Who Were the 100 Most Influential People in American History and Why?

American history is nothing if not filled with influential people. However, it’s important to realize that the honor of having been labeled an influential person is by no means limited to military leaders or presidents. American history is also filled with visionaries and writers, activists and entrepreneurs. It’s one thing to deem a given historical figure influential. It’s another to define what it means to be influential. What makes a given person worthy of a spot on a Top 100 list? Is it really possible for one person on such a list to matter more than another? How much do changing societal values affect who’s considered noteworthy and who is not?

Here we’ll take a closer look at the concept of influence itself, as well as introduce the list of people considered by modern historians to be the most influential when it comes to American history. Did your favorites make the list?

What Makes a Person Influential?

Influence is a tough concept to pin down. Every last one of us knows it when we see it, but most of us would struggle to define it. Although accomplishments absolutely do factor into the picture, true influence is about a lot more than that. It’s also about how strongly the figure in question helped to shape our nation and society as we know it today.

The influence in question is often positive, but it’s important to note that it doesn’t necessarily have to be. Factors that can determine a person’s level of influence include but are not necessarily limited to the power of pop culture, the nature of the person’s achievements, and the values that drove the figure to make the decisions that they did as far as their life’s work.

American History’s 100 Most Influential People

Although several publications and historical authorities have attempted to compile a list of history’s most influential figures, the most definitive one is the one established by The Atlantic. In order to determine who made the cut, a panel of ten prominent modern historians was asked to collectively weigh in. Did your favorites make the cut?

Abraham Lincoln

Like Washington, Lincoln is profoundly famous for his legendary influence on American history. Quite notably, he ended slavery and ushered in our nation’s second founding after the Civil War.

George Washington

Everyone knows Washington as the father of our country. America would quite simply not exist without him.

Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson was the first to tell us that “all men are created equal,” an idea at the root of his profound influence on history and society.

Franklin D. Roosevelt

Roosevelt was responsible for numerous noteworthy foreign and domestic achievements that would change the face of history profoundly.

Alexander Hamilton

Hamilton’s legacy as a political scientist, soldier, and banker would eventually lead to America’s indisputable establishment as a major industrial force.

Benjamin Franklin

Franklin is considered the father of multiple American trades, including science, writing, invention, and many more.

John Marshall

Marshall is responsible for bringing the judicial branch into equality with the other two federal branches.

Martin Luther King

King is largely considered to be one of American history’s most important fighters for racial equality.

Thomas Edison

Although his invention of the lightbulb would have been reason enough for him to be present on this list, Edison was responsible for numerous inventions that would change history forever.

Woodrow Wilson

Wilson is credited with setting the stage for American interventionism.

John D. Rockefeller

Rockefeller is known as the first major modern tycoon. He made a fortune with Standard Oil, and then proceeded to give it away.

Ulysses S. Grant

Not only was Grant one of American history’s greatest generals, but he was also the author of one of our nation’s most noteworthy political memoirs.

James Madison

Madison wrote the Bill of Rights, an undoubtedly important part of American history.

Henry Ford

America never would have had a chance to fall in love with the automobile if it weren’t for Ford’s Model T.

Theodore Roosevelt

Roosevelt’s efforts and accomplishments would go on to set the stage for 20th century America as we knew it.

Mark Twain

Twain is the great American author. He is well known for his unflinching depictions of American life.

Ronald Reagan

Truman may have led us into the Cold War, but Reagan led us out of it. He is also the much loved force behind conservative realignment.

Andrew Jackson

Jackson is directly responsible for taking America from a republic to the democracy it is today.

Thomas Paine

Paine was America’s first noteworthy radical, as well as the definitive voice of the American Revolution.

Margaret Mead

Carnegie is largely considered to be the very first self-made American. His influence is directly responsible for America’s eventual industrial identity.

Harry S. Truman

Truman is the president responsible for bringing us into both the Atomic Age and the Cold War.

Walt Whitman

Whitman’s poetry, essays, and journals would come to have a lasting influence on how we saw ourselves as countrymen.

Orville and Wilbur Wright

We owe the powers of flight and the modern convenience of travel to these two.

Alexander Graham Bell

When Bell invented the telephone, he would change the way humans communicate in profoundly lasting ways.

John Adams

Adams and his leadership were directly responsible for not only the American Revolution, but its eventual success.

Walt Disney

Another man that needs no introduction, Disney’s influence over the childhood of generations of Americans is undisputed.

Eli Whitney

When Whitney invented the cotton gin, he ushered in the era of cotton – an era which would eventually also be categorized by slavery.

Dwight D. Eisenhower

Eisenhower didn’t just win two elections, but won a war, to boot.

Earl Warren

Earl Warren and the Supreme Court of his day would eventually be responsible for transforming our society at large.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Stanton’s tireless fighting for female voting rights and American social reform make her a major feminist icon.

Henry Clay

Clay’s penchant for oration and legislation was at the root of the compromises that held off the American civil war for many years.

Albert Einstein

Einstein is influential both for his game-changing scientific work and for his contagious humanity.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson taught a nation how to be self-reliant, making him the father of American individualism.

Jonas Salk

Salk’s groundbreaking polio vaccine is responsible for ridding society of one of history’s most debilitating plagues.

Jackie Robinson

Robinson is known not only for being one of baseball’s greatest, but for breaking the color barrier that was present in the sport previously.

William Jennings Bryan

Bryan ran for president three times and lost each time, but his populism is the real source of his lasting influence.

J.P. Morgan

Anthony is considered the voice of women’s equality, hands down.

Susan B. Anthony

Anthony is considered the voice of women’s equality, hands down.

Rachel Carson

Carson’s Silent Spring is largely credited with eventually ushering in the environmental movement of today.

John Dewey

Dewey worked tirelessly to turn the public school system into adequate training for democratic life.

Harriet Beecher Stowe

When Stowe penned Uncle Tom’s Cabin, she would spark inspiration for the generation of abolitionists behind the Civil War.

Eleanor Roosevelt

Roosevelt is well known for positively leveraging her position as the first lady, as well as the media of the time.

W.E.B. Du Bois

Du Bois devoted his life’s effort to addressing the “problem of the color line.”

Lyndon B. Johnson

Johnson is equally responsible for bringing history the Vietnam War, as well as important civil rights laws.

Samuel F.B. Morse

Morse is, of course, responsible for developing Morse code.

William Lloyd Garrison

Garrison, along with his newspaper The Garrison, would go down in history as one of abolition’s most noteworthy voices.

Frederick Douglass

Douglass’s writings on American slavery remain influential and important to this day.

Robert Oppenheimer

Largely known as the father of the atomic bomb, Oppenheimer ushered us into the nuclear era.

Frederick Law Olmsted

Olmstead not only gave us New York City’s beautiful Central Park, but showed us the importance of urban parks in general.

James K. Polk

Polk was only in office for one term, but he is responsible for making California, Texas, and the American Southwest permanent parts of our nation.

Margaret Sanger

Sanger’s championship of birth control would open the door to American sexual freedom as we know it today.

Joseph Smith

Smith was the founding father of Mormonism and the Latter Day Saint movement.

Oliver Wendell Holmes

The Supreme Court opinions he wrote still have a massive influence on jurisprudence in America.

Bill Gates

Bill Gates is widely considered to be one of America’s greatest innovators, entrepreneurs, and philanthropists.

John Quincy Adams

Adams is the author of the Monroe Doctrine, a major influence on American diplomacy throughout history.

Horace Mann

Mann was an advocate for public schooling, making him the father of American education as we know it.

Robert E. Lee

Lee’s composure as a general and as a great American symbol of conciliation make him influential to this day.

John C. Calhoun

Calhoun goes down in history as slavery’s most outspoken and influential defender. He is largely considered the definitive voice of the antebellum South.

Louis Sullivan

American architecture would never be the same once Sullivan introduced us to an urban staple – the skyscraper.

William Faulkner

Faulkner’s depictions of the American South is behind a lasting fascination with the region that endures to this day.

Samuel Gompers

Gompers is the man responsible for ushering in the age of the union with his organization efforts.

William James

James is known the world over for being the first great American pragmatist.

George Marshall

Marshall is responsible for both rebuilding Western Europe, as well as organizing America’s efforts during WWII.

Jane Addams

Addams is the founder of Hull House, a major influence when it comes to American social work.

Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau and his writings have inspired multiple generations to “find themselves” and be as authentic as possible.

Elvis Presley

Presley barely needs an introduction, as his musical influence on what we know as rock and roll is known by every American.

P.T. Barnum

Barnum changed the face of American entertainment forever, thanks to his penchant for spectacle.

James D. Watson

Watson is the co-discoverer of the DNA double helix, a revelation that revolutionized medicine.

James Gordon Bennett

Bennett is considered to be the inventor of the modern-day American newspaper, thanks to his founding of The New York Herald.

Meriwether Lewis and William

Lewis and Clark are the team that have pretty much come to define “exploration” for all of us.

Noah Webster

Webster’s dictionary is still America’s go-to tome when it comes to defining the English language.

Sam Walton

The man behind corporate giant Wal-Mart, Walton changed the face of retail forever.

Cyrus McCormick

McCormick was the brain behind the mechanical reaper, an invention that made industrial agriculture possible.

Brigham Young

Young is responsible for helping dispossessed Mormons regain their lands, carrying on the work of Joseph Smith.

Babe Ruth

Babe Ruth was the beginning of a culture that celebrates athletes as celebrities, thanks to the role he played in redeeming baseball after the Black Sox scandal.

Frank Lloyd Wright

Wright is widely considered to be our nation’s most important and influential architect.

Betty Friedan

Friedan directly addressed the plight of the American housewife and got society thinking about the validity of established gender roles.

John Brown

Although society never quite agreed on whether or not he was a hero or simply a fanatic, Brown is almost universally credited with sparking the Civil War.

William Randolph Hearst

Thanks to Armstrong and his amazing talent, jazz became a staple in regards to both screen and stage.

William Randolph Hearst

Hearst is credited with perfecting yellow journalism, as well as with helping to launch the Spanish-American War.

Margaret Mead

Mead’s anthropological work and writings got people talking and put anthropology on the map.

George Gallup

Cooper’s novels are known the world over for their depictions of the American frontier.

James Fenimore Cooper

Cooper’s novels are known the world over for their depictions of the American frontier.

Thurgood Marshall

Marshall’s legal work and presence as a Supreme Court justice was a critical element in the civil rights revolution.

Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway’s succinct but powerful writing style and adventurous life is still influencing Americans from all walks of life today.

Mary Baker Eddy
Benjamin Spock

How Americans parented their children changed forever after just one influential book from Spock.

Enrico Fermi

Fermi’s unparalleled understanding of physics is behind both quantum theory and eventually the atomic bomb as well.

Walter Lippmann

Proof of the mighty power of the pen, Lippmann was capable of swinging entire elections with the newspaper columns he wrote.

Jonathan Edwards

Edwards is largely considered to be among America’s most important and noteworthy theologians.

Lyman Beecher

Beecher was a major evangelist and abolitionist. He is also the father of Harriet Beecher Stowe.

John Steinbeck

Steinbeck’s body of work is known for the unique way it accurately recorded life during the Depression era.

Nat Turner

Turner is considered by multiple historical authorities to have been the most successful of American history’s rebel slaves.

George Eastman

Eastman is the brilliant mind responsible for Kodak and its profound influence on the way we take photos.

Samuel Goldwyn

Goldwyn is largely considered to be the very first major Hollywood mogul and is responsible for producing more than four decades’ worth of films.

Ralph Nader

Nader played a critical role in making George W. Bush president. He is also known for helping to make modern automobiles much safer.

Stephen Foster

Largely considered to be our country’s first major songwriter, Foster brought us classics that are still well known today. “O! Susanna” is just one example.

Booker T. Washington

Washington worked tirelessly to help Black America rise up from slavery. He was also an early believer in self-help.

Richard Nixon

The scandals that characterized Nixon’s presidency are still not so fondly remembered by the American people.

Herman Melville

Although Moby Dick was a massive flop at the time of its publication, Herman Melville and his work would go on to change the face of American fiction forever.

Learn more about the contributions and influence of not only these great Americans, but countless others when you supplement your studies of American history with regional interest books on America’s most noteworthy people, cities, movements, and events. Explore the possibilities today!

Posted: 6/20/2016