Historical Figures and Their Impact on American History
History is powerful. Siri Hustvedt, an American novelist, once wrote, “There is no future without a past, because what is to be cannot be imagined except as a form of repetition.” Is history really such a predictable thing? In some way, it is. Past events influence the current economy, culture, and education of a given country, creating unchangeable national ‘genes’. Knowing one’s history, it’s sometimes possible to foresee and avoid potential problems, determine a better strategy of actions, and overcome challenges. Undoubtedly, history is a good teacher that is able to educate the generations.
Each nation has its unique historical background. Today’s giant, the USA, passed through numerous stages of its growth and development as well. It took centuries to build its strength, mainly thanks to the contribution of some outstanding personalities who dedicated their lives to fighting for justice and whose impact on history is truly substantial.
People who Changed the United States of America
American history is all about fighting for rights, freedom, and equality. No wonder, the US is called ‘a land of liberty’. Presidents constitute the first group of people that comes to mind when speaking about any country’s history, as they are the ones who represent it. Presidents also bear responsibility for the well-being of the population, so granting necessary rights and freedoms should be the task of top priority for them. Among the most famous people in the history of the US are George Washington, John Adams, Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Ronald W. Reagan, and Barack Obama.
Apart from presidents, there are many other well-known and influential people who took a stand in history of the USA. Here are some of them:
- Participants of the War of Independence, civil and women’s rights movement activists and politicians: Benjamin Franklin, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Betty Friedan, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Ralph Nader;
- Warfare: George Marshall;
- Inventors: Samuel F. B. Morse, Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, George Eastman, Henry Ford, Robert Oppenheimer, Jonas Salk, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates;
- Writers: James Fenimore Cooper, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway;
- Journalists and publishers: Margaret Fuller, James Gordon Bennett, William Lloyd Garrison, William Randolph Hearst;
- Musicians and singers: Louis Armstrong, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson;
- Producers: Samuel Goldwyn, Walt Disney.
Great leaders in history
They say “The secret to success is good leadership”. Leaders are best revealed at hard times facing dangers and challenges, forced to react quickly and wisely. Therefore, important events in American history serve as a propitious background upon which the famous American leaders introduce their names to the world.
American history is comparatively short, though full of wars and protest rallies. This is how such a diverse nation was united into one strong country. In order to understand this process better, let’s pay attention to the Founding Fathers of the US and other world-known activists.
He started his military career at the age of 21 confronting the French and thus provoking the French and Indian War. Later on, Washington became the first president of the US and is still referred to as the ‘Father of the country’. He was unanimously elected for two consecutive terms, being the only president in history receiving 100% of the electoral votes. Washington added the Bill of Rights to the US Constitution. He also served as a Commander-in-Chief during the American Revolution. Take a look at some eloquent facts about George Washington:
- He never received an official education;
- Despite the fact that he lost more battles than he won, his martial career was quite successful. Washington held the rank of a General of the Armies of the United States, the highest possible rank in the US Army;
- He established the Cabinet of Advisors;
- He contributed to creating the US Navy through signing the Naval Act;
- He wrote a letter to the Hebrew Congregation granting Americans a religious and conscience freedom;
- He was the only US President who took part in a battle while performing his presidency at the same time;
- He was the only Founding Father who bequeathed freeing all his slaves upon his wife’s death and included such an order into his will.
The first US President has written nearly 20,000 letters in his lifetime. That’s the source of numerous George Washington quotes:
- “If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”
- “To be prepared for war is one of the most effective means of preserving peace.”
- “The Constitution is the guide which I never will abandon.”
- “Liberty, when it begins to take root, is a plant of rapid growth.”
- “Laws made by common consent must not be trampled on by individuals.”
- “Some day, following the example of the United States of America, there will be a United States of Europe.”
- “Mankind, when left to themselves, are unfit for their own government.”
- “Experience teaches us that it is much easier to prevent an enemy from posting themselves than it is to dislodge them after they have got possession.”
Being the second US President, he witnessed the end of the American Revolution. Adams was the first President to reside in the White House. Out of five Founding Fathers, he was the only one who didn’t own any slaves. However, Adams didn’t support abolitionism either. The Adams held presidency twice: John Adams, serving as the second US President, and his son, John Quincy Adams, as the sixth one. John Adams treated Thomas Jefferson as his rival. Ironically, he died the same day as Jefferson, uttering his last words, “Thomas Jefferson survives”. In fact, Jefferson had died a few hours earlier.
Here are some of John Adams quotes:
- “Old minds are like old horses; you must exercise them if you wish to keep them in working order.”
- “Liberty cannot be preserved without general knowledge among the people.”
- “Because power corrupts, society’s demands for moral authority and character increase as the importance of the position increases.”
- “Power always thinks… that it is doing God’s service when it is violating all his laws.”
- “Power always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak.”
- “Fear is the foundation of most governments.”
Occupying the position of the third US President, he is best known as an author of the Declaration of Independence, which was adopted by Congress in 1776. He is also famous for purchasing Louisiana, which doubled the US territory. In 1815, Jefferson founded the Library of Congress by selling up to 10,000 of his own books to the government. In 1819, he founded the University of Virginia.
Thomas Jefferson quotes given below effectively reflect his political and intellectual power:
- “All men are created equal.”
- “I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.”
- “The care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only object of good government.”
- “Nothing can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal; nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong mental attitude.”
- “Honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom.”
- “When a man assumes a public trust, he should consider himself as public property.”
- “That government is best which governs the least, because its people discipline themselves.”
- “Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.”
The 16th President of the US is considered to be a national hero and the top-ranked US President according to polls and surveys. What made him so popular? Lincoln was performing his presidency at the time of the Civil War, being positioned as Commander-in-Chief. He struggled to finally end the slavery era in the US history. Consequently, in 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation was adopted: it canceled slavery and set each slave free. Together with him saving the Union from splitting, the Proclamation got listed among the biggest Abraham Lincoln accomplishments. His most famous speech, short but distinct, was delivered the same year under the name of “Gettysburg Address”. Lincoln was not only a bright politician, but also a genuine intellectual: he is the only US president to own a patent. Moreover, he was a self-taught lawyer who practiced law and got nicknamed as ‘Honest Abe’.
Now, take a look at world-known quotes attributed to Lincoln:
- “Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.”
- “You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.”
- “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
- “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”
- “Whatever you are, be a good one.”
- “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”
Famous black people
What names come to your mind when you hear “famous black people”? Probably, Barack Obama, Michael Jackson, Beyonce, Oprah Winfrey, Will Smith, Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Eddie Murphy, Louis Armstrong, Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, right? Their fame goes ahead of them. However, it’s a result of a long struggle for their right to be acknowledged.
Racism has always been considered as one of the major problems throughout the entire American history. White people used to show their superiority over African-Americans, severely oppressing them. The latter could be easily bought and sold, exploited, and treated like animals. Jefferson’s statement, “All men are created equal” was ignored when talking about blacks until they raised their voices and started fighting.
The key demand of the Civil Rights Movement was to grant blacks the right to vote on equal terms with white people. Now and then African-Americans were discriminated in their suffrage being forced to pass literacy tests instead. Well, when did blacks get the right to vote? This essential event happened on August 6, 1965: the President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act granting racial minorities the rights to vote. It also forbade a literacy tests practice. Below there is a list of some of the most famous black people in American history and their major achievements.
After serving as a sergeant during World War II, Medgar Evers studied in Alcorn College. He then applied to the University of Mississippi Law School but failed for the reason of racial segregation. So he referred to the NAACP hoping to get assistance there. Since then, Evers had been working as the first state field secretary of the organization in Mississippi. He aimed to finally abolish discrimination of the blacks, thus drawing attention to his personality. What is more, Medgar Evers is known for investigating the murder of an African-American teenager Emmett Till who was accused of speaking with a white woman. Such actions infuriated segregation supporters, which resulted in Evers’ assassination in 1963. He was shot by Byron De La Beckwith and died an hour later. It took 31 years to sentence his killer. 7 years after Evers’ death, Medgar Evers College was established (a senior college of CUNY).
Medgar Evers quotes embody his inner strength and commitment to his life’s aim:
- “You can kill a man, but you can’t kill an idea.”
- “Our only hope is to control the vote.”
- “When you hate, the only person that suffers is you because most of the people you hate don’t know it and the rest don’t care.”
- “Freedom has never been free.”
Undoubtedly, the name Martin Luther is associated with Martin Luther King Jr. But his contribution wouldn’t have been so magnificent if his father, Martin Luther King Sr. hadn’t inspired him by his personal example. He was a Baptist Church presbyter in Atlanta, Georgia, at the same time heading up the NAACP department, namely a Civil and Political League. Following his father’s attitude and active position toward the Civil Rights Movement, King Jr. became an iconic activist and spokesperson of the Movement. He first performed as a leader during the Montgomery bus boycott, serving as the first president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference afterwards. Another prominent step forward the organization of nonviolent racial discrimination protests in Birmingham, Alabama. In 1963 he delivered his most famous speech at the March on Washington. Martin Luther King Jr. was also the youngest man to be awarded with the Nobel Peace Prize. He was assassinated in 1968 and his name is still often referred to when speaking about passionate leaders in American history. May Martin Luther King Jr. quotes inspire you to realize true human values and keep on following them:
- “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
- “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”
- “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”
- “The time is always right to do what is right.”
- “There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love.”
- “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’”
- “I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
On the contrary to Martin Luther King, Malcolm X fought for the separation of blacks and whites, not for their integration into one unity. He persuaded the crowds that black people originally inhabited the Earth, thus they were superior to the whites. Malcolm X presented his vision and got numerous followers, convincing the masses that the time of tolerance and endless waiting was over. Therefore, he never supported the nonviolent struggle of African-Americans and assured his supporters that it was essential to protect themselves from inequality “by any means necessary”. His ideas were really radical. For instance, he offered African Americans to go back to Africa and create a community free of white oppressors. The leader was assassinated in 1965. The same year, the Autobiography of Malcolm X was published, a collaborative work of Malcolm X himself and Alex Haley, who interviewed him. This piece of writing sheds some light on Malcolm’s life and outlook. 30 years later, the Time included this book in the list of ten books worth reading. Below there are some Malcolm X quotes:
- “If someone puts their hands on you make sure they never put their hands on anybody else again.”
- “Be peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, respect everyone; but if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery.”
- “If you’re not ready to die for it, take the word ‘freedom’ out of your vocabulary.”
- “How can you thank a man for giving you what’s already yours? How then can you thank him for giving you only part of what is yours?”
- “If you don’t stand for something you will fall for anything.”
In 1955, a 14-year-old black boy named Emmett Till came to a grocery store and spoke to its owner, a young white woman Carolyn Bryant. She then testified that the boy flirted with her, breaking the existing code of conduct between black men and white women. Such an incident sparked fury in Carolyn Bryant’s husband and his brother, which resulted in them violently mutilating the teenager and shooting him to death. They ended with sinking the corpse in the river. The murder immediately grasped the attention of both local and international newspapers. The question of human rights and racism overflew the audience’s minds activating the NAACP’s role and causing mass and individual protests. Rosa Parks confessed that she was thinking of Emmett Till while not giving up her seat in a bus, which led to the bus boycott.
What happened to those two men who committed a murder? Well, they were acquitted, but the case has been thoroughly investigated by Timothy Tyson who revealed the results of his interview with Carolyn Bryant. Only in 2017, it became known that she fabricated the testimonies of Emmett Till’s behavior that day, and that there was nothing offending or threatening in the way the boy spoke to her. Indeed, better late than never.
Another family of great leaders is the Obamas. Barack Obama Sr., a citizen of Kenya, got a brilliant education, first at the University of Hawaii where his son, Barack Obama young was born, and then at the University of Harvard. He returned to his Motherland holding a master’s degree in economics. Thanks to his American diploma, Obama was offered a job as an economist in the Kenyan Ministry of Transport and later got promoted, becoming an economic analyst in the Kenyan Ministry of Finance. Because of his conflicts with the Kenyan President, Barack Obama Sr. was fired, becoming blacklisted in his own country.
One of them was the 44th American President Barack Obama inaugurated in 2009. He finally brought full acknowledgment to all the blacks becoming the first African-American US President. His international contribution was so prominent that he was awarded with the Nobel Peace Prize. Obama seized American troops’ involvement in the Iraq War, strengthened military support in Afghanistan and Libya. Moreover, terroristic activities of Osama bin Laden were ended thanks to Obama. All in all, during his two terms presidency he managed to considerably improve the relationship between the US and the world.
Take a look at three famous quotes by the first non-white US President:
- “If the people cannot trust their government to do the job for which it exists – to protect them and to promote their common welfare – all else is lost.”
- “The future rewards those who press on. I don’t have time to feel sorry for myself. I don’t have time to complain. I’m going to press on.”
- “If you’re walking down the right path and you’re willing to keep walking, eventually you’ll make progress.”
Studying various examples of outstanding leaders and situation they were acting in, it becomes evident that history is a necessary thing on the way to improving the future.