A Student of History

February 7, 2008

Who are the greatest Virginians?

Filed under: Early America,The strange place called the South — John Maass @ 7:19 am
John Marshall, Virginian
This past summer The Richmond Times Dispatch sent a questionnaire across the nation to the scholars who study Virginia and its people, and augmented the list with prominent citizens of the commonwealth — some established, some up and coming — who have an understanding of those who have worn the designation “Virginian” into the history books. 

They asked this jury to nominate (1) a greatest Virginian and (2) a most influential Virginian (who had to be a different person) for each of the commonwealth’s four centuries. The difference between the two? For someone to be termed “greatest,” the paper told the panel a person’s legacy must be almost exclusively of positive benefit. Calling him or her merely “influential” would not capture just how important this person was to society. These folks are a step above. It’s hard to quantify “greatestness,” but as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said, we all know it when we see it.

The results:

TheGreatest
Oliver White Hill Sr.
20TH CENTURY: FREEDOM’S BEACON
Hill lived one-fourth of the entire English-language portion of Virginia’s history, and for more than half of that time in the oppressive Jim Crow regime that denied the basic human rights of American citizenship to a huge portion of the South’s citizens.  

John Marshall
19TH CENTURY: TITAN OF THE LAW
John Marshall received more nominations in the survey than any other person for greatest or most influential 19th-century Virginian. He deserved the attention.  

George Washington
18TH CENTURY: LION OF MOUNT VERNON
George Washington had little serious competition for greatest Virginian of the 18th century.  

John Smith and William Berkeley
17TH CENTURY: STABILIZING A NEW WORLD
Our jury argued to a virtual tie when trying to identify the single greatest citizen of 17th-century Virginia. The two nominees most often identified as the greatest were Captain John Smith and Sir William Berkeley, a governor of the colony.  

Paramount Chief Powhatan
16TH CENTURY
Wahunsonacock – who took the name Powhatan sometime in the 1580s when he formed a loose confederation of Algonkian-speaking tribes in the tidewater region of Virginia – received a number of votes as the greatest or most influential person in 17th-century Virginia.  

MostInfluential
Harry Flood Byrd Sr.
20TH CENTURY: ORGANIZER OF POLITICS
Byrd served for 10 years in the Virginia Senate, for four years as governor, and for 32 years he represented the commonwealth in the U.S. Senate.  

Edgar Allan Poe
19TH CENTURY: LITERARY INNOVATOR
“Edgar Allan Poe,” began historian Kevin J. Hayes, without even pausing to admit that anybody else could be considered for the honor, “is the most influential Virginian of the 19th century.”  

James Madison
18TH CENTURY: GOVERNMENT PLANNER
Participants in the survey produced a virtual tie for most influential Virginian of the 18th century, nominating James Madison and Thomas Jefferson in the greatest or most influential categories in almost equal numbers.  

John Rolfe
17TH CENTURY: TOBACCO ROOTS THE COLONY
John Rolfe topped the list of people whom participants identified as the most influential person in 17th century Virginia.  

Interestingly, on the website, readers can vote for the greatest Virginian too, and the result was an overwhelming victory for George Washington.  One of the more interesting things to note about the survey of scholars is that 2 prominent men are missing from the list:  Thomas Jefferson and R. E. Lee, although in 2 separate articles on-line, the paper fails to state why not.

There’s even an essay on “the worst” Virginians, although sadly, Katie Couric is not mentioned!

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