The Atlantic Monthly asked 10 top historians - including Pulitzer winners Doris Kearns Goodwin, David M. Kennedy, Walter McDougall and Gordon S. Wood - this question and the result appears in the latest issue of the magazine.
Ranking people, places and things from best to worst is an activity that is guaranteed to provoke an argument. This list is no exception.
The No. 1 choice, Abraham Lincoln, is obvious. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson - at No. 2 and 3, respectively - are hard to quibble with.
Once you get past those three, the arguments begin.
Conservatives might howl about Franklin Delano Roosevelt being ranked at No. 4, but as the decisive political figure of the 20th Century, he rightly deserves to be just behind those three presidents.
But how in the hell did Ronald Reagan end up at No. 17? For undoing Roosevelt's New Deal? For the largest peacetime military buildup in history? For tripling the national debt? For Iran-Contra and the most corrupt administration in history (at least until George W. Bush came along)?
Some credit Reagan for ending the Cold War, but Mikhail Gorbachev deserves as much, if not more credit. As questionable as putting Reagan at No. 17 is putting Woodrow Wilson at No. 10.
Wilson, credited for being the father of American interventionist foreign policy, is ranked higher as a president than Ulysses S. Grant (12, more for his Civil War exploits than his presidency), James Madison (13), Theodore Roosevelt (15), Andrew Jackson (18), Harry Truman (21), John Adams (25) or Dwight D. Eisenhower (28).
You have to go all the way down the list to No. 30 before you find a woman, the women's rights pioneer Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Women are underrepresented, but the ones who made it are worthy - Susan B. Anthony (38), Rachel Carson (39), Harriet Beecher Stowe (41), Eleanor Roosevelt (42), Margaret Sanger (51), Jane Addams (64), Betty Friedan (77), Margaret Mead (81) and Mary Baker Eddy (86).
Tycoons occupy more than a few spots - John D. Rockefeller (11), Henry Ford (14), Andrew Carnegie (20), J.P. Morgan (37), Bill Gates (54), Sam Walton (72) and William Randolph Hearst (80).
Not counting Benjamin Franklin at No. 6, who occupies multiple niches in American history, Mark Twain is the highest ranked writer at No. 16. One might argue Thomas Paine (19), was more important to our history, with his "Common Sense," the most important writing from the Revolutionary War era after the Declaration of Independence. You can make a case for Walt Whitman (22) being equally as great as Mark Twain in terms of work that is essential to the American character.
Was Jackie Robinson (35) more important than W.E.B. DuBois (43), Frederick Douglass (47), Thorogood Marshall (84) or Booker T. Washington (98) to the advancement of black Americans? Robinson was the second highest black American on the list, after Martin Luther King Jr. at No. 8.
Should Elvis Presley (66) be ranked ahead of Louis Armstrong (79)? And why didn't Bob Dylan make the list?
Thomas Edison, at No. 9, certainly would rank as America's top scientific and technical genius. But was Walt Disney (26) more influential than Albert Einstein (31), Jonas Salk (34) or Robert Oppenheimer (48)?
Should William Faulkner (60) be ranked ahead of Henry David Thoreau (65)? Should Lyndon B. Johnson (44) be ranked higher than Richard Nixon (99)? Should Ralph Nader (96) and Benjamin Spock (87) be on the list while John F. Kennedy is not?
To Americans over the age of 50, that might be the biggest shock. Kennedy is the only president between 1933 and 1974 not to make the list. In fact, he only made two of the 10 historians' ballots. That may be a reflection of the passage of time and the inevitable shifts in standing of historical figures as more is learned about them.
According to Russ Douthat, one of The Atlantic's editors who helped compile the list, the Top 100 reflects two streams of thought by historians - that we are more likely to remember the accomplishments of our giants of culture, commerce and science than our politicians, and that our greatest Americans have been our innovators, risk-takers and pioneers. Half of America's presidents did not receive a vote from the panelists, while people who never occupied the White House - like Alexander Hamilton (5) or the Wright Brothers (23) and Alexander Graham Bell (24) fared better.
The best thing a list like this can accomplish is to stimulate a discussion about the people who shaped our nation. If you have read this far and find yourself not knowing the accomplishments of the people on this list, get thee to a library and start reading.