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Who Is the Greatest American?

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Who is the greatest American ever? Discovery Channel and America Online have teamed up to answer that question with a campaign that combines original television and online programming with interactive online features.

The initiative, which kicked off January 13, will give Americans a chance to determine who will be named the “Greatest American,” inviting them to submit nominations and to vote through the AOL.com Web site or at AOL Keyword: Greatest American. Through February 1, Americans can nominate up to five individuals they believe most influenced the way they think, work and live. The top 100 nominees will be announced in March.

The effort will culminate in a Discovery Channel series beginning in May, highlighting the top vote-getters and the person named as the “Greatest American.”

From March through May, Discovery Channel will provide AOL with packaged biographies of top vote-getters arranged by category, such as politicians, sports figures, news personalities and celebrities, that will be available for viewing online. In addition, Discovery Channel will provide AOL with “person on the street” interviews with ordinary Americans as they share their thoughts on who the “Greatest American” is and why.

Discovery Channel will premiere the first episode of the “Greatest American” series in May, profiling a selection from the top 100 nominees based on online submissions. Viewers can then cast votes online to pare down the list, and each subsequent show will profile leading vote-getters, with the eventual No. 1 choice profiled in the final episode in June. The programs will highlight the candidates’ lives, and will feature interviews with celebrities and national figures who will discuss the country’s top choices.

In addition to being an interesting hook into American history, the multimedia aspect is intriguing as well. Who are your five greatest Americans? How did you decide? What is “greatness”?

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About Eric Olsen

Career media professional and serial entrepreneur Eric Olsen flung himself into the paranormal world in 2012, creating the America's Most Haunted brand and co-authoring the award-winning America's Most Haunted book, published by Berkley/Penguin in Sept, 2014. Olsen is co-host of the nationally syndicated broadcast and Internet radio talk show After Hours AM; his entertaining and informative America's Most Haunted website and social media outlets are must-reads: Twitter@amhaunted, Facebook.com/amhaunted, Pinterest America's Most Haunted. Olsen is also guitarist/singer for popular and wildly eclectic Cleveland cover band The Props.
  • History Buff

    I nominate Philip Nolan as the greatest American who ever lived.

  • Eric Olsen

    I think Elvis is a reasonable choice Diane – I think he did those things too, not that he had any conscious socio-political agenda, but that’s probably part of why he succeeded.

    Victor, your heart clearly bleeds in a manner more pronounced than average (smile)

  • Diane

    I didn’t read all the responses (Sorry if I am flogging a dead horse). Canada just had a greatest Canadian….I don’t remember who was chosen, Gordon Lightfoot? I thought it was a silly exercise. Too many contributions. Different eras bring to mind different ‘greats’.
    Elvis would be my pick for this modern era. Seriously, Elvis helped bridge the racial gap and ushered in a whole new genre of music, rock and roll.

  • Who most influenced the way we think, work, and live? Adjusting my criteria to include those who had the largest positive effect on American culture, here is my list of our top five greatest United States citizens:

    1. Martin Luther King, Jr.
    2. Sojourner Truth
    3. Mother Jones
    4. George Washington Carver
    5. Carl Sagan

    (In case you’re wondering why some of the names are linked, but not all of them — originally I did have all the names linked. The automated spam filter didn’t like that, so I removed some links.)

  • Eric Olsen

    glad to see you’re so flexible Jeff! And you can’t go far wrong with Abe

  • American Patriot

    Eric Olsen – “McCarthy would be great except for the opportunistic demagoguery, willful falsehood, delusions of grandeur, alcoholism and rampant vindictiveness”

    Thanks Eric, almost forgot about that… You know, I can’t recall a better fellow than Abe Lincoln, who is actually a fifth removed cousin of mine. McCarthy was all show, frills and pretty words. What a disappointment. But Honest Abe, he was BETTER than his word, I tell’s ya.


  • Eric Olsen

    whoa, those names are not familiar – perhaps because they aren’t American, crappy education

  • Alexander Fleming (penicillin) is traditionally considered the founder of antibiotics, although he was British.

    A German scientist, Gerhard Domagk developed prontosil rubrum in 1927, earlier than Fleming, for the treatment of Streptococcus pyogenes cellulitis

  • Eric Olsen

    who discovered antibiotics? That seems to me to be the most significant development in medicine

  • dietdoc

    No physicians in the lists so far. Lemme throw out a few:

    – Walter Reed (malaria prevention allowed for the building of the Panama Canal)

    – Jonas Salk (polio vaccine)

    – George Nicolas Papanicolaou (alright, so he was born in Greece; he didn’t really invent the Pap Smear until he became an American citizen in 1928. Had to throw that one in for the women vote)



  • Eric Olsen

    McCarthy would be great except for the opportunistic demagoguery, willful falsehood, delusions of grandeur, alcoholism and rampant vindictiveness

  • mr patriot

    Joseph McCarthy baby!!! Yeh!!!
    No explanation needed.
    God Bless America and Down with The Reds! (who may even be living right next door, looking at you through their double-glazed commie windows…)


  • Paul Tagliabue

    it’s gotta be Deion Branch.

  • RJ

    It’s cool. No offense taken.

    Pat Tillman was not a “good” pick for the top 5 greatest Americans. I was simply putting his name out for the sake of remembrance.

    Your points are well taken.

  • HW Saxton

    He was no greater than any other soldier
    who has,is or will ever serve honorably
    for our country.He did give his life up
    in an act of ultimate sacrifice and he
    also has my respect as well. What he did
    is something I could not honestly say I
    would do even if I were of service age.
    But I did spend 4 years in the U.S. Army
    in the early 80’s.Peace time service yes
    but we regularly had to close our base
    off in Germany under threats of violence
    by the Baeder-Meinhoff gang and other
    Euro-Trash terrorist groups.

    I understand and respect your position
    RJ and that was not a personal dig at
    you in particular.

    It was more just a questioning of what
    really constitutes greatness. Athletes
    do have every right in the top 5 though,
    Jesse Owens,Jim Thorpe,Jackie Robinson &
    many more come to mind.

  • RJ

    “RE: Mr.Pat Tillman
    Do you people really mean to say that in
    over 400 years of history in which the
    USA has gone from being an undeveloped
    colonial outpost in the wilderness to
    being the most industrialized,powerful,
    and influential country on the face of
    the planet that all your imagination
    can muster up is some B-list athlete who
    joined the military in lieu of a career
    in professional sports as the “Greatest
    American” who ever lived? This is some
    sort of a stupid fucking joke right???”

    Uh, he was a great man. And I realize he was not one of the top 5 greatest in our entire country’s history. But I thought I’d throw his name out, out of respect for his ultimate sacrifice.

  • HW Saxton

    This subject is damned near impossible
    to answer. Taking into consideration the
    following might help to establish some
    guidelines by which to do it though:

    1)How has their contribution affected
    the future generations to come?

    2)What differentiates them from others
    in their chosen field and/or profession?

    3)Why are they greater than others in
    their chosen field of work? IE:Thelonius
    Monk is considered by most Jazz fans to
    be superior to Horace Silver even though
    both have recorded ground breaking/genre
    altering music.

    4)When they accomplished whatever they
    did to make them great(in your opinion)
    where they setting precedent or merely
    improving and/or re-working something
    that was already established?

    5)Will they meet Jim Carruthers standard
    and/or recive his approval?He knows more
    about the USA than anyone here in the US
    of A,so it’s only fair he’s consulted on
    this matter eh?

    6)What are or were their motivations,if
    any,for doing what it is that would make
    you think of them as great.If they were
    able to make money and/or profit in ways
    other than $ from their accomplishments
    all the better.If $$$ was their sole
    motivation behind what they did then IMO
    that’s pretty bogus dudes.

    Just a few thoughts on the matter.

    OH YEAH & by the way RE: Mr.Pat Tillman
    Do you people really mean to say that in
    over 400 years of history in which the
    USA has gone from being an undeveloped
    colonial outpost in the wilderness to
    being the most industrialized,powerful,
    and influential country on the face of
    the planet that all your imagination
    can muster up is some B-list athlete who
    joined the military in lieu of a career
    in professional sports as the “Greatest
    American” who ever lived? This is some
    sort of a stupid fucking joke right???
    Answers such as this make me think that
    anyone who could possibly buy into this
    mode of thought are about as deep as the
    average soap dish.Seriously.I wish I was
    not but unfortunately…

    To be sure,He(Tillman)was both noble and
    honorable,not to mention very selfless.
    But let’s face facts.He(Pat)wasn’t doing
    anything different than some Nebraska
    farm boy or a Hispanic kid from some L.A
    barrio or some young brother or sister
    from the projects in Philly or Atlanta
    who joined the service with the selfsame
    intentions as Tillman.He wasn’t that big
    a sports “Star” before he joined the
    service and he is already being largely
    forgotten by many. Not exactly history
    book material there.

  • godoggo

    Come to think of it, I’m wondering about the paucity of popular movement leaders is interesting (as a reflection of popular perceptions – I have little interest in greatest blah blah blah lists per se).

    (I hope I successfully stopped the previous submission of this; if not, this here is the good version).

  • godoggo

    The military has a very rigid hierarchy. Anti-war movements are less dependent on great men.

  • Sydney

    I haven’t many suggestions of my own but I’d bet the farm that if someone nominated Arnold Schwarzenegger he’d win in a landslide (Or is he technically Austrian?!!).

    Out of curiosity, and from an ideological standpoint, why is it so many military names come up in discussions such as these yet so few pacifists. Is this indicative of our priorities, our values?

  • General Robert E. Lee.


    Greg Ginn. Duh.

  • William

    Forced to pick only five “greatest Americans,” my picks would be Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Ayn Rand, Steve Jobs, and Arnold Schwarzenegger (who, incidentally, will be W’s successor in the White House; you heard it here!) These would be followed closely by Franklin D. Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, Dwight Eisenhower, The Wright Brothers, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Edison.

  • RJ

    More picks:

    – Jackie Robinson

    – Thomas Edison

    – Nelson Rockefeller

    – Bill Gates

    – Steve Jobs

  • Eric Olsen

    AOL and Discovery left it wide open: just Greatest American. We are left to define it on our own.

  • HW Saxton

    The greatest American what? Politician?
    Entertainer? Philanthropist? Scientist?
    Writer? Architect? Warrior? Super Hero?
    By what standards are we judging them?
    This post is bafflingly vague. I’m not
    being facetious here, I’m just seriously
    questioning how in the f*** you judge
    something like this.

  • regarding comment #47, need the duke remind everyone of arnie’s 1 man crusade at the end of commando?

    “let off some steam” and so on.

  • woody guthrie
    woody allen
    (2 woodys. a woody wlson? no.)
    i like steven spielberg and scorsese. greast american filmmakers? yeah. great americans? i dunno. what the hell makes a great american? maybe the duke is as great an american as those two, and im not even a great northern irish.

    Kirsten Dunst is technically german, alas.

  • MCH

    Eric B., without definition, Muhammad Ali was no doubt THEE greatest of all time.

    I thought everybody knew that…(?)

  • That’s because he is the secret love child of James Bond and Mata Hari, neither of whom were American

  • Eric Olsen

    Jack Bauer is pretty goddamned impressive

  • JR

    It’s not just you.

  • It’s my opinion that Face was a far more integral member of the A Team.

    But that’s just me.

  • Master

    I nominate MR T


    Slightly OT, but Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson has a book out about great American women that looks very good. I saw her on C-Span yesterday.

  • >>Uh, didn’t most states already give women the right to vote before the 19th Amendment was ratified?<< The only state I know of to do it prior to 1900 was Wyoming which did it in 1870 to attract women and help with their 3-1 male-female ratio. And might I point out that the 19th amendment was ratified 70-some years after Susan B. Anthony was active, so she didn't exactly kick off a roaring torrent of change. Other feminists of the same period were actually much more instrumental in starting a real movement. Anthony wasn't much of a joiner. Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton are the official founders of the womens movement with their founding convention in 1848 and their Declaration of Principles of the womens movement adopted at that convention. But no one remembers them, it's all Susie B. all the time. Dave

  • RJ

    “Susan B. Anthony’s contributions toward getting women the right to vote seem to have had a huge impact on the country.”

    Uh, didn’t most states already give women the right to vote before the 19th Amendment was ratified?

    And she was hardly the only voice out there advocating women’s suffrage.

    Like I said: Top 100? Sure. Top 5? No way…

  • RJ


    If you honestly think any of your chick-picks had as much influence on the course of our nation’s history as either George Washington, Dwight Eisenhower, or Ronald Reagan, you’re crackers.

  • How about Ron Popeil?

  • You can pretty much say any of the Founding Fathers would rank up there for Greatest American because after all, they helped to define and create what it is to be American.

    Regardless, no one likes John Adams? I think one of his single acts during his presidency is good enough to make him worthy to be among the list with other more popular Founding Fathers. That act? He, against popular opinion, chose not to go to war with England again. He sacrificed his shot at a gauranteed 2nd term of presidency for what was the right thing to do, not the popular thing. America at the time would not survive another war with England. He made the unselfish decision for the sake of America. That I think is of worthy note despite whatever gripes you may have with anything else he did.

  • Duane

    Ten Dead White Guys for consideration:

    Thomas Jefferson
    Alexander Hamilton
    James Madison
    Franklin Roosevelt
    Andrew Carnegie
    Benjamin Franklin
    Thomas Edison
    Henry Ford
    The Wright Brothers

  • Duane

    Einstein did his important work as a Swiss (1901) then German (1914) citizen. He became an American citizen in 1940. By then, it was pretty much over. I don’t think we can take any kind of credit for him.

    In any case, why would he be considered for the Top 5 list?

  • Mohammed Ali ranks pretty high on the “transcendent figure” list.

  • >>Who invented air conditioning? (I live in Texas, ‘kay?)<< J. F. Coffee in 1848 and he was indeed an American. Dave

  • I say Clint should be next! I can see him now, asking Iran, “do you feel lucky? Well, do you? Punk!”

  • An Austrian who said he always dreamed of being an American.

  • JR

    Yeah, although I think he accomplished that as an Austrian.

  • Eric Olsen

    Arnold was the top bodybuilder in the world and likely of all time – that’s how he became famous

  • JR

    Correction, Schwarzenegger was Mr. Universe, so he was good at something.

  • JR

    good point, and what of those who transcend entertainment and politics like Reagan and Arnold?

    Unlike Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, Reagan and Schwarzenegger didn’t transcend their profession by being unusually good at it.

  • Shark

    re: “scientists and inventors”

    Who invented air conditioning? (I live in Texas, ‘kay?)

    How ’bout antibiotics?

    They’ll get my vote.

  • I like your answer, Andy.

  • The greatest American I have ever known was my grandfather. He wasn’t famous. He was an italian immigrant who came to this country, fought in 2 world wars, raised a good family and was just an all-around decent human being.

  • Eric Olsen

    good point, and what of those who transcend entertainment and politics like Reagan and Arnold?

  • What about the people who are really responsible for America’s world domination?

    Bill Gates
    Spephen Spielberg
    Henry Ford
    Ronald McDonald
    Whoever founded Coca-Cola
    Marilyn Monroe

    Seriously, I think some businessmen and entertainers have been as influential as politicians and soldiers, especially with regard to their impact on the rest of the world.

  • JR

    I pretty much leave politicians off of my list, unless they can actually do something useful.

  • Hmm, I was going to confine my list to scientists and artists. I have to give some more thought to what “greatness” means, but off the top of my head, I’d have to name Albert Einstein, assuming that these folks don’t have to be native-born U.S. citizens.

  • bhw

    And I pretty much leave artists of all stripes out of the greatest list, unless they made an impact outside of their art’s cultural impact.

  • bhw

    I would lean toward a combination of exemplification and influence/impact.

  • Eric Olsen

    again, doesn’t it get back to the operational definition of “great”? Does great necessarily mean “good”? Does it mean exemplification or influence/impact?

  • bhw

    Trying to belittle someone for having and raising children is pretty stupid.

    Just ask Hilary Clinton.

  • Great Americans

    Bhw-isn’t there a wet nose or a dirty bottom that needs your attention?

    Here’s my vote…Harriet Beecher Stowe

  • Roger Williams? Who the heck?

    Amelia Earhart would make my Top 10, though perhaps only because I’m an aviation nut.

    I think presidents should be disqualified – most of their greatness comes from the office. Though I’d have to say Frederick (ha ha) Delano Roosevelt for sure.

    How about GOATEP (Greatest Of All Time Except Presidents)

    I’d probably head more in the artistic direction – Walt Whitman for example – so I’ll think on it some more instead.

    The individual lists are MORE interesting than the overall list, which, by law of averages would be the usual suspects.

    Let’s start a BC subset which would provide a nice counterpoint.

    – temple

  • Shark

    JR, don’t even START with that…

    ..Okay, Louis Armstrong!

  • JR

    Duke Ellington

  • I question the value of Susan B. Anthony. Although they put her on the unpopular dollar coin she was actually stunningly ineffective as a womens rights advocate. She had almost no following, was largely ignored during her lifetime, disavowed more activist elements of the womens movement, and ultimately failed utterly in her legal challenge to property right restrictions in New York.


  • bhw

    I’m sure you can argue that this makes the great women even greater due to the additional obstacles to greatness, but this reduces their impact as well.

    Yes, as they say, Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels.

    Susan B. Anthony’s contributions toward getting women the right to vote seem to have had a huge impact on the country.

    It seems odd that we can hold men in higher esteem who owned slaves and who thought women shouldn’t vote …. Of course their impact was greater: they engineered it that way.

  • Eric Olsen

    Jack Johnson is very interesting – does Jesse owens represent the same ideals and achievements? What about Jackie Robinson?

  • Shark

    Ben Franklin

    Thomas Jefferson

    Abraham Lincoln

    George Patton

    Jack Johnson

  • Eric Olsen

    I don’t see how you can leave out George Washington, Lincoln, MLK, which only leaves two open spots. The problem with women is that they were only really given the option of rising to the top in terms of public affairs in the 20th century – I’m sure you can argue that this makes the great women even greater due to the additional obstacles to greatness, but this reduces their impact as well.

    The almost limitless variables were why I asked what constitutes greatness

  • I nominate myself as a great American!

  • bhw

    Eric, I think it was Freud, and it had something to do with cigars.

    Also, it’s not any one person’s responses that are of interest. It’s all of them together and the fact that what comes off the top of the head doesn’t include women and minorities. I’m not suggesting that people should have deliberatly tried to create a representative sampling, just that their responses didn’t naturally create one.

    I think that says something about our culture, as does RJ’s response that the women I listed wouldn’t be in the top 5.

  • Meant to say: “Let’s clear up a Pat Tillman myth”

    My self-censor is on the fritz today as I’m finishing up the final binding requirements on my master’s thesis (and am therefore not all that far off from jumping out a window, whether it be open or closed).

  • Let’s clear up a Pat Tillman:

    He was not a sports star, merely a professional athlete that almost no one would have heard of had he not:

    – Quit the team and joined the military during a time of war
    – Been killed in action

    That doesn’t diminish anything about the man, a heroic man.

  • I named three presidents, a writer, and a film maker. I didn’t try and create a representative sampling of men, women, and every ethnic sampling.

    I named several people that are important to me and that are great Americans. And that’s it.

    As someone once said: “sometimes a banana is just a banana.”

  • bhw

    Does anyone else think it’s a very interesting cultural statement [maybe that’s not the exact word I’m looking for] that the first candidates that came to mind for the men who responded here were all white men?

  • bhw

    Dimmy Gavriel

  • RJ

    “I would add MLK Jr. to the list of men, too.”

    Again, fair enough.

  • RJ

    “There are lots of Pat Tillman stories. They’re just not as famous.”

    Fair enough. But can you actually name the guy you were talking about?

    That’s my point. Big names will get the nominations. Big names are role-models. Anonymous people won’t, and (sadly) aren’t…

  • bhw

    Of course you’re not.

    I would add MLK Jr. to the list of men, too.

  • RJ

    “Susan B. Anthony
    Eleanor Roosevelt
    Harriet Tubman”

    Top 100? Sure. Top 5? I’m not so sure…

  • bhw

    But I thought his recent death deserved a nomination…

    There are lots of recent deaths, which is why he really doesn’t belong on the list. How do you single him out from all the other soliders who volunteered for duty, in this war or any other? I know he was making millions in football, but other people with good careers have left them to join the service, too. There was a guy from a nearby town in MA who was killed in Iraq last year. He left a six-figure job in NYC after he lost several friends on 9/11. He was the only child of immigrants.

    There are lots of Pat Tillman stories. They’re just not as famous.

  • bhw

    Susan B. Anthony
    Eleanor Roosevelt
    Harriet Tubman

    …just off the top of my head.

  • bhw – I just went off the top of my head. Why don’t you throw some women into the mix and maybe change some minds?

  • RJ

    “Also, Pat Tillman is truly honorable, but he’s not really “greatest” material.”

    Fair enough. But I thought his recent death deserved a nomination…

  • RJ

    “Apparently, only men qualify for Greatest American status.”

    Name a woman who deserves the title more, and maybe I’ll agree…

  • bhw

    Also, Pat Tillman is truly honorable, but he’s not really “greatest” material.

  • bhw

    I love how there are no women offered up so far.

    Apparently, only men qualify for Greatest American status.

  • RJ

    My picks –

    Ronald Reagan
    Pat Tillman
    George Washington
    Ted Williams
    Dwight Eisenhower

    3 Presidents, 2 sports stars, all military men.

  • Did Isaac Brock make the Canadian list?

    I was troubled to see that the choice is limited to US citizens, ruling out our great leaders from the Colonial period who didn’t make it to the post-revolutionary era.

    And yes, Sherman was a great general whose decisive campaign probably saved tens of thousands of lives and ended the Civil War at least half a year earlier than it would have otherwise. BTW, you should find a link which includes Sherman’s involvement in the indian wars if you really want to run him down.


  • My list might include:

    Thomas Jefferson, Abe Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Ernest Hemingway, Martin Scorcese

  • Eric B. this series is adapted from a UK teevee series, which has been run in several countries, most recently Canada where we had Don Cherry in the Top 10 (with Brent “Hitman” Hart advocating for him), and among the contenders, Louis Riel, who was hanged for leading a Metis rebellion in the 1870s and derided as a madman.

    A century later, Riel is considered a Great Canadian. So why can’t a drifter, visionary who was never convicted of first degree murder, and best expresses a certain USAian apocalyptic chain of thought, not be considered as a “Great American”. Or maybe you lean towards the likes of William Tecumseh Sherman?

    Or am I spoiling your campaign for Paris Hilton?

  • I’m off to place my vote. Sounds like fun.

    I’ve got a top pick for each of the last 4 centuries. They are:

    Roger Williams
    Ben Franklin
    Andrew Jackson
    Teddy Roosevelt

    Picked because all four were both great and also embodied the most American values and ideas of their times.


  • Eric: Great idea and great post — I’m looking forward to seeing the Discovery Channel series (even though I don’t actually get the D Channel… so I’ll have to rely on my Blog Critics comrades I suppose).

    Jim: With all respect, your rampant and all-encompassing anti-USAism is beginning to blunt your credibility. If you have problems with the US, that’s fine, and I think everybody is open to hearing and discussing your grievances. But voting for Charles Manson as a Great American is clearly intended to be snide and hurtful.

  • oh, that’s an easy one — Charles Manson because he best expresses gumption, leadership and inspiration to do whatever it takes regardless of the consequences. Uhm, except without the “don’t get caught” part, so points off for that.