The 50 Most American Americans in History, Ranked
What really constitutes being an American? And don't say "freedom," that's a cop out. In a country this vast and diverse, it's hard to pick just a few qualities that make someone a true American.
But like obscenity and bro-ishness, we might not be able to define what makes an American, but we know a true American when we see one. And throughout our country's 239-year history, there have been A LOT of them. Too many to count, in fact, and certainly too many for a list like this. But if we had to narrow it down, it would be these 50 people; all of whom have exemplified, represented, and downright BEEN America.
50. Taylor SwiftAmerica has watched her grow from “small-town country singer” to “bombshell pop sensation” in the course of a decade, and we just can’t get enough of her. Not only has T-Swift spread the message of inner beauty and self-love to girls (and boys) around the world, but she also just took down Apple, which is pretty impressive. And she has slowly transformed into an American icon. The only thing we can’t figure out is why every guy she dates dumps her.
49. Alana “Honey Boo Boo” ThompsonDespite never winning the title of “Grand Supreme” (or any title, for that matter) on America’s favorite reality TV show Toddlers and Tiaras, Honey Boo Boo nuzzled her way into our hearts on the hit series Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. Every other country in the world would be revolted, but not us! Who knows, maybe America was fascinated by the concept of Christmas in July, or in disbelief as to how much gas one little girl could have. For better or for worse, reality TV dominates American culture, and there’s no better representative than Honey Boo Boo.
48. Michael JacksonOnce Elvis was gone, nobody represented American music around the globe like the King of Pop. Was he a little weird? Sure. But YOU grow up as a child star, never being able to go out in public without 20,000 screaming girls chasing after you, and see how “normal” you turn out. MJ made the most recognizable American music of the 1980s, defined the genre of pop music, and died of that most American of afflictions -- prescription-drug addiction.
47. Jerry SpringerThis isn’t a list of “great” Americans, mind you. It’s a list of AMERICAN Americans. And while many on this list are also great, well, at least every day Jerry makes us all feel a little better about our own lives. Is his show scripted? Maybe, but so might have been the moon landing, but that’s not keeping Neil Armstrong off the list. Showing America the worst our country has to offer, and celebrating the depths that our freedom will let us go, is just as valuable as showing us how high we can climb. Taking the bad with the good, so to speak.
46. Steven SpielbergBefore this guy came along to make movies that gross more than the national product of some countries, films were nice little stories that let you enjoy air conditioning for a couple of hours. Now? Since movies like Jaws, Jurassic Park, Star Wars, and his other titles have defined the term "blockbuster," American movies are known for special effects, theater-packing visuals, and fantastic storylines. And with Schindler's List, Spielberg showed the world that while America does big and flashy better than anyone else, it also knows the importance of cinema.
45. Johnny CashWhile fashion changes, and someday we’ll all look back on the man-bun and say, “WTF were we thinking?”, black is -- and always will be -- in style. And much like his signature color, The Man in Black defined American cool from the 1950s right up until his death in 2003. Whether it was his freight-train sound, hardcore lyrics, prison concerts, or covers of Trent Reznor, Johnny Cash is a classic icon of cool. Also, he indirectly helped Reese Witherspoon win an Oscar, so there's that.
44. Caitlyn JennerNothing says “true American” like being one of the most successful male athletes of all time, and then coming out -- in front of America -- as a transgender woman. Yes, before she was gracing the cover of Vanity Fair in a white satin corset, she was gracing every magazine (and Wheaties box!) in the country as Bruce Jenner, 1976 Olympics gold medal winner in the decathlon. Not only has she co-starred on one of the most modern-day American creations (terrible reality TV), but she’s helped publicly pave the way for transgender people across America.
43. Warren BuffettThough being the coolest guy EVER from Nebraska really only meant you had to beat out Tom Osborne and Bright Eyes, it’d be hard to make a list of American Americans without including the greatest investor in history. The man who worked the stock market better than anyone is also probably America’s best business communicator, a succinct, to-the-point, no-nonsense writer who makes no apologies for how much money he makes, but also understands the role the wealthy play in American society.
42. John Philip SousaHis most famous song is called “Stars and Stripes Forever,” which in and of itself would be enough to make this list. But if you’ve ever heard a patriotic-sounding march, there's a good chance it was written by this guy -- he composed some of the most American-sounding music in history. But wait, there's more: he also developed a brass musical instrument so that guys who had to buy their jeans in the “Husky” section could express their talents -- the sousaphone!
41. Ted NugentAny city that burns itself down has got to be full of crazy people. But to be the only person in said city who's actually called “The Motor City Madman,” well, you've gotta be downright certifiable, right? Some might say it’s crazy to be a staunch conservative in the definitely-not-conservative world of the music biz, but Nugent's penchant for hunting, big guns, and even bigger bikes makes him one of the biggest badasses in rock & roll history, and definitely a great American.
40. Mark CubanMaybe you’ve seen him on Shark Tank as the technology mogul who sold his software to Yahoo for $5.7 billion. Or as the outspoken owner of the Dallas Mavericks. Either way, Cuban is one of the most intelligent American businessmen today, with a knack for wise investments, and a big personality to match. He plays by his own rules and makes billions of dollars doing it. He's like Donald Trump, but with better hair and less shameless self-promotion.
39. Hunter S. ThompsonThough we’d never like to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity, well, they worked for this guy. The inventor of “gonzo” journalism, Hunter S. Thompson took on the Kentucky Derby, presidential campaigns, and a violent motorcycle gang; he made himself a part of the action and in the process exposed the seedy underbelly on which our country’s culture is built. Sure, he may have drunk a little and dabbled in illicit substances, but he was always real about who he was, which is pretty damn American.
38. Harvey MilkThough today one’s sexual preference is about as relevant to their public persona as what they order at Chipotle (possibly less, if you REALLY judge people for eating tofu), in the 1970s being openly gay was more or less a political deal-breaker. Until Harvey Milk came along, and won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, contributing to landmark gay rights legislation and making San Fran an early pioneer in the LGBT fight for equality. And while he was assassinated less than a year after taking office, his mark on the community and the movement has yet to be equaled.
37. Magic JohnsonAmerica has defeated some of the nastiest enemies in the history of the world. Like, oh, the Nazis. Or Osama Bin Laden. But Magic Johnson managed to beat an even nastier enemy... Bill Laimbeer. Also HIV, a disease that was once an automatic death sentence. In addition to beating HIV into submission, he was THE sports icon of the 1980s and parlayed that success into a business empire responsible for bringing gyms, movie theaters, and other businesses to impoverished, underserved areas.
36. Jim ThorpeLong before Bo knew much of anything, there was Jim Thorpe; his name still adorns the award for the best amateur athlete in America. The kid who grew up on a reservation in Oklahoma won two gold medals in the 1912 Olympics (in the pentathlon and decathlon) before becoming the first mega-star of American football while also, you know, playing professional baseball. Throw in a few years of barnstorming basketball and you can see why many still consider him the greatest all-around athlete in American history. Sorry Deion.
35. Stephen ColbertIt’s a shame The Colbert Report is no longer on the air, as he’d probably be mad he didn’t think of a list of “Most American Americans” first. That said, nobody pointed out the foibles of uber-patriotism better than he did. And while we should all strive to be as patriotic (hopefully, he'll bring the same level to The Late Show), you can’t ever be a truly great country unless you’re willing to laugh at yourself.
34. Woodward and BernsteinIt would be hard to rank one of these Washington Post reporters ahead of the other, as they worked together and both contributed to exposing the Watergate scandal, which ultimately led to the investigation and resignation of President Richard Nixon. And nothing’s more American than utilizing freedom of the press to question authority and uncover corruption thanks to a dude with a porn name.
33. Dale EarnhardtHis trademark #3 sticker is often found emblazoned on pickup trucks around the South and for good reason: before his untimely death in 2001, Dale Earnhardt WAS the (only-in-America) sport of NASCAR.
32. Jonas SalkConsidering Americans now walk down the street with surgical masks when somebody in Luxembourg gets avian bird flu, imagine the sort of hysteria 2015 America would face if we had an annual epidemic that killed thousands of people and paralyzed tens of thousands more? Because that’s what polio did in post-World War II America, mostly to children. That is, until this guy created a vaccine.
31. Mark TwainThough he actually never did say, “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco,” Twain was a great American writer who penned books that were emblematic of the nation at the time, and gave us inspiring quotes about how to write and how to live.
30. R. Lee ErmeyNow you might ask why a guy who’s most recently known as an insurance company spokesman and "that dude who kissed Jack Black" is on this list. But when you think of US military drill instructors, you think of one person... Don Knotts. Okay, no, not Don Knotts, though he was a DI too. No, you think of this guy, who was a real US Marine Corps drill instructor before taking his talents to Hollywood and basically improvising the entire first 50 minutes of Full Metal Jacket.
29. Mary Lou RettonThe most famous woman ever to grace the front of a Wheaties box has to be Mary Lou Retton, who during those uber-patriotic and Soviet-boycotted LA Olympics of 1984 became America’s sweetheart by donning an American flag leotard and bringing home five medals, including gold in the all-around competition.
28. Jimi HendrixThough Sidney Deane might beg to differ, when Jimi played his famous rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock, everyone definitely heard him. Though he was a major figure in the counterculture movement of the 1960s, his screaming version of the national anthem showed that rock & roll (and the social movements surrounding it) weren’t anti-American at all but rather expressions of the freedom this country provides.
27. Betsy RossSure, there is no actual evidence that Betsy Ross sewed the first-ever American flag after a visit from General George Washington. Then again, there’s no actual evidence that gluten makes you fat, but people believe it anyway. And since American folklore gives her credit for it -- and we’re nothing if not a nation that believes what we want, evidence be damned -- that makes her an icon in two ways.
26. Billie Jean KingLong before the Williams sisters dominated women’s tennis, Billie Jean King was OWNING the sport, winning 39 Grad Slam titles in the ‘60s and ‘70s. But it wasn’t as much her dominance of the game that made her so American, but her paving the way for women's tennis to go big; first by founding the Women’s Tennis Association, and then by beating 55-year-old loudmouth Bobby Riggs in a “battle of the sexes” match in 1973.
25. Oprah WinfreyWhen you have your own Teavana line named after you at Starbucks, you know you’ve made it. Emerging from an abusive household, Oprah is the epitome of a strong, independent woman, taking the world by storm with her television show, book club, magazine, and, finally, television NETWORK. At 61, she's worth over $3 billion and is considered one of the most influential people of the decade.
24. Cesar ChavezCesar Chavez understood the immigrant struggle better than anyone and led the fight for fair working conditions for migrant workers in California and Arizona, recognizing that they were the backbone of America’s agricultural economy. His efforts paved the way to prosperity for future generations of Mexican-Americans.
23. Sandra Day O’ConnorIt’s hard to imagine in an era when politics is basically sports for unathletic people, that there was ever actually a time when being a moderate got you places. But in addition to getting her appointed as the first woman on the US Supreme Court, O’Connor’s moderation also made her the court’s swing vote for much of the '80s, '90s, and early 2000s. Which meant she actually listened to dissenting voices in the American populace and based her decisions on what was best for the country and its people, rather than wavering to partisan ideology. What a novel idea.
22. Bruce SpringsteenEven though “Born in the USA” is actually about as patriotic a tune as the Afghan national anthem, the Boss’ songs of the blue-collar struggle ring true with every American who’s ever had his job shipped overseas, gotten stuck is his tiny hometown, or wandered aimlessly around Philadelphia.
21. Susan B. AnthonyThough she didn’t live to see the 19th Amendment (which granted women the right to vote) signed into law, it wouldn’t have happened without her.
20. Tom BradySure, he got hair plugs and has a penchant for taking the air out of... the room! Kidding, inflated objects. But you can’t get much more nauseatingly American than being an unfairly good-looking guy with a big, toothy grin who’s a star quarterback married to one of the most beautiful women IN THE WORLD. Oh wait, yes you can. You can play for a team called THE PATRIOTS.
19. Jackie RobinsonJackie Robinson, the first African American to play in Major League Baseball, not only broke the sport’s color line, but also gritted his teeth and battled death threats, racist hotel policies, and even ignorant teammates who refused to play with him. Because of his courage, he paved the way for African American athletes across all sports.
18. Abraham LincolnWhen your face is on Mt. Rushmore AND two forms of currency, you’re about as American as anyone who’s ever set foot South of the 49th parallel can be. So when he wasn’t leading the Union to victory and keeping the United States united, he emancipated the slaves and gave perhaps the most notable speech in American history, the Gettysburg Address.
17. Mark ZuckerbergWe'll just go ahead and say it: Facebook is the most relevant American contribution to the world in the past decade. If you disagree, name a greater one. Its creator managed to make billions despite dropping out of college, proving once again that you don't always need a degree to make it big in this country. In essence, he's given freedom of speech to the entire world. Some use it to make great political strides; others, to tell you they're at the gym.
16. George PattonGeneral Patton wouldn't have lasted three weeks if he was forced to deal with the media blitz that accompanies today’s military. But during World War II -- when the only news reports Americans got were the five minutes before their movie started -- the guy nicknamed “Old Blood and Guts” led perhaps the most aggressive American military campaign in history through North Africa. Effectively showing the world that Americans weren’t afraid of anyone, and that we’d keep fighting even when things got bloody.
15. Rosa ParksWhile MLK gets -- and fully deserves -- much of the credit for the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, that movement was sparked by the courage of this woman. In great American fashion, she worked her ass off all day and then challenged authority by refusing to give her seat up on a bus.
14. Hulk HoganCome on, his theme song is “I Am a Real American.” “Real” being pretty relative since those muscles probably didn’t come from nature, but who are we to argue with Rick Derringer’s semantics?
13. Jesse OwensOnce upon a time there was this guy named Hitler, who pretty much based his whole career on the concept of a white "master race." So when Jesse Owens showed up in Adolf’s backyard at the 1936 Olympics, whipped his best runners, and brought four gold medals home to America, he effectively gave the greatest, “Oh, really now?” in the history of the world.
12. Ronald ReaganIt was pretty awesome how Rocky went over to Russia in Rocky IV, beat up their best fighter, and won the Cold War to a soundtrack from Survivor. But since Rocky isn’t real, the American who gets the most credit for beating the Soviets into submission is this guy, who told Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down that wall, outspent the USSR into bankruptcy, and watched said wall tumble -- along with the entire iron curtain -- a year after he left office.
11. Martin Luther King, Jr.MLK was such a great American, we even named a day after him. But you have to give a holiday to the man who led the Civil Rights Movement and taught our country the meaning of equality. Martin Luther King, Jr. transformed America into a place where blacks and whites could coexist and be treated equally. While clearly there is MUCH MUCH work still to be done, without MLK, America as we know it would not exist.
10. Marilyn MonroeShe is, without question, THE great American sex symbol. Not only was she the first woman ever to fold out of a Playboy magazine -- helping fuel the sexual revolution of the 1960s -- but she also found herself alongside men at the top of entertainment (Arthur Miller), sports (Joe DiMaggio), and politics (JFK), and was the 20th century’s icon of American female sexuality.
9. Neil ArmstrongHe took our flag and planted it on a giant rock in outer space. The only other person to do that was the original mascot for MTV, and we’re pretty sure he’s not real.
8. Mickey MantleBack when baseball was actually America’s pastime and not America’s pastime between the Super Bowl and the NFL preseason, Mickey Mantle was the king of the sport. And the only performance-enhancing drug he ever used was whiskey. Sure, he played most of his career with a bottle in hand, but what’s more American than being so confident you don’t even bother showing up sober?
7. Muhammad AliYou are the best in the world at what you do, and you aren’t afraid to mention it at every possible moment. You’re cocky, you’re a loudmouth, you challenge authority, and even when you get beaten, you come back and defeat whoever it was that beat you. If that doesn’t sum up America, nothing does.
6. Elvis PresleyYep, we gave the world rock & roll. And with it came its king, Elvis Presley, who represented America to the entire world with his swiveling hips and pompadour hair.
5. John WayneThanks to this guy, there is an entire generation of foreigners who think every American speaks with a slow Iowa drawl and calls people “pilgrim.” Because in the 1960s and '70s, nobody represented this country better in movies than our greatest on-screen cowboy. The Duke was an American icon for those abroad who only knew us through movies, and he transmitted our values worldwide better than anyone before or since.
4. Harriet TubmanOne of the pioneers of the Underground Railroad, a pistol-toting Tubman repeatedly risked her life to free runaway slaves. She made a total of 13 trips between the South and the North, and because of her bravery, over 70 enslaved families and friends were rescued from plantations and brought to the Union.
3. Teddy RooseveltNot only is he the coolest guy ever from New York and the only face on Mt. Rushmore from the 20th century, he was also probably the most rugged president in history, who preferred his alone time in the North Dakota wilderness to his home in New York. He gave this country our beautiful National Park system and assembled the ragtag group of Rough Riders who helped us win the Spanish-American War.
2. Thomas JeffersonIt would be pretty hard to leave the guy who, literally, defined America off the list. Like, he not only wrote the Declaration of Independence, but then helped shape the Constitution from afar through his letters to James Madison, essentially the two documents that spell out exactly what this country is. And, of course, you know, third president and all. Putting him any lower would be like leaving Miles Davis off a list of cool.
1. George WashingtonThis should be as surprising as a $5 birthday check from your Nana, but can you really argue with the general who led a spunky group of young American rebels to one of the greatest military upsets of all time? No, you can't. He won the fight for our independence and was the first president to preside over our great country. Number one is all his.
Correction: The original version of this article gave Thomas Jefferson credit for co-writing the Constitution. Untrue, as he was in France at the time.