievements which make us the greatest nation on earth; it is simply this: a dedication to the right of every individual to live life as he or she so chooses and, thereby, to prosper.

One thought on “Ten Lives That Explain America”

  1. I realized after reading through this list again that I had failed to add a single woman! To correct this error, I think I would have to remove Cesar Chavez and add Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Not that I’m doing that, just saying that if I wanted to correct my slip up, that’s probably how I’d do it.

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