Nothing starts a good argument like a debate over the best presidents, actors, or athletes. So let’s go all in, with a top ten list to beat all top ten lists – the top ten most important, most influential Americans – ever. I’ll begin with the ones who don’t make my totally unscientific list: Harry Truman, the Wright Brothers, Eli Whitney, Jonas Salk, Jackie Robinson, Susan B. Anthony, Thurgood Marshall, Ernest Hemingway, Benjamin Spock, Franklin Roosevelt, Alexander Hamilton, Teddy Roosevelt, Andrew Jackson, Thomas Paine, Andrew Carnegie, Ronald Reagan, Albert Einstein, Robert E. Lee, Thomas Jefferson, John Rockefeller, James Madison, Alexander Graham Bell, Sam Walton, Noah Webster, Ben Franklin, Billy Graham, and Walt Disney. So here’s my list. May the arguments around the water coolers begin . . .
1. George Washington. He made the United States possible. He defeated a king while refusing to be one himself. He is the father of our country. Case closed.
2. Abraham Lincoln. The man saved the Union, freed the slaves, and presided over America’s second founding. We will resist the temptation to fill this list with presidents, but we had to start with Washington and Lincoln. That was easy. Now it gets tough.
3. Thomas Edison. It wasn’t just the light bulb. The Wizard of Menlo Park was the most prolific inventor in American history, credited with the phonograph, motion picture camera, and 1,093 U.S. patents.
4. Martin Luther King, Jr. His dream of racial equality is driving the national debate to this day. But no one did more to make it real. He was a Baptist minister, social activist, and preacher of the iconic speech, “I have a dream.”
5. Bill Gates. He is the Rockefeller of the Information Age, in both business and philanthropy. Worth $78.9 billion, Gates co-founded Microsoft in 1975. The wealthiest man in the world is the best-known entrepreneur of the personal computer revolution.
6. Henry Ford. He gave us the assembly line in 1913, and the Model T, sparking America’s love affair with the automobile. Ford gave us large production plants and became one of the most influential men in the industrial world.
7. Mark Twain. The author of our national epic, he was the most unsentimental observer of our national life. Author of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Samuel Clemens is known for his classic wit and wisdom.
8. Jonathan Edwards. Forget the fire and brimstone; his subtle eloquence made him the country’s most influential theologian. He preached the famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” and played a major role in the First Great Awakening, making Edwards arguably the most influential religious leader in our history.
9. Elvis Presley. He was the king of rock and roll and the most influential musician of the 20th century, receiving a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award at the old age of 36. The “king” still rules, 38 years after his death.
10. Babe Ruth. He saved America’s pastime in the wake of the Black Sox scandal – and permanently linked sports to celebrity. The “sultan of swat” may not even be the best baseball player ever (that would be Willie Mays), but he is the most iconic. To this day, Yankee Stadium is known as “The House that Ruth Built,” 80 years after he hit his last home run.