One’s legacy is often determined by the eye of the beholder. Indiana State scholars weigh in on the question.
There’s one surefire way to spot who history deems the greatest Americans — we’ve carved their heads into mountains and placed their mugs on our money.
Maybe that’s why names like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln so easily roll off people’s tongues when asked to name America’s most influential people.
But the company they keep can vary widely. It almost always includes an assortment of fellow presidents, inventors, entrepreneurs, trailblazers, authors, Supreme Court justices and scientists, but determining the “most influential Americans” mostly boils down to who you ask — and when.
“It depends for me on what influential means. It’s easy to think of elected officials or people like that who were influential in long-term legislation like Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson or Franklin Roosevelt,” said Chris Olsen, interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and a history professor. “These are people who changed the conception of public expectations in ways. Both Roosevelts were influential in changing the way that people feel about or expect from government, and in the 20th century we began to expect our government to do a lot of things.”
Whether it was Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King Jr. or one of the more than 40 presidents that have risen to power, Olsen said that, for him, Americans become influential when they are connected to larger, longer-term changes that span generations.
“We tend to place people in higher esteem when they’ve been connected to these types of lasting changes, like extending the right to vote and pushing for integration. It’s easy to identify people who can have a tremendous public impact for a short period of time, but not have that kind of lasting influence,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll ever look back and call this the era of Miley Cyrus. She might have been influential for a certain segment of the population for short period of time, but it’s harder to attribute lasting influence to celebrity figures.”
That doesn’t mean modern-day Americans, like Elon Musk, aren’t making their mark.
“I admire his company and how he invests and risks his own money for projects he believes in,” said Daniel Pigg, Indiana State’s business engagement director. “Technology-, investment- and innovation-wise, (Musk) is a leader and an inspiration to a lot of people in the technology field.”
Musk is lucky to have followers in his time. Many of America’s most influential people weren’t so lucky. It took 70 years for American novelist Herman Melville to be plucked from obscurity and become a celebrated, American novelist who would land the 21st century among The Atlantic magazine’s list of the 100 most influential Americans.
“By the time Herman Melville died in the late 19th century, he had nearly been forgotten,” said Michael Shelden, an Indiana State English professor and acclaimed author who recently chronicled Melville during the writing of “Moby Dick.” “In the early 20th century, though, his reputation revived and people began to give ‘Moby Dick’ a second look.
“When people did, they saw how insightful it was about the character of Americans. It tells us a story that captures lot of who we are as Americans, our ambitions, dreams and what we do. When you can have that kind of influence Melville did and change the way a nation sees itself, you should be in the mix of great Americans, which usually includes people like Lincoln, Washington and Henry Ford. I would certainly place Melville among them.”
Melville’s delayed rise to prominence should give us all a little hope that we, too, still have time to leave a legacy of greatness no matter how steep the climb might seem today.
“Writers often are not found on lists like this, though I would certainly place Herman Melville on one,” Shelden said. “Almost no one remembers who the president was when ‘Moby Dick’ was written — it was Millard Fillmore — but they do remember ‘Moby Dick’ and Herman Melville. That might be a clue for us now that what seems so important in our current scene is likely to change and may not be remembered by people in 100 years.”