Who is the Greatest American?


It’s weird. I’ve only been giving passing interest to the CBC’s Greatest Canadian series (click here for commentary on the final results - congrats Tommy, and good run Terry!), after showing my disquiet over our undervaluation of women in Canadian history. Despite this, once the results were announced, I was thinking about the inevitable sequel.

Not the Canadian sequel. There’s no such animal. But the CBC’s Greatest Canadian was only one of a number of copycats of the original BBC Greatest Briton series, and the trend isn’t over yet. So far, we’ve had the Greatest Australian and the Greatest South African. Guess which country is absent from this list?

I don’t have times and dates, but network television in the States are already planning the Greatest American, and strangely enough, Dan and I are already speculating on who would make the top ten.

We immediately rattled off four presidents: Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt (Franklin) and Reagan, with Teddy Roosevelt being a possible wildcard. These aren’t our choices for who deserves to be in the top ten; these are our guesses of what Americans might be thinking. Washington was America’s founding father and first President. Lincoln kept the country together. F.D.R. gave Americans the New Deal and led them almost all the way through the Second World War and Reagan (the choice I disagree with) ended the Cold War (he didn’t do it alone, but that’s neither here nor there) and had undeniable charisma (no argument there).

Dan and I had to stop ourselves in order to switch tracks and think of great Americans who weren’t presidents. Think of a non-politician, Dan told me. And I said, “Thomas Edison”.

He added, “Mark Twain”, and I had to agree that it would be a crime if Samuel Clemens didn’t make the top 10. We struggled a bit more with writers and scientists. Oppenheimer was probably too cerebral a choice, though he might make the top 50. Then we turned to military leaders: Eisenhower was the first person that came to mind, followed closely by Ulysses Grant — both, coincidentally, presidents. Is it my imagination or is American history president-heavy?

That’s nine nominees. Who’s number ten? It’s got to be a dark horse. Somebody almost nobody would expect.

Noting the great difference in voting preference between the over-50s and the under-50s on the CBC’s Greatest Canadian (over-50s favoured father-of-medicare Tommy Douglas by a wide margin, while under-50s went for the anti-cancer champion Terry Fox), Dan and I speculated on who the under-50s in the States might vote for. Expect Reagan to get a boost, I said, and expect FDR to fall a bit. Dan suggested that Clinton’s strength would be such that he enters the top twenty overall. And non-politicians? Here’s two suggestions: George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. They might join Walt Disney among the entertainer complement (generally favoured by the over-50s).

And typing all of this up, I’m again struck by the fact that there are no women on the list. And I can’t duck responsibility for this one. Why is it that women tend to be undervalued in hstory?



  1. Abraham Lincoln
  2. Thomas Edison
  3. Mark Twain
  4. George Washington
  5. Martin Luther King
  6. Franklin D. Roosevelt
  7. Dwight D. Eisenhower
  8. Ulysses Grant
  9. Ronald W. Reagan
  10. ????

Additions from the Under-50 Crowd:

  • Bill Clinton
  • Stephen Spielberg
  • George Lucas
  • John F. Kennedy

And finally, the wildcards.

Expect strong runs for Billy Graham. Bill Gates would get on the top-50 list and would be immediately reviled. Steve Jobs would also be nominated and supporters of both nominees would engage in a fearsome rivalry. Think somebody might vote for Johnny Cash? But for that elusive tenth spot, the real dark horse in American history, a name came to mind, and I think he might make it:

Robert E. Lee.

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